Archive for the Works that focus on Southern Unionists Category

The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer: A Review, part one

Posted in Mississippi Unionists, Political sentiment of Southern Unionists, Works that focus on Southern Unionists with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2009 by renegadesouth

By Victoria E. Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones (University of N.C. Press, 2001)
http://www.Renegadesouth.com

The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer (Doubleday, 2009), aims to please, delivering a stirring narrative, lively and passionate prose, and richly-detailed Civil War battle scenes. For many readers, particularly those drawn to Civil War battlefields, this book will make the past come alive. Others, particularly students of the “Free State of Jones,” will find problematical the authors’ stretching of the evidence to support highly exaggerated claims that Newt “fought for racial equality during the war and after,” and “forged bonds of alliance with blacks that were unmatched even by Northern abolitionists” (pp. 3-4).

The history that Jenkins and Stauffer re-tell is well-known to Mississippians and familiar to many southerners and Civil War historians. It is certainly well-known to regular readers of this blog, for whom Newt Knight needs no introduction. As we all know, from October 1863 until war’s end, Newt was the leader—the captain—of the Knight Company, a band of deserters and draft evaders who led an armed insurrection against the Confederacy.

In this version of an old story, readers are treated to vivid depictions of Corinth, Vicksburg, and Kennesaw Mountain, all battles in which the 7th battalion Mississippi Infantry (in which the majority of Knight Company members served) fought. The final two chapters of the book recount the tragic history of Mississippi Reconstruction, an era riddled with violence and marked by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist campaigns that brought an unrepentant slaveholding class back to power. The authors give special attention to carpetbag governor Adelbert Ames, from whom Newt Knight received several important political appointments, and redeemer governor Robert Lowry, the same Col. Lowry whom Newt battled during the war in the Leaf River swamps.

Stauffer and Jenkins also re-tell one of the most fascinating, if long-known, elements of Newt Knight’s history: his long and intimate relationship with Rachel, the former slave of his grandfather. After the war, Newt lived openly with Rachel and their numerous children, bestowing property and affection on white and multiracial kinfolk alike.

As I began writing this review of State of Jones, I quickly realized it would have to be written in installments, as I could never critique the book in one post. This then is the first installment of what will be an ongoing series of reviews and discussions of the book’s various themes, topics, and arguments. I hope the reviews will become interactive, with readers joining in to discuss what they like or don’t like about the book.

The obvious place to begin is by assessing the startling assertions by Jenkins and Stauffer that Newt Knight rivaled northern abolitionists in his views about slavery and that he forged “alliances” with slaves during the war. Due to a maddening endnote style, however, it is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to determine the source for a particular conclusion. Add to this the authors’ use of “parallel stories” to take fanciful journeys into what “might” have happened, or what Newt “likely” would have thought or done, and you have a narrative that allows readers to easily glide past what is documented history and what is pure conjecture (reminiscent of Ethel Knight’s Echo of the Black Horn, minus the racism ).

Take, for example, the authors’ argument that Newt was likely raised a Primitive Baptist whose religious devotion led him to condemn slavery. Such conjecture is based on a single statement by Newt’s son, Tom Knight, who published a biography of his father in 1946. But Tom never stated that his father was raised a Primitive Baptist, only that he joined the Zora Primitive Baptist Church around 1885-86 (p. 14). Newt Knight may well have hated slavery, but the only definitive statement to that effect appears in Anna Knight’s 1952 autobiography, Mississippi Girl.

A problem that runs throughout this book is the authors’ uncritical use of Tom Knight’s biography whenever it suits their purposes. If there’s one thing that past historians of the Free State of Jones have agreed upon (including myself, Rudy Leverett, and Kenneth Welch), it’s that Tom’s words must be used with great care. Quite simply, The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight is shot through with errors. Tom’s determination to present his father as a devout Christian (like Tom himself), a loving father, and a sincere defender of the United States government led him to take great liberties with his father’s life story.

Yet Tom’s biography of Newt is the only source cited for many of the authors’ narratives about the activities of Newt Knight, particularly for the era of Reconstruction, for which archival records (with the exception of Newt’s multiple petitions for compensation as a wartime defender of the Union) provide only tantalizing glimpses of Newt’s political activities after the war.

Heavy reliance on Tom’s uncorroborated stories creates a problem for the authors that they are loath to admit. That is, if you’re going to use one Tom Knight story, why not another? Tom Knight certainly never presented his father as any sort of abolitionist, religious or otherwise. He also shared the common racist views of his generation and was deeply ashamed of Newt’s interracial relationships. As I have argued elsewhere, Tom’s shame may have motivated his claim that his father killed a slave while still a boy, or, even more shockingly, that Newt was responsible during Reconstruction for the disappearance (suggestive of a lynching) of a “young negro man” who was “slipping around the white women’s houses after dark,” (p. 37). For obvious reasons, the authors ignore this story. Their careless use of this deeply-flawed source is a luxury they cannot afford in a book that claims to be “Civil War history at its finest.”

To support their assertion that Newt formed “alliances” with slaves during the war, Stauffer and Jenkins leap far beyond his collaborative relationship with Rachel Knight. The authors provide an imaginative tale of Newt’s likely alliance with slaves while on the run from Corinth without a shred of concrete evidence to back them up. Appearing in the space of five paragraphs, the phrases “a fugitive slave who might well have stopped Newton as he groped his way,” (p. 146); or, “Newton would have come across men like Octave Johnson,” (p. 146); or, “Johnson could have shown Newton how to lure the dogs,” (p. 147); and “Newton would have learned how to hunt in the swamps,” (p. 147) are purely conjectural, drawn from published memoirs such as Rev. John Hill Aughey’s 1888 Tupelo (Aughey was a documented southern abolitionist), and Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, neither of which have any direct connection with Newt Knight. One can only hope that readers will turn occasionally to the vaguely-written endnotes at the back of the book to see that no primary sources are used to support what amounts to a subtle attempt to impose a northern abolitionist persona on Newt Knight.

Coming up in future reviews of State of Jones: Was Newt Knight at Vicksburg? What was the nature of Newt’s relationships with Serena and Rachel? And more–stay tuned!

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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.

Some Southern Unionists upon their return home

Posted in Arkansas Unionists, Slaves who became Union soldiers, Southern Union soldiers, Southern Unionists who became Union soldiers, Thoughts on classifications of Southern Unionists, Works that focus on Southern Unionists with tags , , , , on January 23, 2009 by SouthernUnionists

“Alfred Waud’s drawing captures the exuberance of the Little Rock, Arkansas, African American community as the U. S. Colored Troops returned home at the end of the Civil War. The victorious soldiers are joyously greeted by women and children.”

From the Library of Congress’ “African-American Odyssey, Part 1

Dual-posted in Cenantua’s Blog.

Early work discussing Southern Federal soldiers

Posted in Works that focus on Southern Unionists with tags , , , on October 23, 2008 by SouthernUnionists

One of the early works (1912) to discuss Southerners in the service of the Federal army is Fighting by Southern Federals by Charles Carter Anderson. Full online access to this book is available through Google Books.