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Confederate Deserters: The Rebels You Rarely Hear About

Those who romanticize the Confederacy can learn valuable lessons from the legacy of rebel deserters.

Newton Knight, leader of the guerrilla unit known as the "Knight Company," which actively fought against the Confederacy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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“This law … makes it a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” – Confederate Private Jasper Collins speaking to Newton Knight about the “Twenty-Negro Law,” which allowed planters who owned 20 or more enslaved Africans to be exempt from Confederate enlistment.

Recent discussions of the Confederacy, the Confederate flag[s] and Southern Civil War history in the media have been predominantly focused on certain aspects of the national memory. The official interpretations of Southern history – the ones that are generally passed along to schoolchildren – have flooded the media in the weeks following the Charleston massacre, without much nuance. The Confederate battle flag has been regularly spoken of as if it was the official flag of the Confederate States. The Confederate army has been spoken of as if it was a monolith.

However, anyone who loves history can tell you it’s complicated and inconvenient. The Confederacy does offer some lessons of rebellion that are inspiring. These are lessons the South can benefit from today, but many choose to ignore them.

The selective history of the Confederacy obscures the instances of sincere rebellion in the region of the country where, in many ways, they should matter most: the South. The peculiar historical dishonesty of the Confederacy’s inheritors is almost unwittingly cowardly: Those who proclaim “heritage over hate” are, in effect, stating that they do not have the gall to live in their own truth – or admitting that they do not know the history of the Confederate army they claim to take pride in. The rebel states’ list of causes for immediate secession, Alexander H. Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech,” and the words of Jefferson Davis confirm that the Confederate Army’s primary role was the defense of slavery. Engraved in that defense was white supremacy in its purest forms: an agitator, enslaver and destroyer of all things not white.

In addition to glossing over the blatant and destructive white supremacy that governed the Confederacy, official histories disappear examples of internal resistance. There were some Confederate soldiers who thought differently than their leadership. Like any war, the Civil War had defectors – soldiers on both sides who chose not to fight for their preselected regiments.

One of the most famous instances of defector resistance within the Confederate Army was the “Free State of Jones” within Mississippi. Years into the conflict that divided the nation, many people in Mississippi were opposed to the war. Arguably the most famous was a farmer by the name of Newton Knight, who lived in Jones County. A legend in his own right, Knight spoke out forcefully against the idea that he and his comrades should be swept up into a war that they were being forced to fight against their will. He led a guerrilla unit known as the “Knight Company,” which actively fought against the Confederacy.

It’s been said that in 1864, Jones County actually seceded from the Confederacy. As one can imagine, the presence of a secession within a secession was not the united front the Confederacy wanted for its image. They worked effectively to stamp out Knight’s Jones rebellion via Colonel Robert Lowry, whose troops and bloodhounds ran Knight’s men out of the swamps without ever actually catching Knight himself.

Knight survived, and spent the rest of his life living defiantly with a formerly enslaved woman named Rachel, whom he married after separating from his wife. His legend still evokes discussion to this day.

The “Free State of Jones” was not alone in its anti-Confederacy leanings. Next door to Mississippi, in the “Heart of Dixie,” the “Republic of Winston” also rose up in opposition. Many there held sentiments that were parallel with Jones County defectors. Keep in mind that Alabama was the home of the Confederate capital, Montgomery, and the original site for the secession effort of the Confederate States of America (which was established at the Montgomery Convention). Still, the people of the pro-Union County of Winston saw no reason to fight alongside the rest of Alabama and came close to seceding from the Confederacy. Many Winston residents hid and fled north to avoid conscription into the Confederate army. By the war’s end, Winston had provided twice as many soldiers to the Union as it did to the Confederacy.

Mississippi and Alabama weren’t the only rebel states with defectors loyal to the Union; several other states in the Confederacy were home to disruptive detractors. Large swaths of German immigrants who had settled in Texas were loyal to the Union and tended to view slavery as immoral. Texas counties with a high density of Germans voted against secession, sparking suspicion among Confederate leadership. These tensions would lead up to the Nueces Massacre. The New York Times describes what happened:

The massacred men, all Texas Germans, were fleeing, but not because they were insurrectionists. They were headed for Mexico to ultimately try to join the Union Army, yes, but they were not looking for a fight. Yet, instead of arresting them for avoiding conscription into the Confederate Army, First Lt. Colin McRae ordered a deadly night attack. Lt. Edwin Lilly, his subordinate, ordered the execution of wounded prisoners.

Meanwhile, in Scott County, Tennessee, many people overwhelmingly voted against secession, causing violent confrontations between Union-loyal Scott countians and Confederate soldiers. The county defied Tennessee’s decision to secede, and the county court, by resolution, seceded from Tennessee. Residents formed the “Free and Independent State of Scott.”

Opposition to the Confederacy happened on smaller scales, as well: Many individual people and families disagreed with secession, or were just tired of the fighting. From Florida to Northern Georgia and all the way up to West Virginia there were Union supporter strongholds. Many bands of deserters launched raids on the Confederacy and plantations, sometimes confiscating weapons and taking away enslaved Africans. Throughout the whole of the Confederacy there was treason, including rebels who fought in opposition to the wealthy Confederate establishment. The aforementioned are only a few of many instances throughout the Confederacy.

Taken together, these points of resistance highlight the fact that Southern secession was not about “state’s rights”; it was about the interests of wealthy white Southern landowners. Claims that the Civil War was “not about slavery” – and that the Confederate battle flag didn’t represent it – are notions that would likely have the men who represented the Confederacy turning in their graves.

The white South and any nonwhite Confederate apologists have a choice now, at this historic fork in the road. As many towns, cities and state institutions choose to disassociate themselves from a legacy of obvious race bias, those who are conscientious should commit to desertion. Like the better parts of the Confederacy ran away, so should you. I am not suggesting that you leave the South. Instead, I am suggesting that you run away from myth, falsehood and denial. Accept and own the evil, hateful legacy of the Confederacy, just as the Confederacy accepted and owned enslaved chattel.

If there is any rebellious blood left inside of you, memorialize the Confederates who rejected the establishment and had the audacity to stand up. Do not let their ghosts linger unseen over the blood-splattered battlefields of Dixie. Particularly in the face of grave struggles, we must recognize that resistance is everywhere – and it often emerges in the most unexpected places.

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