Free State of Jones
By LtCol Mike Christy
Knight is excitingly portrayed by actor Matthew McConaughey. His first wife, Serena, is played by Keri Russell and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his Negro wife Rachel. Several photographs from the movie appear in this presentation.
Newton Knight was born in November 1837, near the Leaf River in Jones County, Mississippi, a region romantically described in 1841 by the historian J.F.H. Claiborne as a “land of milk and honey.” The landscape was dominated by virgin longleaf pines. Wolves and panthers still roamed the land. He married Serena Turner in 1858, and the two established a small farm just across the county line in Jasper County.
Knight, an American farmer, soldier and southern Unionist, was best known as the leader of the Knight Company, a band of Confederate army deserters that turned against the Confederacy during the Civil War. Local legends state that Knight and his men attempted to form the “Free State of Jones” in the area around Jones County, Mississippi, at the height of the war, though the exact nature of the Knight Company’s opposition to the Confederate government is disputed. After the war, Knight aided Mississippi’s Reconstruction government.
Knight has long been a controversial figure. Historians and descendants disagree over his motives and actions, with some arguing he was a noble and pious individual who refused to fight for a cause in which he did not believe, while others have portrayed him as a manipulative outlaw. This controversy was fueled in part by Knight’s postwar marriage to a freed slave, which effectively established a small mixed-race community in southeastern Mississippi. The marriage would have been considered illegal as Mississippi banned interracial marriages except from 1870 to 1880 during the Reconstruction era.
Newton was a grandson of John “Jackie” Knight (1773-1861), one of Jones County’s largest slaveholders. Newton’s father, Albert (1799-1862), however, did not own any slaves, and was the only child of Jackie Knight who did not inherit any slaves. Newton, likewise, did not own any slaves. Some say he was morally opposed to the institution due to his Primitive Baptist beliefs. As a staunch Primitive Baptist, Newton also forswore alcohol, unlike his father and grandfather. He was probably taught to read and write by his mother.
Knight, like many Jones Countians, was opposed to secession. The county elected John H. Powell, the “cooperation” (anti-secession) candidate, to represent them at Mississippi’s secession convention in January 1861. Powell voted against secession on the first ballot, but under pressure, switched his vote on the second ballot, joining the majority in voting to secede from the Union. In an interview many years later, Knight suggested many Jones Countians, unaware of how few options they had, felt betrayed by Powell.
Knight enlisted in the Confederate Army in July, 1861. He was given a furlough in January 1862, however, to return home and tend to his ailing father. In May 1862, Knight, along with a number of friends and neighbors, enlisted in Company F of the 7th Battalion, as they preferred to serve together in the same company, rather than with strangers.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1862, a number of factors prompted desertions by Jones Countians serving in the Confederate Army. One factor was the lack of food and supplies in the aftermath of the Siege of Corinth. Another involved reports of poor conditions back home, as small farms deteriorated from neglect. Knight was enraged when he received word that Confederate authorities had seized his family’s horse. However, many believe Knight’s principal reason for desertion was his outrage over the Confederate government’s passing of the Twenty Negro Law. This act allowed wealthy plantation owners to avoid military service if they owned twenty slaves or more. An additional family member was exempted from service for each additional twenty slaves owned. Knight had also received word that his brother-in-law, Morgan, who had become the head of the family in Knight’s absence, was abusing Knight’s children. Morgan’s identity has since been lost, but he is thought to be Morgan Lines, a day laborer and convicted murderer.
Knight was reported AWOL in October 1862. He later defended his desertion, arguing, “If they had a right to conscript me when I didn’t want to fight the Union, I had a right to quit when I got ready.” After returning home having deserted in the retreat following the defeat at Corinth, Knight, according to relatives, shot and killed Morgan.
In early 1863, Knight was arrested and jailed, and possibly tortured, by Confederate authorities for desertion. His homestead and farm were destroyed, leaving his family destitute.
As the ranks of deserters swelled in the aftermath of the Siege of Vicksburg, Confederate authorities began receiving reports that deserters in the Jones County area were looting and burning houses. A local quartermaster, Capt. W. J. Bryant, reported that “The deserters have overrun and taken possession of the country, in many cases exiling the good and loyal citizens or shooting them in cold blood on their own door-sills.”
Gen. Braxton Bragg dispatched Maj. Amos McLemore to Jones County to investigate and round up deserters and stragglers. On October 5, 1863, McLemore was shot and killed in the Ellisville home of Amos Deason, and Knight was believed to have pulled the trigger.
On October 13, 1863, the Knight Company, as it was called, a band of guerillas from Jones County and the adjacent counties of Jasper, Covington, Perry and Smith, was organized to protect the area from Confederate authorities. Knight was elected “Captain” of the company, which included many of his relatives and neighbors. The company’s main hideout, known as “Devils Den,” was located along the Leaf River at the Jones-Covington county line. Local women and slaves provided food and other aid to the men. Women blew cattle horns to signal the approach of Confederate authorities. From late 1863 to early 1865, the Knight Company allegedly fought fourteen skirmishes with Confederate forces. One skirmish took place on December 23, 1863, at the home of Sally Parker, a Knight Company supporter, leaving one Confederate soldier dead and two badly wounded.
During this same period, Knight led a raid into Paulding, where he and his men captured five wagonloads of corn, which they distributed among the local population. The company harassed Confederate officials, with numerous tax collectors, conscript officers, and other officials being reported killed in early 1864. In March 1864, the Jones County court clerk notified the governor that guerillas had made tax collections in the county all but impossible. A letter dated February 13, 1864 from a Union scout addressed to Maj. Gen. John M. Palmer of the Union Army was discovered in 2016 by a historian working in the National Archives. It estimates the Knight Company’s numbers to be as high as 600 and confirms their intention to join up with the Union Army. The exact number is still a matter of debate, in light of an interview Knight gave after the war stating, “There was about 125 of us, never any more.”
By the spring of 1864, the Confederate government in the county had been effectively overthrown. Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk wrote Confederate President Jefferson Davis on March 21, 1864, describing the conditions in Jones County. Polk stated that the band of deserters were “in open rebellion, defiant at the outset, proclaiming themselves âSouthern Yankees,’ and resolved to resist by force of arms all efforts to capture them.” On March 29, 1864, Confederate Capt. Wirt Thomson wrote James Seddon, Confederate Secretary of War, claiming the Knight Company had captured Ellisville and raised the U.S. flag over the courthouse in Jones County. He further reported, “The country is entirely at their mercy.” Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman received a letter from a local group declaring its independence from the Confederacy. In July 1864, the Natchez Courier reported that Jones County had seceded from the Confederacy.
Gen. Polk initially responded to the actions of the Knight Company by sending a contingent under Col. Henry Maury into the area in February 1864. Maury reported he had cleared the area, but noted the deserters had threatened to obtain “Yankee aid” and return. Shortly afterward, Polk dispatched a veteran contingent of soldiers led by Col. Robert Lowry, a future governor who would later describe Knight as an “ignorant and uneducated man.” Using bloodhounds to track down guerillas in the swamps, Lowry rounded up and executed ten members of the Knight Company, including Newton’s cousins, Benjamin Franklin Knight and Sil Coleman. Newton Knight, however, evaded capture. He later stated his company had unsuccessfully attempted to break through Confederate lines to join the Union Army.
By April 1865 the Confederate rebellion had been crushed and the American Civil War was finally over. Mississippi was occupied by Federal troops sent to maintain order and to protect the civil rights of former slaves. Capt. Newton Knight was called into service by the United States Army as a commissioner in charge of distributing thousands of pounds of food to the poor and starving people in the Jones County area. Knight also led a raid that liberated several children who were still being held in slavery in a nearby county. Like many Southern Unionists, he supported the Republican Party, namely the Reconstruction administration of Governor Adelbert Ames. As conflict mounted between white neo-Confederate resistance (the Ku Klux Klan) and the Republican Reconstruction government, Ames appointed Knight as Colonel of the First Infantry Regiment of Jasper County, an otherwise all black regiment defending against Klan activity.
In 1870, Knight petitioned the federal government for compensation for several members of the Knight Company, including the ten who had been executed by Lowry in 1864. He provided sworn statements from several individuals attesting to his loyalty to the Union, including a local judge and a state senate candidate. But the federal Court of Claims ruled that “the evidence fails to support the allegation of the petition that the Jones County Scouts were organized for military service in behalf of United States or that they were in sentiment and feeling throughout the war loyal to the Government of the United States.”
At great personal danger, Knight became a strong supporter of the Republican Party. In 1872, he was appointed as a deputy U.S. Marshal for the Southern District to help maintain the fragile democracy.
In the statewide elections of 1875, however, violence and election fraud kept most blacks and Republicans from voting. Democratic candidates committed to “white rule” were swept into office. White terrorists shot out the windows of the Governor’s Mansion to intimidate Republican Gov. Adelbert Ames, Ames pleaded for federal troops to help keep order, but President Ulysses S. Grant refused. Ames tried organizing a state militia to protect the voting process. But the tide had already turned against Republican rule in Mississippi, and Ames was forced to resign. He lamented that blacks “are to be returned to a condition of serfdom – an era of second slavery.” Blacks could not vote freely in Mississippi again for nearly 100 years.
By the mid-1870s, Knight had separated from his wife, Serena, and married Rachel, a woman formerly enslaved by his grandfather. During the same period, Knight’s son, Mat, married Rachel’s daughter, Fannie, and Knight’s daughter, Molly, married Rachel’s son, Jeff. Newton and Rachel Knight had several children before her death in 1889. Newton Knight died on February 16, 1922 at the age of 84. Under the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, it was a crime for whites and blacks to be buried in the same cemetery. Yet even in death, Knight was defiant. He left careful instructions for his funeral and was buried on a high ridge overlooking his old farmstead in a simple pine box beside Rachel, who had died in 1889. The inscription on his tombstone reads, “He Lived for Others.”
Much has been written about Newton Knight-some pro, others con, a few balanced. In 1935, Knight’s son, Thomas Jefferson “Tom” Knight, published a book about his father, “The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight.” Tom Knight portrayed his father as a Civil War – era Robin Hood who refused to fight for a cause with which he did not agree. The book noticeably omits Newton Knight’s post-war marriage to Rachel.
The 1942 James H. Street novel, “Tap Roots,” is loosely based on the Knight Company’s actions. Though the book is a work of fiction, the novel’s protagonist, Hoab Dabney, was inspired by Newton Knight. The book was the basis of the 1948 film, “Tap Roots,” which was directed by George Marshall, and starred Van Heflin and Susan Hayward.
In 1951, Knight’s grandniece, Ethel Knight, published “The Echo of the Black Horn,” a scathing denunciation of Knight and the Knight Company. Dedicating the book to the Confederate veterans of Jones County, Ethel Knight portrayed Newton as a backward, ignorant, murderous traitor. She argued that most members of the Knight Company were not Unionists, but had been manipulated by Knight into joining his cause.
In 2003, historian Victoria Bynum’s book “The Free State of Jones” was published by the University of North Carolina Press. This book provides a broader view of the Knight Company, taking into account the economic, religious and genealogical factors that helped shape the views of Civil War-era residents of the Jones County area. Bynum provides numerous examples of Knight stating his pro-Union sentiments after the war, and notes the influence of the staunchly pro-Union Collins family, many of whom were members of the Knight Company. She also brings to light the many women and slaves who provided assistance to Knight and his men.
In 2009, Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer published “The State of Jones,” which elaborates on Knight’s pro-Union sympathies and presents evidence that his views on race played a significant role in his actions during and after the war.