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Local soldier Major Knox never backed down



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August 04, 2010 - First in a series on Major John Knox

BY AL HESTER

Special to the Clarkston News

He never weighed more than a hundred pounds. His Union Army medical records also say he was only 5-feet-4. The average Civil War enlistee was 5-feet-8 and weighed 144 pounds.

But he fought like a tiger in the Michigan 5th Volunteer Regiment and nearly died, wounded in the neck at the Civil War Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31, 1862, just a few miles out of Richmond, VA. He called Independence Township home.

His name was John J. Knox, a son of Walter Knox, one of the most respected farmers in the county—known for making his rocky acres one of the best wheat-growing farms in Independence Township.

His son, John, took on tasks tremendously more difficult and deadly than clearing stony fields—fighting Rebels and working for African-American civil rights in the South.

We might have called John Knox "Pee Wee" or "Squirt" because he was small-sized, but there was nothing small about his patriotism, his military ability, or his desire to help ex-slaves get an education and to vote in Athens, GA, and before that in Meridian, MS, immediately after the Civil War.

Promoted in the Civil War to Brevet Major for gallantry and bravery, Knox's life still could have been snuffed out at any time as a leading official in the federal government's Freedmen's Bureau. The bureau was set up to bring some semblance of order and protection to the freed slaves in the conquered South early in Reconstruction. Frequently the Bureau's offices throughout the South were led by Union military officers or former officers.

I became fascinated with it as I researched the Reconstruction period in Athens. In May, 2010, I did a presentation to the Athens Historical Society to commemorate the founding of the Knox School, named for Major Knox, which educated many hundreds of African Americans, continuing its mission from 1867 to 1928.

To set the war scene, John Knox was one of the first of Oakland County's young men to volunteer for the war.

According to Constance Letzian, writing for The Clarkston News on June 13, 1965, John Knox had been teaching school after his graduation from Clarkston Academy, at Austin Corners north of Clarkston. He then went to teach in Mississippi.

"He was teaching in Meridian, Mississippi, when the first rumblings of the Civil War were heard. Never one to back down on his convictions, John Knox had made it clear that his sympathies were not with the secessionists. As a known Yankee sympathizer, he was asked to leave Meridian," she wrote.

He returned to Michigan, and soon the war broke out and he volunteered.

He enlisted on June 19, 1861, about 25 years old. He apparently gained experience at Fort Wayne in Detroit where he had entered service.

When the Fifth Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment was officially organized in August, 1861, Knox was promoted quickly to Second Lieutenant, and then made First Lieutenant in Company D on Nov. 1, 1861, his military records show.

That fall, John Knox returned to Michigan to marry Emily. But she was to be with him intermittently because of the war. His 19-year-old brother, Walter, also volunteered for the Fifth Michigan and had an outstanding career, too, also being wounded.

Both John and Walter Knox, his youngest brother, served with the Fifth Michigan, being involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the war. John Knox was gravely wounded in the Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines), near Richmond.

A bullet passed through his neck and throat from one side to the other. The Fifth Michigan lost 30 killed, 120 wounded and 5 missing. Knox's wound was to haunt him the rest of his life, and medical records show it shortened his life. He would die in 1877 in Washington, D. C.

John Knox did recover enough to continue duty in the Regiment, serving in such battles as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

Next week, Al Hester tells the story of Knox's work with the Freedmen's Bureau. Hester, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of the Journalism Dept. of the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the University of Georgia. He was Journalism Dept. chair and director of the Cox International Center for Mass Communication Training and Research. He was a reporter and editor for the Dallas (Texas) Times Herald for 13 years.

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