04 November 2006 by Published in: Union Cavalry 19 comments

Here’s another in my series of infrequent tributes to forgotten cavalrymen. Most of them have been to men who should be remembered but aren’t, for whatever reason. This time, for a change, we’re going to focus on someone who has been forgotten for very good reason. He did next to nothing worth remembering, other than that his story is interesting. Hence, I decided to profile him.

Napoleon Bonaparte Knight was born in Dover, Delaware on December 7, 1840. He was born into one of the leading families of Delaware. He grew up in Dover, but was educated at Union College in Schenectady, New York, graduating in 1860 languages, medicine, and law. He was a member of the Theta Chapter of Phi Upsilon Fraternity. After graduation, he accepted a position as a professor of languages at a prominent Southern college, but, with the secession crisis brewing, it was obvious that he would not last long there.

Instead, he returned to Delaware, where he continued his legal training under the auspices of George P. Fisher, a prominent Unionist politician (and fellow alumnus of Dickinson College) who served as attorney general of Delaware from 1857-1860. Fisher was elected to Congress in 1861, received a colonel’s commission and was given the task of raising a full regiment of cavalry in the First State. Fisher appointed his young protege Knight as major in his new regiment. Knight was a mere 21 years old when he received his commission.

Knight was clearly an opportunist. At the beginning of the war, he was known as a “Jeff Davis Democrat”, and was known as an ardent secessionist who was quoted as saying that he wanted to put down the “Lincoln hirelings.” He briefly enlisted in a Confederate regiment at the beginning of the war, but soon deserted, declaring “the Union must and shall be preserved.” Instead, when his mentor Fisher received the commission to raise a cavalry regiment, Knight changed his stripes and joined the 1st Delaware Cavalry.

Although the 1st Delaware Cavalry organized at Wilmington on January 20, 1863, it was not a full regiment. Instead of the normal complement of ten horse companies, the tiny state could only raise seven undersized companies, which were later consolidated into four active companies. When Fisher was unable to recruit a full regiment, he resigned his commission in embarrassment, and the young Knight assumed command of the battalion. As of June 25, 1863, the 1st Delaware had seen very little action, serving mostly in the defenses of Baltimore.

Unfortunately for the Union cause, Knight’s martial skills did not match the legacy of his impressive name. The youthful major had very little combat experience, and that deficiency played a major role in the legacy of the 1st Delaware Cavalry. On June 27, 1863, Knight received orders to take two companies of the 1st Delaware to the important railroad town of Westminster, Maryland. The expedition to Westminster marked their first real foray into the field.

Knight took Companies A and C with him. On June 29, while Knight was “occupied” in the town pub, his men–perhaps 105 strong–made a gallant and daring charge into the head of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade as it led the way for Stuart’s three brigades as they headed for the Mason-Dixon Line. The brave but foolhardy charge of the Delawareans–known to history as Corbit’s Charge, named for leader of the charge by the First Staters, Capt. Charles Corbit–held up Stuart’s advance for half a day, and killed two officers of the 4th Virginia Cavalry. Knight was too inebriated to join the charge, and was one of only a handful of men of the 1st Delaware Cavalry who was not captured.

This was the highlight of Knight’s military career–a fortunate escape from capture from a foolhardy charge that he declined to lead himself. “The war record of Colonel Knight is good, and his regiment, which saw the thickest of that long, sanguinary struggle, won many laurels but its excellent work for the old flag,” declared his obituary.

In 1866, Knight finished his legal studies, graduating form Albany Law School in New York. Then, in 1867, Knight settled in Salem, Oregon, where he immediately began to practice law. By 1868, his business had grown to such proportions that he took in, as his business partner, his former fellow-soldier and childhood friend, William P. Lord, who had served as a captain in the 1st Delaware Cavalry. They were very successful in the law business, and when they dissolved the partnership they had both become very well-to-do. Lord went on to be elected governor of Oregon.

In 1870, Knight married Miss Sarah U. Miller, a daughter of the late Gen. John F. Miller, and this union was blessed with three children – one son, Winter M. Knight, of Portland; and two daughters, Miss Portia Knight, an actress who starred in London, and Miss Sylvia, of Portland. In 1890, Mrs. Knight, who had been ailing for several years, died.

Knight was a Republican who served as a state senator in Oregon in the late 1870’s. In 1885, he was a candidate for U.S. Senator, and at one time lacked but one vote of the election. That vote was not secured, and the Legislature adjourned without electing. At that time the Democrats in that body all joined one wing of the Republican party in supporting Knight. Following adjournment, a special session was held and John H. Mitchell was elected Senator, effectively ending Knight’s political career.

In 1889, Knight added a business buying and selling livestock to his legal practice. However, in 1892, he sold his livestock business, and returned to Salem, where he resumed the practice of law, went to Klamath County, where he engaged in the stock business on a large scale, and during his leisure hours practiced his profession. In 1892 he sold out his live stock business, but remained in Klamath Falls until 1896, when he returned to Salem and resumed the practice of law. In May 1901, he went to London to represent his daughter in litigation, and then returned to Salem. He died of a heart attack on February 17, 1902, at the age of 61. His housekeeper found him dead, still seated in his chair, clutching a letter from his daughter Sylvia.

“Colonel Knight was an able lawyer, a genial, whole-souled, big-hearted gentleman, distinguished for his chivalrous conduct, and his demise is mourned by thousands of friends throughout the state,” declared his obituary. “He had his faults, but who has none? Let him, who is without fault, cast the first stone.”

Knight’s military career was short and certainly undistinguished. Indeed, his most lasting legacy is that he was too inebriated to lead the heroic but foolhardy charge that instead bears the name of Charles Corbit. Nevertheless, he is worth remembering. The end of his obituary, quoted above, certainly sums him up quite well.

Here’s to you, Maj. Napoleon Bonaparte Knight, who was too scared and too drunk to seize his opportunity for glory in Westminster that warm late June day in 1863.

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Comments

  1. MarylandReb
    Sun 05th Nov 2006 at 12:39 am

    Cool Eric, these are the real stories that make up the civil war. For every Wade Hampton or John Buford, there were scores of men like Knight. Political appointees or men who ran off the “see the elephant” only to realize that war isn’t really all that glamorous! Looking forward to reading your article on Corbit’s Charge.

  2. Sun 05th Nov 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Mark,

    I agree. That’s part of what I love about my work is finding the stories of guys like this. Those stories deserve to be told.

    Eric

  3. Mon 06th Nov 2006 at 12:36 am

    They certainly do. Ya know, we have several books that give bios of Generals, even Colonels, staff officers, etc – I think it’d be terrific to have a collection of bios of interesting characters – whatever their rank. There could be one for each branch. Would take years to put each one together, but what a reference it would be. Probably not a great seller, but it’d put those sketches of characters like Knight in perpetuity, and would probably be used by scholars pretty heavily.

  4. Mon 06th Nov 2006 at 10:35 am

    Now there’s a good idea, J.D. Let’s continue to accumulate these, and eventually, we will have enough to do something with them.

    Eric

  5. Mon 06th Nov 2006 at 1:46 pm

    Indeed. For instance, imagine a work like this just on individuals pertaining to the Gettysburg Campaign as a starter. Probably would be a good seller, actually. One book, broken up into sections for infantry, cavalry, artillery.

    Pleasonton – Devin – Gamble – Meade – Merritt – Starr – Farnsworth – Jones – for starters, plus dozens of privates and non-coms with interesting stories – same for the infantry – and artillery like Cushing, Dilger, Calef – plus Jerome for the Signal Corps – you name it.

    Hhmm.

    J.D.

  6. Rick Gibison
    Mon 15th Jan 2007 at 2:57 pm

    My great-great grandfather was a Private in Company C of the First Delaware Cavalry and took part in the charge at Westminster. As a military leader I have read that Knight was useless. But it was interesting reading of his carreer after the Civil War.

  7. Terry Brasko
    Thu 27th Dec 2007 at 1:13 pm

    I am doing geneaological research and just found that my ggg-grandfather was 1st Sgt. of Company A. of the First Delaware Cavalry. This is so interesting!

    Terry Brasko

    GGG-grand daughter of 1st Sgt. John H. King Company A

  8. Thu 27th Dec 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Terry,

    I’m glad you found the information, and I’m likewise glad to know you found something useful in it.

    Good luck with your research.

    Eric

  9. Mia
    Thu 21st Aug 2008 at 9:22 am

    Napoleon Knight is my great grandfather’s brother. HIs brother / my great grandfather was Colonial John Henry Knight for Dover, Del.; Bayfield, Ashland and Madison, Wisconsin.

    My mother (age 92) has a wonderful photo of Napoleon in one of her mother’s photo album (circa 1880-1910).

    Where did you get the information on “Uncle Napoleon?” I would like to read on. He came from a LARGE family and I have found several of them in the graveyard in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

    Thank you. Mia Grosjean

  10. Larry Gilmore
    Tue 09th Sep 2008 at 4:24 am

    I was looking for something else and stumbled on your discussion of the 1st Oregon Cavalry. As a native Oregonian, as well as professional historian, I feel impelled to point out that it was not the only Civil War volunteer unit from the Pacific Northwest. There was also the 1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry and the 1st Washington Territory Volunteer Infantry. Most of these troops spent their time doing boring garrison duty, but the cavalry, in particular, saw much active campaigning against the Northern Paiutes in eastern Oregon and Idaho. Besides the Indian threat, there was the possibility of domestic insurgency, as a large part of the population throughout the Far West came from southern states. Another question was protecting the mouth of the Columbia River against any Confederate naval raid. The C.S.S. Shenandoah was roving the North Pacific late in the war, and the Columbia was the only outlet for gold then pouring from mines in eastern Oregon and Washington and Idaho. I assume the Federal Government took at least a mild interest in hanging on to this treasure.
    California did its share too. It raised 8 infantry regiments, 2 of cavalry, and a couple smaller units, with contingents serving all over the Far West, mostly against Indians, but also facing Confederate troops in New Mexico and Arizona. One California unit saw battle in the East. The 1st Infantry Regiment, California Volunteers fought at Balls Bluff in 1861, where its colonel, Edward Baker (a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln) was killed. Probably for logistical reasons, this unit later became the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
    Last, but not least, for a cavalry website: California volunteers were assigned to Massachusetts cavalry regiments. Company A, 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry was made up of Californians, whose fighting elicited a compliment from none other than Mosby (“the Gray Ghost”).
    There’s more about these units on the Internet, if you care to look.

  11. Tom Reed
    Wed 15th Apr 2009 at 3:04 pm

    I portray Maj. Knight as a first-person re-enactor. I assume that people reading this blog know that Knight’s daughter, Portia, a talented actress, sued the Duke of Manchester for breach of promise in 1901 and her father came to England to assist in the trial. She lost. Does anyone have a photo of Maj. Knight that can be copied?

  12. Karene Smith
    Wed 16th Jun 2010 at 3:15 pm

    Where can I find the names of the soldiers of the Delaware First Cavalry that fought in Corbit’s Charge? I am really new to this. Thank you for the article and bio on Napolean Bonaparte Knight, it explained a lot.
    Thank You,
    Karene Smith

  13. Rick Gibison
    Wed 31st Aug 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I recently read and copied Sgt. Harrison Vandegrift’s diary from 1863-1864 ay Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware. It was a joint diary kept by his brother William (who was shot and killed at the charge at Westminster). Quite a bit is written about Col. Knight – I’ll just leave it at that. From what I read, the men of the Company thought highly of Capt. Charles Corbit. Iam currently making a list of the Delaware men involved at Corbit’s Charge in Westminster, June 29, 1863. The Delaware State Archives have put all their Civil War records on-line, free for anyone to us. I highly recommend it. Photos, Muster Rolls, etc…

  14. Rick Gibison
    Thu 16th Feb 2012 at 11:38 pm

    If you would like to see the Roster of the 1st Delaware Archives, trying visiting the website for the Delaware State Archives. For the 150th Anniversary of the War, they put all their records on line. In the Vandegrift Diary , the entire Roster List for Company C is included. Along with accounts of Corbit’s Charge, Petersburg and Cold Harbor. Along with Col. Knights repeated drunkeness and mistreatment of his his men, with whom he was stated as being gretly disliked. Corbit should have been in charge!

  15. Norman Childs
    Sat 16th Nov 2013 at 1:25 am

    Col N B Knight was my grandmothers(Sylvia Knight) father and her sister was Portia Kinght was my mothers Aunt,love to get any photos that you might have : marlowbridge@hotmail.com (Australia) many thanks great read even though he wasnt that cool !

  16. norman childs
    Wed 26th Feb 2014 at 7:13 pm

    I would love to get any photos of Napoleon Bonaparte Knight that anyone has as he was my great grandfather and anyone who is a relative who wants to discover the UK part of his history.
    marlowbridge@hotmail.com (Australia)

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