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.Scridb filter