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The “Real” Free State of Jones

One Mississippi county’s rebellion against the Confederacy comes to life on the big screen next year. 

The South is sometimes defined by its slow drawls, thick humidity and the Civil War, but it’s not often a story emerges that contradicts the cemented image of rebels united under the Confederate flag. Upcoming movie “The Free State of Jones,” starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell, tells the true story of Newton Knight and a Mississippi county’s open defiance of secession and the War. (After shooting in Louisiana and Mississippi, the film is expected to release March 11, 2016.)

Varying details of the legend of the Free State of Jones have been passed down since the 1860s. Some retellings focus on the bravery, honor, rebellion and anti-secession sentiments of the band of warriors, while others portray the Knight Company as a band of murderous outlaws. Digging into the history of Jones County and the Knight Company reveals more details about whether these men were righteous defenders of the less fortunate or rebellious deserters who terrorized the piney woods of Jones County.

freestateofjonesbookJones County’s resistance came into existence because of citizens’ objections to Mississippi’s secession and involvement in the Civil War. Jones County was not a wealthy area when war broke out in 1861. According to the book The Free State of Jones by Victoria Bynum, the number of slave owners had grown since the county was settled during the turn of the 19th century, but poor farmers heavily outnumbered wealthy planters. Prior to secession, slave holders and non-slave holders recognized the dangers and hardships that secession would inevitably bring to the county. In 1860, the majority of Jones County residents elected John H. Powell, the anti-secession candidate, as the delegate for the Mississippi State Convention.

Abandoning his campaign promises and ignoring the wishes of his constituents, Powell cast his vote in favor of secession. Not only was Jones County forced to secede against the wishes of its voters, but the Confederate conscription mandated the men to join a war they opposed. This would ultimately unite the sons of slaveholders and poor farmers of Jones County in a rebellion against the Confederacy.

One Mississippi farmer, Newton “Newt” Knight, remains a polarizing figure 150 years after the Civil War. In book The State of Jones by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, Newton is described as “a mix of tough and straitlaced, a ruffian yet a devout Christian, a fierce combatant when riled, but with a reputation for tenderness, a loner yet a generous neighbor whom others could count on for help.” Jenkins and Stauffer wrote that Knight was “a Unionist in principle and opposed the state’s Ordinance of Secession.” He also questioned the fundamental beliefs of slavery and the underlying basis of the war.

Knight enlisted in the Confederate Army on July 29, 1861. He and most of the other men in the area fought in the 7th Battalion. When the Twenty Negro Law released the sons of slaveholders from military duty but retained the sons of non-slave holders on the battlefield, Knight and the other farmers were infuriated by what he called a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” In November of 1862, he slipped into the woods somewhere near Abbeville and made a 200-mile trek back to Jones County. Less than a year later, he was captured, court-martialed and presumably tortured. He was returned to his unit but deserted again in June. Knight would not fight for the Confederacy again. He was one among thousands listed as “absent without leave.”

Knight and other Jones Count deserters hid in swamps to evade capture. Devil’s Den and Deserter’s Lake near the Leaf River (pictured below) were popular sanctuaries for these wanted men. Slaves and local women allies provided the group with food, supplies and assistance in evading their hunters. One of Knight’s most trusted allies and providers of food and information during this time was Rachel, one of his grandfather’s house slaves. She helped him hide when it became too dangerous for him to go back to his wife, Serena, and his children. They had an agreement that she would provide him with food and he would work to secure her freedom.

leafriver

As the group of Jones outlaws grew in number, they attracted the attention of Confederate forces. Amos McLemore, Confederate officer of the 27th Mississippi, was sent to Jones County to deal with the deserters. According to local oral tradition, on the night of October 5, McLemore and his men rode through Jones County looking for Knight’s men and their hideout. The manhunt enraged Knight, who allegedly scrawled a note threatening to fill McLemore “full of lead.” That night, when McLemore stayed at the Ellisville home of his friend Amos Deason, Knight and two of his fellow deserters crept toward the house. He scaled the fence, opened the bedroom door and shot McLemore. No one in the room could identify the attacker, though, and no one was ever charged with the murder. The Deason house is said to be haunted by McLemore to this day.

A week after the killing, the “Jones County Scouts,”as they came to be called, vowed to aid the United States government in defeating the Confederates and elected Knight as their captain. The “Scouts” eliminated Confederate authorities and anyone aiding the Confederate cause. According to The State of Jones, Lt. General Leonidas Pol labeled the Scouts “Southern Yankees” and ordered Gen. Dabney Maury to dispatch a unit of no less than 500 troops to descend on Jones County and clear out the guerrillas. Despite the efforts of Confederate forces, the Scouts’ resistance spread to the entire lower third of Mississippi: Jones, Jasper, Covington, Perry and Smith counties.

After reports of a Federalist flag flying over the courthouse, Col. Robert Lowry was chosen to deal with the Scouts. He arrived March 27, 1964, and the next day hung two Unionists who were left dangling in the trees until their wives came to cut them down. Several other men were arrested and held for trial. After weeks of hunting the group, 32 of Knight’s men died and 500 were arrested. Among the dead were his younger brother, Ben, and Nobe Coleman, a 13-year-old boy. To avoid execution, some of the prisoners rejoined the Confederate Army, though many were later reported as AWOL.

On July 12, the Union-controlled Natchez Courier reported that “the county of Jones, State of Mississippi, has seceded from the State and formed a Government of their own, both military and civil.” Ben Sumrall, interviewed in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), recalled that community support for the deserters was so great that “many more of the Confederate Soldiers [than deserters] were killed in trying to capture them.” In a letter to Gov. Clark, Col. William Brown, who was in Jones County in May of 1864, also called attention to the strong community support for the deserters. He noted the important role women played in the uprising. In an interview for the New Orleans Item, Newton said, “Those ladies sure helped us a lot.”

After the war, Knight was given the title of “Commissioner to Procure Relief for the Destitute.” He provided wagons full of bacon, beans, flour and salt to the starving citizens of Jones County. He was also deputized as a marshal to help deal with Ku Klux Klan violence and acquired a position as federal revenue collector. Knight and his allies successfully petitioned the state to restore the names of Jones County and Ellisville from Davis County and Leesburg, and he used his influence to successfully get the results of the Confederate elections from October 1864 discarded, arguing that the rebels had denied citizens the right to vote. Though he was respected by many, these titles made him more of a target for his enemies.

rachelKnight’s relationship with Rachel (pictured) also made him a clear mark for controversy. Rachel moved to Knight’s land to help him on the farm. He built her a cabin and gave her some acreage to work as her own. By this time, Rachel had a child with him named Martha Ann. Knight had also reunited with his wife, Serena, when she returned to the country, and she bore him two more children. In 1873, Knight proved to be a century ahead of the Civil Rights Movement with a campaign to organize and build an integrated school. By 1875, he would have five children with Rachel. In 1876, he retreated to his farm and deeded 160 acres of land to her.

The Knights began to intermarry in their compound, with Rachel’s son, Jeffrey, marrying Newton and Serena’s white daughter, Molly, and Newton’s eldest white son, Mat, marrying Rachel’s daughter, Fannie. Rachel died in 1899 and was buried in the Knight family graveyard. In 1900, when the Census Bureau visited the Knights, everyone who lived there was classified as black. Newton himself had officially become a Negro. He passed away on February 16, 1922 and was buried in the family graveyard near Rachel.

Knight’s motives and morals have been debated by every generation of Jones County since the Civil War. Some called him a villain or scalawag, while others thought him to be a misunderstood hero. Understanding Newton Knight and his band of anti-Confederate rebels proves to be a difficult but enlightening task, because without considering Newton and the Knight Company, one cannot fully understand Jones County or the Confederacy.

Photo Credits: Movie still from “The Free State of Jones” STX Entertainment. 

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17 COMMENTS
  • Georgia Boy / October 15, 2015

    A terrible article about egalitarian socialism and miscegenation. The “New South” is the modern day horror made manifest of communism and socialism. The Communist Manifesto was released in 1848 and this article champions the leveling “social justice” of Plebeians that work purports. I like the above phrase “The “Scouts” eliminated Confederate authorities and anyone aiding the Confederate cause.” Which is a polite and genteel way of saying ~ murdered. It seems White Southerner’s today are nothing more than socialist, Yankee abolitionists with soft, lilting drawls.
    Hosea 4:6

  • Coco / November 18, 2015

    In the mid-nineteenth century, a group of radical socialists known as the Forty-Eighters brought their views to the United States, seeking to change its government and society. These advocates of big government supported the ideologies of Abraham Lincoln and endorsed him as a presidential candidate and set the tone for today’s Leviathan government.
    Socialist and Communist Support for Lincoln and the War
    The fact that Marx was vigorously supportive of the Union is not a new revelation. The reason is simple. Marx sought the creation of a single, powerful and indivisible state to replace the multiple sovereign states that existed in Germany, the United States and elsewhere as a preliminary for the Communist revolution. As he wrote to his colleague Joseph Weydemeyer in the London Communist League (a future brigadier general in the Union Army!) about the situation in Germany in 1853:
    “The preliminaries of the proletarian revolution, the measures that prepare the battleground and clear the way for us, such as a single and indivisible republic, etc., things that we had to champion against the people whose natural, normal job it should have been to achieve or, at least, to demand them – all that is now convenu [taken for granted]”.
    What is amazing in Marx’s writings on the War Between the States is his sheer ignorance of the situation. He frequently makes major mistakes in some of the most basic facts, claiming “the South embraces more than three-quarters of the territory hitherto comprised by the Union”. He writes easily spotted falsehoods about the Confederate Constitution, the Confederate war effort and American history in general. I couldn’t help being reminded of the communist propaganda and hyperbole directed against their current obsession, Israel, today. But that’s for another post.
    Interestingly, Marx was hired by in the 1850’s to write for the New York Tribune by its managing editor Charles A. Dana. Dana had become a personal friend of Marx and Engels while reporting on Europe in 1848. Dana was an associate of the famous socialist and abolitionist Horace Greeley, and was sympathetic to many communist movements. He later became assistant secretary of war under Lincoln, the first communist, or at least communist sympathiser, to hold such a position.
    Communism and socialism (the terms were more interchangeable in the 19th Century) had a significant presence in the United States in the antebellum years. Numerous attempts at Utopian communistic communities sprang up, almost entirely in the North. These ranged from the religious-based, such as the Shakers and the Oneida Community, to more secular Owenite and Fourierist communal systems. These always failed, and within a short period (though the Shakers might have lasted much longer if they hadn’t banned marriage and sex). The ideologues within tended to be fanatically anti-Southern. The famous Brook Farm produced two notable officers to the Union Army: General Francis Channing Barlow and Colonel George Duncan Wells. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a well-known member of the Transcendental Club/Brook Farm group once stated: “If it cost ten years, and ten to recover the general prosperity, the destruction of the South is worth so much”.
    “The North, in particular the North’s driving force, the “Yankees” – that ethnocultural group who either lived in New England or migrated from there to upstate New York, northern and eastern Ohio, northern Indiana, and northern Illinois – had been swept by a new form of Protestantism. This was a fanatical and emotional neo-Puritanism driven by a fervent “postmillenialism” which held that as a precondition for the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, man must set up a thousand-year Kingdom of God on Earth.
    The Kingdom is to be a perfect society. In order to be perfect, of course, this Kingdom must be free of sin; sin, therefore, must be stamped out, and as quickly as possible. Moreover, if you didn’t try your darndest to stamp out sin by force you yourself would not be saved. It was very clear to these neo-Puritans that in order to stamp out sin, government, in the service of the saints, is the essential coercive instrument to perform this purgative task. As historians have summed up the views of all the most prominent of these millennialists, “government is God’s major instrument of salvation”…
    …If anti-slavery, prohibitionism, and anti-Catholicism were grounded in fanatical post-millennial Protestantism, the paternalistic big government required for this social program on the state and local levels led logically to a big government paternalism in national economic affairs. Whereas the Democratic Party in the 19th century was known as the “party of personal liberty,” of states’ rights, of minimal government, of free markets and free trade, the Republican Party was known as the “party of great moral ideas,” which amounted to the stamping-out of sin. On the economic level, the Republicans adopted the Whig program of statism and big government: protective tariffs, subsidies to big business, strong central government, large-scale public works, and cheap credit spurred by government.
    The Northern war against slavery partook of fanatical millennialist fervor, of a cheerful willingness to uproot institutions, to commit mayhem and mass murder, to plunder and loot and destroy, all in the name of high moral principle and the birth of a perfect world. The Yankee fanatics were veritable Patersonian humanitarians with the guillotine: the Anabaptists, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks of their era. This fanatical spirit of Northern aggression for an allegedly redeeming cause is summed up in the pseudo-Biblical and truly blasphemous verses of that quintessential Yankee Julia Ward Howe, in her so-called “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.”
    The Impact of 1848
    And now we come to the refugees of 1848. In the left-wing historian Theodore Draper’s book, The Roots of American Communism, the first Marxist socialists in the United States are said to be the exiled revolutionaries who arrived in the wake of the famous failed revolts of that year. When these radical socialists settled in America, they quickly resumed their old habits. Though their numbers were not large, historians such as Arnold Whitridge have written that “the influence of these few thousand refugees was out of all proportion to their numbers”. They would see the newly-founded Republican Party and the war against the South as a continuation of their revolution. Many became prominent in the German language press, founding or editing newspapers to recruit Germans to their cause. These men contrasted greatly with the peaceful and pious farmers that were the older generation of Germans.
    The socialists championed Lincoln as a working class hero, despite the fact he was a wealthy corporate lawyer, and were just as enthusiastic for John Fremont’s campaign in 1856. They had reason to admire the Republican Party. After all, Republican Senator John Sherman (brother of General Sherman) had stated the United States should “nationalize as much as possible [and thereby] make men love their country before their states”. During the War Between the States, it was Gen. Fremont’s camp that became a magnet for the radical socialists. Indeed, his chief of staff was a former Hungarian socialist revolutionary, Alexander Asboth.
    Other notable ‘Forty-Eighters’ in the Union Army include General August Willich, Louis Blenker, Gen. Weydemeyer (mentioned earlier) and Franz Sigel.
    Karl Marx described his friend Willich as a “communist with a heart”. He was a member of the Central Committe of the Communist League and referred to as the “Reddest of the Red”. Willich gave a speech in 1859 urging Northeners to “whet their sabers with the blood” of Southerners.
    Brigadier General Louis Blenker has the distinction of creating a new word that came into common usage during the war. This Forty-Eighter, due to having inadequate supplies from Union command, led his 10,000 man division to forage and loot from all over Virginia in the spring of 1862. The term “Blenkered” was applied to the unfortunate souls who had been victims of his German-American troops. Blenker became notorious for allegations of corruption in his camp and the lavish lifestyle he lived during the war (off the back of many stolen goods, of course).
    Gen. Joseph Weydemeyer was a close friend of Karl Marx, and a fellow member of the London Communist League. Marx assisted Wedemeyer in meeting Charles A. Dana, the communist sympathiser and future assistant secretary of war in Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Dana assisted him in producing various communist journals in the United States, as well as the first American edition of the Communist Manifesto. Weydemeyer was active in the Republican Party as well as both the Fremont and Lincoln Presidential campaigns.
    Franz Sigel had led a failed socialist uprising in Baden, Germany in 1848. His career in the Union Army was mixed. He is probably most known for the rout he took at the Battle of New Market. There, teenage cadets of the Virginia Military Institute (the oldest being barely 19) led a fateful charge that broke the Union line.
    Gen. Carl Shurz (pictured above) was an active participant in the unsuccessful socialist revolution of 1848 in Germany. Like thousands of others he sought asylum in America. Shurz obtained the rank of Major General in the Union Army. After the war, he served a s a Senator from Missouri and Secretary of the Interior in the Hayes administration. He became notorious for his treatment and neglect of the Indians in the Reservations system (which he helped fashion into effective Gulags). A Native American delegation were once so impressed by the size of his eyes and named him Mah-hah-Ich-hon, meaning ‘Big Eyes’. They wondered how a man with such large eyes was unable to see the needs of their people. His wife pioneered the kindergarten system.
    I have focused mostly on the Forty-Eighters of German extraction, perhaps unfairly. Hungary produced many of note, and one of the most interesting might just be Albin Francisco Schoepf. Schoepf was appointed to the rank of Brigadier General at the beginning of the war with the assistance of contacts in the War Department. Wounded at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, in 1862, he resigned his command yet surfaced six months later as the commander of Fort Delaware. Fort Delaware was one of the worst POW camps of the conflict. As one historian put it: “Schoepf allowed his subordinates unrestrained control inside the compound, and it eventually evolved into the most brutal POW institution in America”. Torture such as ‘thumb-hangings’ were a daily occurrence, and beatings were inflicted on prisoners to compel them into forced labour.
    So, these were the men who came to shoot at the grandsons of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry to teach them how to be good Americans.

    • Brad Cartner / June 26, 2016

      Excellent. Thank you.

      • You need a better education system / September 11, 2016

        Wow, some of you Americans really are stuck up your own arses. Are you so ignorantly ill informed that you believe such tripe because it’s wrapped in language that’s overblown and pseudo academic. So much effort in the post – it appears that “though doth protest too much”.
        Don’t you get it? Everything you write about has, at its very heart, fear. It’s as if you’re cowering in the dark like a little child screaming because of your fear of anything new, different or other. Perhaps, deep down, you fear yourselves?

      • Gersh Mayer / October 27, 2016

        Bottom line. The Confederacy was an effort to perpetuate and expand slavery and states’ rights was the vehicle to rationalize it. You don’t have to be a communist to .oppose slavery. You just about have to be a hypocrite to support it.

    • InsaneClowns / July 7, 2016

      BlahBlahBlah. You undoubtedly thoroughly impress yourselves.

  • TGR / June 8, 2016

    @Coco. You”really really crazy. Are you serious trying rationalize slavery? Are you attempting to rewrite history? Is the guilt of the actions of your forefathers weighing so heavily on you that you are seeking to wipe a little of the blood off of your family name? Face it. You’re not an English aristocrat. Feudalism is finished. Please by all means have several reality checks. This isn’t about independence, tradition, socialism, or Yankee Cultural imperialism. This is a cut and dry case of right and wrong. These deep southern confederates are a hateful, ignorant, and vile bunch; angry because the world has passed them by culturally, intellectually, and economically. Your comment boils down to “slavery wasn’t wrong”. To “robbery, murder, and greed are okay”

    • Dr. Gregory Clark / June 11, 2016

      Your comments are less than moronic.You really know absolutely nothing about the South. ignorance!

    • Joe / June 13, 2016

      You really want me to really say something politically incorrect? Well here it goes. Under Marxist theories, more people have been enslaved, tortured, and killed than in the whole history of the United States. I hope that undermines your precious pride.

    • jimmy6165 / June 23, 2016

      What coco wrote is easily verifiable. Mayans he tighten to reexamine your American historical beliefs with an open mind. I too, once believed what I was taught about the prevailing narrative concerning “the War”. I know better now.

  • Dana Whitney / June 21, 2016

    @TGR Umm … its clear a lot of people in “the dark South”, prefer to remain in denial about the past, for which reason the South will never rise again – or at least not in the foreseeable future. Don’t cast any pearls to these types. In fact they’ve obviously stirred waters that are far deeper than they know which are on the rise and will soon drown them and their descendants. Bring up socialism if they want to but the same God who is not mocked may not be inclined to be merciful to them in the coming time. I would stand clear of the lot of them if I were you. Them and their descendants. : )

    • Stogie / June 23, 2016

      You are the one who is in denial about the past. Slavery was begun in the the American colonies by Northern states, and was practiced exuberantly by Northern states after the American Revolution. New York and Rhode Island were hotbeds of slavery, importing and selling millions of African slaves. Your problem is that you are ignorant of history and the North’s enormous culpability in the institution of slavery. For every slave the Yankee slave traders sold to the South, they sold 20 more to foreign markets, so it could be reasonably argued that the North was even MORE responsible for slavery than was the South.

      You are the ones who have stirred deep waters, and you are the ones who will be drowned with the truth, a truth that will make the villainy and hypocrisy of your vile ancestors glaringly obvious for all the world to see.

      • badlass / July 13, 2017

        You sure can tell who the self-righteous, holier-than-thou, puritanical Yankees are on this blog, can’t you. Bless their hearts.

        I wonder if they know that Saint Lincoln didn’t free the northern slaves, just the southern ones?Or….that, once the north started industrialized, they sold their slaves to southern plantations, who were entrenched in farming, for a mighty fine profit? Or that, once those very same relatives of the stiff-necked ancestors of puritans had their thirty pieces of silver, slavery was outlawed in the south, thereby, leaving the south holding the proverbial bag?

        The more things change, the more they stay the same. Same attitude, same Yankees.

  • Benjamin David Steele / June 24, 2016

    There are some ignorant comments here. It’s almost funny. Do the inconvenient facts of history scare people that much?

  • Robert Lee Long, III / July 22, 2016

    As a white Mississippian, I grew up with the story of Newton Knight. It was barely mentioned in the school textbooks of my youth, authored by John K, Bettersworth, who, may God rest his soul, glossed over and glorified the so-called “Lost Cause.” My ancestor, Robert M. Long was a carpenter, and his family owned no slaves. Yet, he fought in the Confederacy as many did … I honor his memory and his personal story … he would suffer as a prisoner of war in a Northern prisoner of war camp for two and a half years … but morally, I have never and cannot ever support the enslavement of another human being … My grandmother would later march with Coretta Scott King and my grandfather, a white Methodist minister, spoke out against bigotry. I am proud to be a citizen of the United States of America and do not pine for a lost civilzation … Nonetheless, Northerners can’t understand the complexities of the “Southern thing” and perhaps they never will. As Faulkner said … “you can never understand it. You have to be born there… pardon, the pun, there are many different shades of gray to being a Southerner. Not everything, friends, is all black and white.

  • wingernew3 / July 22, 2016

    Always amazes me how many morons there are who want to argue who was responsible for slavery and who is guilty and who isn’t. Who cares? It happened a lifetime ago. Nobody alive now is guilty of anything. I am who I am, and should be judged on my acts, not what some jerkoff ancestor did. If you cant get passed that, go piss on somebody else’s leg, I have nothing for you!

    • No Name / September 25, 2016

      Agree it was some time ago.. but sadly as we all know those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it. There are still remnants of these type of beliefs and behaviors as seen in modern day news and the social/movie industry. – Until we are all truly equal- we should ALL CARE ! ! !

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