Archive for the Confederate soldiers who became Union soldiers Category

Harmon Levi Sumrall Testifies on Behalf of Newt Knight for the U.S. Court of Claims

Posted in Confederate soldiers who became Union soldiers, disaffected Confederates, Disallowed Claims, Mississippi Unionists, Southern Union soldiers, Works that focus on Southern Unionists with tags , , , , , , , on April 2, 2009 by renegadesouth

By Victoria E. Bynum

The following post expands upon the story of the Unionist Sumrall brothers of Mississippi’s “Free State of Jones,” recently posted on Renegade South,

For thirty years, Newt Knight, Captain of Mississippi’s most notorious band of deserters, the Knight Company of Jones County, pursued compensation from the federal government for himself and his company. Newt initiated his first claim in 1870, before the Southern Claims Commission had been established (RG 233, Box 15, HR 1810). He did not base his claim on civilian loss of property, but rather on military services rendered to the Union Army. He asked that he and each of his “officers” and “privates” be granted the pay due them as soldiers by the U.S. government which they had fought for during the Civil War.

The only problem was that no matter how many battles the “Knight Company” had fought against Confederate forces during the Civil War—and there were plenty—it was never granted official military status by the Union Army. In 1870, 1890, and 1895, defenders of the Knight Company submitted affidavits and depositions attesting to the activities of the company on behalf of the Union Army. In the end, however, Newt failed to convince the U.S. Government to issue his men what in essence amounted to military back pay.

The following are excerpts from depositions provided in 1890 and 1895 by Harmon Levi Sumrall, one of Newt Knight’s strongest supporters. Harmon was beyond the age of conscription in 1862, but his younger brother, William Wesley, joined the Knight Company in 1863 rather than serve the Confederate Army. Harmon supported his brother’s decision, and, prior to providing depositions for Newt’s second and third claims (#8013 and #8464), had signed an affidavit for the first claim that attested to the sincerity of Newt’s Unionist beliefs.

In 1890, seventy-two year old Sumrall appeared before the Jones County Chancery Court to lend support to Newt Knight’s second round of claims. The 1870 claim had long ago died in committee, but in 1883 Congress passed the Bowman Act, followed by the Tucker Act of 1887, which allowed individuals to resubmit rejected or tabled claims. With lawyers now representing his case, Newt renewed his efforts to win pay for his “soldiers.”

Sumrall’s answers to questions posed by the government’s lawyers were brief and to the point. When asked what “Mr. Knight’s general standing” was in regard to loyalty to the U.S. government, he replied that “he was a union man all the time.” When asked whether Newt “commanded a company of men in your community during the war,” he answered that “he did.” When asked if he had any further “material” to offer the state, he responded that he had seen “Capt Knight’s company in time of battle twice but saw them in no other engagements.”

In 1895, for reasons not entirely clear, a new round of depositions were gathered and a new claim number assigned to Newt’s case (the claims would later be merged). Once again, Harmon Levi Sumrall was called on to testify on behalf of the Knight Company.
On January 29, 1895, at the Ellisville Court House in Jones County, Sumrall again recalled events that were now thirty years in the past.

Sumrall’s latest testimony began with his statement that he was not related to Newt Knight, but that his brother, W.W. Sumrall, had been a member of the Knight Company. When asked on “which side” Newt’s sympathies had been during the war, Sumrall stated, as he had in 1870 and 1890, that Newt “was on the Union side.” But this time, when asked whether he knew of any battles fought by the Knight Company, Sumrall was more specific. “Yes sir,” he answered, “He was in a battle with the Confederates. I know it. I was there with him. He fought Hensley, who was on the Confederate side.”

During the course of his testimony, Sumrall estimated that the Knight Company had consisted of about 60-65 men when it battled the forces of this “Hensley.” Hensley, he explained, was a Major who headed a “cavalry regiment, also some infantry.” (This may have been Major James O. Hensley of the 10th VA Battalion, Heavy Artillery.)

Sumrall replied “yes” to the government’s question of whether Major Hensley was “hunting up men who had deserted from the Confederate Army.” Most interesting of all, however, were his remarks about HIS own role in the skirmish that followed. He stated that “Hensley pressed me in to go with him to Knight. We hunted him all day; we found him in the evening when the fight occurred.” By his own testimony, then, Harmon Levi Sumrall was forced to join a search for a band of deserters that included his own brother! Major Hensley would not likely have known this; he was simply impressing the local population of men to assist him in a dangerous task.

Sumrall’s maddeningly brief remarks raise several questions about the complicated nature of home front battles between deserters and Confederate soldiers sent from outside the region. Did Confederate militia purposely enlist local men to search out deserters in hopes that those deserters would be less likely to fire on their own neighbors and possible kinfolk, or were they simply taking advantage of local manpower to lessen the dangers of their mission? And how did Sumrall respond to the task assigned to him? Did he just fake it, and hope that in the process he could somehow protect his friends and relatives from discovery? Does Sumrall’s testimony that it took them “all day” to find Knight suggest that he withheld knowledge of the band’s whereabouts? What, then, were his actions at the point of contact between Confederate forces and the Knight Company? And in the ensuing battle? I would love to hear from readers who may have encountered such scenarios in their own research on the Civil War home front.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I provide a detailed account of Newt Knight’s long struggle with the U.S. Court of Claims in “Fighting a Losing Battle: Newt Knight versus the U.S. Court of Claims, 1870-1900,” chapter four of my book-in-progress, Southern Communities at War: Essays on Civil War Era Dissent and it’s Legacies.

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Some thoughts on “Galvanized Yankees” and Unionist sentiment

Posted in Alabama Unionists, Confederate soldiers who became Union soldiers, disillusioned Confederates, Southern Union soldiers, Thoughts on classifications of Southern Unionists with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2009 by Robert Moore

Originally posted on 3/25/09 in Cenantua’s Blog:

How many folks actually realize how many “galvanized Yankees” there really were? They’re a fascinating bunch of people, really. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t really think a great deal about them. I might see one here or there while combing through Confederate service records, but I never got up the energy to really investigate until about four years ago. It’s a tough bunch of guys to figure out in terms of loyalties. How many, for example, signed-on to the United States Volunteers simply because they felt their odds far better than stuck in a prisoner-of-war camp and how many signed-on because their loyalties were really with the U.S. to begin with? Then, on top of this, when we realize that a “galvanized Yankee” received a pension, does it mean that he REALLY was a Unionist? Think about it. On one hand, you have someone who has to go through a lot of hoops to get a pension for his service in the Union army. To satisfy a very discriminating pension board, the former Confederate soldier had to prove to the board that his service was really involuntary. If one could not show that they did not “bear arms against the United States voluntarily,” the pension application was going to be rejected. On the other hand, if someone was hard-up for some money, “swallowing the dog” one more time to get some cash to help make ends meet wasn’t all that bad. Like I said, they are a hard group to get your thoughts around when trying to get a grip on wartime sentiments/loyalties, but a fascinating group nonetheless. (Incidentally, this is a good online piece by Michèle T. Butts about how “Galvanized Yankees” came to be).

On that note… looking for a quick distraction from thesis work late Monday night, I slipped over into my Footnote.com account and started doing a few searches. Looking back through my wife’s family tree, I remembered that she had an ancestor who “joined the U.S. service” after just over two years of service in gray… and quite honestly… surprise, surprise… he was from an area in Alabama that just happened to have some differences in sentiment.

Hiram Fikes was born February 15, 1827 in Lexington, South Carolina, a son of John Fikes. A farmer by occupation, he didn’t enlist for the first time until April 10, 1862 (this was, by the way, around the time the first Confederate conscription act was being enforced; although there is nothing to show one way or the other how/if this impacted Fikes’ enlistment/enrollment), and when he did enlist it was only in a 90-day unit; the 4th Alabama Volunteer Militia (Byrd’s Regiment), Captain John Moore’s Company. He was sick-in-quarters 6/25/62 and had no further record with the unit. Nonetheless, he pops up again on the rolls of Co. H, 40th Alabama having enlisted (or having been “enrolled”) in Perry Co., Alabama (that is where he resided at the opening of the war) in March 1863. There is some confusion as to how the regiment was employed around the time of his service; one part detailed for service in Georgia, while the other part was in Vicksburg. It looks like Hiram was in the Vicksburg detachment for it is there that he was captured by the 15th Corps and was paroled on 7/9/63. Returning to service, once again, he was with the 40th Alabama again when he was captured at Big Shanty, Ga. on 6/15/64. This time the Federals didn’t mess around, and he was sent to Rock Island, Illinois by way of Louisville, Ky. In four months, he was released on oath, having signed-on with Co. I, 3rd United States Volunteers.

A card from Fikes' service record with the 3rd USVLooking at his service cards for this unit, it appears that Hiram was an average looking fellow, with blue eyes, dark hair, light complexion, and 5’6″. He was mustered-in on October 31, 1864, and… this part always interests me (former Confederates being credited to areas to satisfy enrollment numbers)… he was credited as a recruit to Elk, Clarion County, Pennsylvania. The 3rd USV more or less hung out at Rock Island for sometime before being sent out to the Dakota Territory in 1865. While there, it appears, at least from his service records, that his service went without incident. In May 1865, he was listed as on daily duty as the company cook (hard-pressed, I’m sure, as a Southerner on duty in the Dakota Territory finding foodstuff that would be satisfying to a Southerner!). He was detached at the Sweet Water detachment on June 4. Soon after this (July 1865), fourteen men from Co. I got into a scrape with the Sioux and Cheyenne heading east to Fort Laramie, but I have no idea if Fikes was among the fourteen men (my guess is that he wasn’t). Other than the detached service at the Sweet Water detachment, there really isn’t a great deal to note from his service records until he was mustered-out at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas on November 29, 1865 (although he did have a stoppage of pay for damaging the property of another member of the unit… don’t ask, I have no idea what that was all about). He headed back to Mississippi and there, rejoined his wife Polly and their children. He applied for a pension (oh now, hold on a second… a pension for his service in the Union, not the Confederate army) on August 18, 1892 (application #1126.495) under “Law J” and received one (certificate #1069.626). He died on October 20, 1903 in Fulton, Itawamba County, Mississippi and was buried in the Harden Chapel Cemetery. His wife applied for a widow’s pension (app. #797.144) on December 31, 1903, and received one (cert. #744.318). She died on February 20, 1925.

I don’t see him as a disaffected Confederate, but perhaps a disillusioned Confederate. Likewise, he probably wasn’t a Southern Unionist in the extreme sense, but maybe he was a conditional Unionist who opted for the Confederacy initially. Yet, as he saw the writing on the wall, especially as a POW, maybe, at heart, he was just a realistic self-preservationist, looking at things in terms of his own best interests and that of his wife and children who were back in Alabama when all of these decisions were made. It’s clear that I need to look into the pension record and see what the testimonials have to say about his “loyalties” and how he got around the “not having borne arms voluntarily against the United States” thing.

The story of Soverign F. Ray, disaffected Confederate/Southern Unionist

Posted in Alabama Unionists, Confederate soldiers who became Union soldiers, disaffected Confederates, Southern Union soldiers, Southern Unionists who became Union soldiers with tags , , on February 9, 2009 by SouthernUnionists

There is a good post over at TOCWOC by Fred Ray about his ancestor, S.F. Ray. Check out Soldiers, Deserters, and Turncoats.