How Connections Made Napoleon Bonaparte Knight a Calvary Officer

Rank didn't get him very far.


Published:

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.”

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.

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.

“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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January 2018

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Cost: Varies

Where:
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Cost: free

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Coastal Audiology
32034 Long Neck Road
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Telephone: 302-316-0525
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Chase Center on the Riverfront
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Telephone: 302-286-5704
Contact Name: Denise Griffin
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Cost: $18-$20

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Cinema Art Theater
17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
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Cost: Free

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200 Water St.
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, DE  19801
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24488 Sussex Highway, Suite 4
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32034 Long Neck Road
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Telephone: 302-316-0525
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137 W Knowlton Rd
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More information

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Chase Center on the Riverfront
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Contact Name: Denise Griffin
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Cinema Art Theater
17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
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Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
Website »

More information

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Cab Calloway School Theatre
100 N DuPont Rd
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Sponsor: DE Theatre Co & Cab Calloway Fund
Telephone: 302-547-4543
Contact Name: Kelly Furman
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Show glides through life of professional figure skater Randy Gardner with help from Tai Babilonia and Dorothy Hamill. Wilmington, DE—“It ain’t no Ice Capades,” Randy...

Where:
200 Water St.
Wilmington
, DE  19801
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Sponsor: Carolina Millard
Telephone: 302-594-1100, ext. 215

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Cost: free

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Coastal Audiology
32034 Long Neck Road
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More information

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Cost: free

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Seaford Audiology
24488 Sussex Highway, Suite 4
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More information

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Cost: free

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3922 Kennett Pike
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Cost: $175.00

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
Justinson Street
Wilmington , DE
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Telephone: 302-286-5704
Contact Name: Denise Griffin
Website »

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Cost: FREE

Where:
Faith Victory Christian Center
301 Commonwealth Avenue
Claymont, DE  19703
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Sponsor: Faith Victory Christian Center
Telephone: 302.354.6726
Contact Name: Alvin Walker
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Cost: $20 members; $30 non-members

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Delaware Center for Horticulture
1810 N. Dupont Street
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Telephone: (302) 658-6262
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132 Townsend Hall on UD's South Campus
531 South College Avenue
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Cost: Free

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Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark
420 Willa Road
Newark, DE  19711
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Sponsor: UUFN
Telephone: 302.368.2984
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Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
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Where:
200 Water St.
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Sponsor: Carolina Millard
Telephone: 302-594-1100, ext. 215

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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
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View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

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Cost: free

Where:
Seaford Audiology
24488 Sussex Highway, Suite 4
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Cost: $175.00

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
Justinson Street
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Telephone: 302-286-5704
Contact Name: Denise Griffin
Website »

More information

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Cost: FREE

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Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-629-6611 x2428

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Cost: $10.00 on Thursday; no cost on Friday, Saturday and Sunday

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610 Yorklyn Road
Hockessin, DE  19707
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Website »

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Cost: $90 per person

Where:
University and Whist Club
805 N Broom St
Wilmington, DE  19806
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Sponsor: University and Whist Club
Telephone: 302-658-5125

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Cost: 75.00 per person, plus service fee

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Harry's Savoy Ballroom
2020 Naamans Road
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Sponsor: Harry's Hospitality Group
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Contact Name: Riley Quinn
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Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
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2301 Kentmere Parkway
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View map »

More information

Show glides through life of professional figure skater Randy Gardner with help from Tai Babilonia and Dorothy Hamill. Wilmington, DE—“It ain’t no Ice Capades,” Randy...

Where:
200 Water St.
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, DE  19801
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Sponsor: Carolina Millard
Telephone: 302-594-1100, ext. 215

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Cost: free

Where:
Seaford Audiology
24488 Sussex Highway, Suite 4
Seaford, DE  19973
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More information

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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
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View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Cost: Free to Members, $5 per child and one adult free for Non-Members

Where:
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2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
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Cost: $175.00

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
Justinson Street
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View map »


Telephone: 302-286-5704
Contact Name: Denise Griffin
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More information

More than 50,000 books for sale!  Thursday, 1/26 is for Friends members only ($10 memberships available at the door).  Friday from 9-9; Saturday from 9-5.  On Sunday (9-3), we supply and you...

Cost: $10.00 on Thursday; no cost on Friday, Saturday and Sunday

Where:
Hockessin Memorial Hall
610 Yorklyn Road
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Cost: $40 per adult

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Fair Hill NRMA, ED Walls Bldg
300 Tawes Drive
off 273 West of Newark
Elkton, MD  21921
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Telephone: 410-441-3717
Contact Name: Beth Burnam
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Cost: 0.00

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General Hospital
640 S. State Street
Private Dining Room #3
Dover, DE  19901
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Telephone: 800-855-2CALLGA
Website »

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Cost: $12-$20

Where:
Wilmington Drama League
10 West Lea Blvd.
Wilmington, DE  19802
View map »


Sponsor: Wilmington Drama League
Telephone: 302-764-1172
Website »

More information

Show glides through life of professional figure skater Randy Gardner with help from Tai Babilonia and Dorothy Hamill. Wilmington, DE—“It ain’t no Ice Capades,” Randy...

Where:
200 Water St.
Wilmington
, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Carolina Millard
Telephone: 302-594-1100, ext. 215

More information

The first major retrospective exhibition of John Sloan’s work since 1988, An American Journey explores all facets of the artist’s long career: his work as an illustrator in Philadelphia, his...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

January 2 – 27 Winter Group Show A rotating group show featuring an eclectic mix of artwork including oil paintings, pastels, ornamental boxes, art glass and jewelry. Custom Framing and Gift...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

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Cost: $175.00

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
Justinson Street
Wilmington , DE
View map »


Telephone: 302-286-5704
Contact Name: Denise Griffin
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free with admission; Adults: $14, Children 6-14: $5, Children 5 and under: Free

Where:
Hagley Museum and Library
200 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »

More information

More than 50,000 books for sale!  Thursday, 1/26 is for Friends members only ($10 memberships available at the door).  Friday from 9-9; Saturday from 9-5.  On Sunday (9-3), we supply and you...

Cost: $10.00 on Thursday; no cost on Friday, Saturday and Sunday

Where:
Hockessin Memorial Hall
610 Yorklyn Road
Hockessin, DE  19707
View map »


Website »

More information

Rosemary Bailey from San Diego, California is an engaging popular artist in her premier performance at the Dickinson Theatre Organ Society.  She is the consummate musician whose playing ability...

Cost: $20 Adults, $10 Students, Groups Call 302-995-2603

Where:
John Dickinson High School
1801 Miltown Road
Wilmington, DE  19808
View map »


Sponsor: Dickinson Theatre Organ Society
Telephone: 302-995-2603
Contact Name: Bob Dilworth
Website »

More information

The new year brings us "Disaster!" - the epic disaster movie musical spoof, chock full of everyone’s favorite 70’s pop songs.  Shows are at 8pm on January 26 and 27, and February 2 and 3. ...

Cost: $12-$20

Where:
Wilmington Drama League
10 West Lea Blvd.
Wilmington, DE  19802
View map »


Sponsor: Wilmington Drama League
Telephone: 302-764-1172
Website »

More information

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Cost: $69-$89

Where:
SugarHouse Casino
1001 N. Delaware Ave
Philadelphia, PA  19125
View map »

More information

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Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

Show glides through life of professional figure skater Randy Gardner with help from Tai Babilonia and Dorothy Hamill. Wilmington, DE—“It ain’t no Ice Capades,” Randy...

Where:
200 Water St.
Wilmington
, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Carolina Millard
Telephone: 302-594-1100, ext. 215

More information

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