How Connections Made Napoleon Bonaparte Knight a Calvary Officer

Rank didn’t get him very far.

In a moment when outsiders are popular, perhaps it’s wise to recall the cost of empowering the clueless.

Consider Napoleon Bonaparte Knight of Kent County who, as the 20-something son of an influential family, got himself appointed a major in the Union cavalry in 1863. But when the time came to act like a cavalry officer, Knight’s underlings found him drunk in a bar.

“Unfortunately for the Union cause, Knight’s martial skills did not match the legacy of his impressive name,” wrote historian Eric Wittenberg in “Plenty of Blame to Go Around.”

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Raised on an 8,000-acre farm near the Maryland line, about 12 miles west of Dover, Knight was one of 10 children born to affluent farmer James Knight and his wife, Rebecca. He attended Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where he was a frat boy, and graduated in 1860 with an emphasis on languages, medicine and law. He accepted a professorship at a Southern college, but didn’t stay long. By the end of the year, the Civil War was beginning to rumble. Knight hurried home to offer his services to the Confederacy.

Yes, the Confederacy. According to Wittenberg, Knight was known as a “Jeff Davis Democrat” and secessionist who talked of putting down the “Lincoln hirelings.” (It’s likely that Knight’s family farm required lots of “help,” which would have shaped members’ attitudes toward the issues of the day.) He quickly deserted, however, and resumed legal studies in the offices of George P. Fisher, attorney general of Delaware.

Fisher was a Republican and an outspoken Unionist, so Knight—“clearly an opportunist,” thinks Wittenberg—must have changed his political stripes about that time. Knight’s association with Fisher proved useful after Fisher was elected to Congress in 1861. When, the following year, Fisher was commissioned a cavalry colonel, he named Knight his major.

Knight was 21, with no military experience. When Fisher resigned in 1863 to accept a federal appointive position, Knight became the senior officer.

Knight’s regiment, the First Delaware Cavalry, was organized in January 1863. It spent its first months in the defenses of Baltimore. It had never seen action when, in late June, Knight was ordered to take two companies to Westminster, Md., an important railroad junction. To the west, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was moving north, with the Union army in pursuit. They would meet about 30 miles away, at Gettysburg.

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Knight and his troops trotted into Westminster about 11 a.m. on June 28. He found no rebels, so he placed pickets on the major roads and set up camp on the north end of town. At 9 p.m., there was a brief alarm that the enemy appeared, but investigation found nothing.

“The great body of Confederates who had so alarmed the pickets proved to be a singing school that had just let out,” wrote a local citizen after the war. “The boys and girls were going home with no thought of blood in their hearts.” 

June 29 arrived quietly. Still no Confederates. Knight turned to mundane business. The unit had arrived at Westminster on mostly unshod horses. The roads were stony, so the journey had left the animals in a bad way. The regiment’s blacksmiths were ordered to go to work—an operation that must have required pulling pickets away from their stations for the purpose. The shoeing took most of the day. Knight spent the afternoon in the bar at the Westminster Hotel on Main Street. “By the time [Gen. J.E.B.] Stuart’s Confederates arrived, the major was so intoxicated he was unable to take the field,” wrote Wittenberg.

First, a small advance guard of rebels surprised five First Staters in a blacksmith shop. (None, it seems, had been watching to see who was coming up the road.) Word of the advance guard was carried by a civilian to Capt. Charles Corbit, one of Knight’s company commanders. Corbit turned to Knight for orders.

In such a situation, standard military procedure would have been an orderly retreat, with riders sent to alert Union forces. An aggressive commander might have authorized efforts to delay the enemy.

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“Knight promptly ordered Corbit to move at once against the enemy,” wrote Wittenberg. Worried about being captured by the rebels and treated as a deserter, however, Knight refused to go along, or even to leave the hotel.

Corbit rose to the occasion. “Draw sabers!” he ordered the 70 available men. With a bugle blowing, the outnumbered Delawareans flew down Main Street into the amazed vanguard of Stuart’s 4,000 horsemen.

The clash was, according to one Virginian, “short, sharp and decisive.” The Delaware cavalrymen displayed “an almost suicidal bravery,” but were overcome in relatively short order. Most were captured. Two were killed on each side. The clash did slow down the Confederate advance by at least a day, however. Stuart’s cavalry did not arrive at Gettysburg until the third day of that battle, a fact that some historians believe contributed to Lee’s defeat.

Knight, meanwhile, escaped to Baltimore with a few others. He later moved to Oregon and practiced law. Presumably, he was good at that.

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