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Knox concentrates on Freedmen's Bureau



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August 25, 2010 - Third in a series on Major John Knox

BY AL HESTER

Special to the Clarkston News

Major John J. Knox of Clarkston was never without pain from his Civil War battle wounds and his chronic dysentery. Army medical examiners reported he had neck and nerve damage from his near-fatal wound at the Battle of Fair Oaks in the Civil War. "He cannot fully raise the right arm, and respiration is made difficult from injury to the muscles of the neck," his medical reports in the National Archives say. He was awarded two-thirds disability, although some military doctors said it should have been total.

Knox was strongly patriotic. He believed the South was conquered and should move in good faith to give ex-slaves a fair treatment. Joining the Freedmen's bureau gave him a chance to see these generally illiterate and poor African Americans got a fair break in labor contracts with their former masters, and that they had a chance at education and the freedom to vote. He had worked as head of the Meridian, MS, Freedmen's Bureau before being assigned to Athens. The Athens District included 10 Northeast Georgia counties, with nearly two dozen agents directed by Major Knox.

The Freedmen' Bureau was not popular in Athens or almost everywhere else in the South. Embittered by losing their hard struggle, many Southerners could scarcely stand the presence of the Freedmen's Bureau, seeing it as an extension of the federal dictatorship over their affairs. Georgia had plenty of Yankee soldiers still occupying it, and the Freedmen's Bureau was seen as hand-in-glove with the conquering military.

But local whites in Athens had a grudging respect for Major Knox. They knew his bravery and his military record. Nearly 10 per cent of Civil War troops from Athens had been casualties. He arrived in early February, 1867, to supervise ration distribution to the needy, both black and white, and to support thousands of ex-slaves in their new lives.

Knox's office was nothing fancy—one room rented for $10 a month. He had a Spartan budget which got him a few chairs, a desk, ink and sealing wax and a few other essentials. After a month or so, the benign federal government allowed him to have a $200 horse. He was so busy with a thousand things in the aftermath of the war in Athens it probably kept him from dwelling too much on the death of Emily, his wife, who had died only three months after their twin sons, John and Charles were born. Perhaps that was one reason he wanted work with the Freedmen's Bureau—so he wouldn't dwell on his loss of Emily and separation from his sons, being cared for by a brother and sister in Oakland County, Michigan.

After working in Athens a few weeks, Major Knox sent a message to the Army quartermaster for Georgia. He asked for a large American flag—a "garrison" flag to fly at his headquarters in Athens. "Situated as I am where disloyalty is more respectable than patriotism, the presence of the Flag of our country would be a source of great satisfaction." Soon Major Knox got his flag. It must have been a big one. It was duly recorded as costing $18.50.

At first, Athens newspaper editor John Christy was ready to give Major Knox the benefit of the doubt, hoping for fair treatment for whites and blacks alike. Apparently Knox was a likable man. Christy publicly thanked him in his newspaper for thoughtfully sending him some packets of seeds—apparently in short supply.

But as Knox got down to business, whites in Athens saw he would not countenance unfair treatment of their former slaves. He paid attention to complaints made against whites by newly freed blacks. When a white man apparently murdered a former slave, Jack Simmons, on a plantation outside Athens, Knox tried to get Athens civil authorities to arrest him. The suspect, E. F. McManaman, sent a message that he was going to kill Knox. Still county officials did only a cursory search for McManaman, who Knox called a "renegade." The suspect left the county without any apprehension by civil authorities.

Major Knox was also busy trying to educate the largely unlettered former slaves. The Freedmen's Bureau began only months after the end of the Civil War building and arranging teaching staffs throughout the South. In the summer of 1865, the head of the Bureau in Athens, another Union officer, got classes going, using African-American churches as temporary schools. His teacher was Bernard P. Jacobs, the Drum Major of the 156th Regiment, New York Volunteers, stationed in Athens. Strangely enough, another teacher in 1865 was Richard Schevenell, a Confederate veteran from Athens.

"I am a white man and the only Southern man I know of engaged in teaching Freedmen," Schevenell wrote to Freedmen's Bureau Georgia School Superintendent. But lack of payment by black parents soon forced him out of teaching. Obviously African Americans needed their own school, as Georgia had no public schools for either whites or blacks. And teachers were needed who would work for only a pittance. Major Knox worked to support the American Missionary Association, which furnished most of Athens' teachers for African Americans. The majority were Northern or Middlewestern women who lived a hard existence, shunned by whites, having little resources and often boarding with black families.

Al 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. His latest book [in press] is Enduring Legacy: Clarke County, Georgia's Ex-Slave Legislators, Madison Davis and Alfred Richardson. It will be available through Amazon.com and other book sellers in September, 2010.

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