5 Quick Questions About: The Free State of Jones
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HNN's 5 Quick Questions gives readers a brief background on hot topics in the news. In this edition historian Victoria E. Bynum tells us the real story behind Matthew McConaughey’s new movie, Free State of Jones. Bynum is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Texas State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South and The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. Her book, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War, chronicles the life of Newt Knight and the fellow rebels who denounced the Confederacy and declared allegiance to the Union. In this interview, Bynum discusses Knight’s motivation to rebel and what he was able to accomplish during and after the Civil War.
Victoria Bynum: For many years, the term “Free State of Jones” has been used to designate the Jones County uprising against the Confederacy that took place in Mississippi between 1863 until 1865. It refers particularly to the period from between February-April 1864, when Knight Company deserters were described as having taken over Jones County, leaving it “free” of civil (Confederate) government.
The phrase itself is said to have originated around the time the county was founded (1826) because of its “freedom” from all but a rudimentary government.
2. What motivated Newton Knight to rebel against the Confederacy?
In his 1895 deposition to Congress in support of his compensation claim, Newt Knight claimed that he opposed secession before the war and that he voted for his county’s anti-secession delegate. In a 1921 interview with Meigs Frost of the New Orleans Item, Newt reiterated that he supported the Union before the war began. A reluctant soldier according to his testimony, he cited passage of the Twenty-Negro Law as convincing him to desert once and for all this “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.”
Newt’s son, Tom Knight, cited personal motives as well as Unionism for Newt’s desertion. Tom claimed that Newt’s brother-in-law was abusing his family, and that Newt’s wife, Serena, had written Newt to tell him that the brother-in-law had given their only horse to the Confederacy.
It’s likely that both political and personal reasons motivated Newt to desert. Voters in Jones County elected a cooperationist delegate to the Mississippi secession convention. Military records confirm that Newt deserted directly following the battle of Corinth and passage of the Twenty-Negro law, as he claimed. There are also corroborating (published, but undocumented) claims that Newt murdered his brother-in-law for passing information about deserters to local Confederate authorities.
3. What damage did Knight do to the infrastructure of Jones County, Mississippi?
Official letters and reports among Confederate officers indicate that by early 1864, Jones County deserters, estimated variously at 300, 500, and 1,000 men strong, had seized control of Jones County’s government. They were reported to have chased tax officials out of town and to have killed several Confederate officials.
Even after the devastating raid by Col. Robert Lowry in mid-April 1864, during which many Knight Company men fled to the Union in New Orleans after other band members were executed or forced back into the Confederate Army, deserters were still feared by Jones County officials. In June, 1864, Ellisville enrolling officer B. C. Duckworth described them to Gov. Clark as “thinned out,” thanks to the Confederate raid, but also stated that “We have not had a Justice Court Since the war commenced and if a man is found dead, the civil authorities pays no attention to it any more than if it was a dog.” Duckworth’s continued fear of deserters was expressed in his final sentence:
“. . . . Retain the contents [of this letter] as I am in a settlement that I am afraid to speak my sentiments on the account of the Deserters.”
4. In the movie we see slaves join his rebellion, but was Knight a supporter of abolition?
Several Jones County Knights, beginning with patriarch John “Jackie” Knight, were slaveholders. Newt’s father Albert, however, refused to own slaves, and Newt followed suit. In an obvious reference to him, Anna Knight, a younger member of Newt’s mixed-race family, wrote in 1951 that her grandmother (Rachel) and family “went with one of the younger Knights (Newt) who did not believe in slavery.” There is no evidence, however, that Newt publicly supported the abolition of slavery before or during the Civil War.
Newt Knight’s views on slavery seemed to have evolved over time. Around 1892, he credited northern abolitionists with stimulating the South’s “common people” to steal slaves and lead them to freedom via the Underground Railroad. He did not include himself as one who participated in the Underground Railroad, but in hindsight wished that nonslaveholding farmers had risen up and killed the slaveholders rather than be “tricked” into fighting their war.
5. What became of him after the Civil War?
Newt Knight remained politically active for about twenty years after the Civil War. In late 1865, he was appointed relief commissioner for the destitute of Jones County. Within that position, he carried out several tasks assigned by U.S. military officers that thwarted the power of local pro-Confederate citizens.
On July 6, 1872, under the administration of Republican Governor Adelbert Ames, Newt was appointed deputy U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Mississippi. On March 18, 1875, Gov. Ames appointed him Colonel of the 1st [Colored] Regiment Infantry of Jasper County. Newt’s last documented political appointment was in 1884 as a supervisor of elections for Albritton’s precinct, Jasper County, MS.
Between 1870 and 1900, Newt unsuccessfully filed several claims for federal compensation on behalf of himself and 54 members of the Knight Company for their wartime service to the Union. Gov. Adelbert Ames and Republican Senator Blanche K. Bruce, among others, supported his claims before Congress.
Until his death in 1922, Newt continued to farm and tend to his ever-growing family. Around 1908, he contributed land to the building of a private school for his descendants, who were forbidden by law to attend white public schools.