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.
Jones 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.
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, 1864, 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.
Knight’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.