Saturday, April 23, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 23: Newt Knight and The Free State of Jones

One of my favorite stories from the Civil War is about the Free State of Jones, a county in Mississippi that supposedly seceded from the Confederacy and established a pro-Union opposition government led by a local man named Newt Knight.

Here is the account given in a Mississippi history high school text, Mississipppi: Conflict & Change (1974), James Loewen and Charles Sallis, editors.  (Charles Sallis was one of my undergraduate history professors.)

According to some sources, the citizens of Jones County met in the Ellisville courthouse and declared themselves independent of the Confederacy. They named their county "The Free State of Jones." Other sources state that the "Free State of Jones" was an exaggeration. They claim that the revolt involved only a minority of the white citizens of the county.

The  revolt was  led  by Newt  Knight. He was a  farmer and shoemaker and a Unionist who refused to serve in the Confederate army until he was drafted. Then he refused to fight and served as a hospital orderly. He went home when he heard of the abuses of the cavalry and the provisions of the "Twenty-Negro Law."

He organized a company of militia who united to protect each other's cornfields and to raid Confederate stores for arms and food. They tried to join the Union forces, but failed. Although two different Confederate forces hunted them in the spring of 1864, they survived and even voted openly in elections.

The story of Newt Knight and Jones County was picked up by journalists in the North and South, and became a source of great embarrassment. The Southern states had seceded from the Union; now they were in the position of denying the right of a county to secede from the Confederacy!

Newton Knight is one of my all-time heroes.  I don't know exactly what he personally thought about Andrew Jackson.  But he was a true Jacksonian democrat.  I considered naming this blog for Newt Knight instead of Old Hickory.

Except for the part implying that the county tried formally to secede from the Confederacy, the story as the Loewen and Sallis text relates it is substantially true.  Pro-Confederate sources naturally tried hard to  downplay the whole thing.  Because in the Lost Cause confabluation of history, white Southerners were united behind their new nation in a sectional battle that had nothing to do with slavery or rights for black people, no sirree, nothing at all to do with those things.

The "Twenty-Negro" law to which the quotation above refers was a law that exempted anyone who owned twenty or more human beings as property to be exempt from Confederate military conscription.  This caused a great deal of anger among ordinary whites because of the blatant class nature of the law.  The war was being fought at huge costs to preserve the planters' slave system, but the very planters who stood to benefit the most from achieving that goal were exempt from fighting for their new "country."

At least a couple of more recent book-length studies of this story have appeared:  Legend of the Free State of Jones (1984) by Rudy Leverett and The Free State of Jones: Missisissippi's Longest Civil War (2001) by Victoria Bynum.

There was also a novel by James Street called Tap Roots (1943) based on the Free State of Jones, which was made into a 1948 movie of the same name starring Van Heflin, Susan Hayward and Boris Karloff.  At least in the movie version, the county was rather bizarrely renamed to "Lebanon."

I haven't read Street's novel, and the movie was interesting to me as an historical-cultural artifact.  But I don't recall it as being very good when I saw it on TV once ten years or more ago.  Victoria Bynum's book is by far better researched (and considerably longer) than Leverett's.  Leverett, as the title of his book might imply, wound up pretty much dismissing the notion that Knight's band was anything much more than a bunch of Confederate deserters and criminals.  Leverett was also a direct descendant of Confederate Major Amos McLemore, who was assassinated, very likely by Knight himself, when he was in charge of a group of Confederate troops sent to suppress Kight's pro-Union guerrillas in Jones County.  Major McLemore is said to still haunt the house where he was killed.

Leverett's book is in line with the Lost Cause version of the war, particularly in denying any (Union-)patriotic or ideological motive to Knight's resistance movement.  Bynum's account,however, makes a much better attempt to cut through the Lost Cause mythmaking - I'm not sure Leverett made any such attempt - and shows that, though a wide variety of motives drove Confederate deserters and other supporters to Knight's band, political sympathy for the Union was definitely among them.  Writing about Knight himself, Bynum says:

Like other soldiers, Newt became increasingly frustrated with the Confederacy as personal hardships collided with political policies. As his hatred for the Confederate Army grew, frequent contact with the rnilitantly pro-Union Collins family strengthened his political and ideological opposition to the Confederacy. Economic distress, fears of death, and resentment of those who benefited from exemptions encouraged Newt and other men less ideologically driven than the Collinses to turn their backs on the army.

The following attempt by Bynum to provide a reality-based description of Newt's motives won't satisfy anyone who's looking for a comic-book version of the story.  But I'm a big Newt fan, and it doesn't diminish my admiration for him or for his pro-American-patriotic actions:

Judging from extant records and people's memories, it appears that Newt gradually developed a unionist stance born of personal experiences during the war that in turn stimulated his growing political consciousness. His own memories of the war, shared in 1921 with journalist Meigs Frost of the New Orleans Item, suggest as much. Newt told Frost that he and his men felt justified in deserting the Confederate Army because the majority of Jones County's voters had opposed secession. On December 20, 1860, he explained, the county's cooperationist candidate, John H. Powell (father-in-law of Jasper Collins), defeated the pro-secession candidate, merchant-slaveholder John M. Baylis, to become a delegate to the Mississippi state convention. Powell then betrayed his antisecessionist constituents. On January 9, 1861, after swift defeat of several ordinances that offered alternatives to secession, he joined the overwhelming majority of delegates and voted to secede from the Union. "Then next thing we knew," said Newt, "they were conscripting us. The rebels passed a law conscripting everybody between 18 and 35". They just came around with a squad of soldiers [and] took you." But, he maintained, "if they had a right to conscript me whenI didn't want to fight the Union, I had a right to quit when I got ready." To Newt's way of thinking, support for the Confederacy was entirely voluntary because the delegate Powell had failed to honor his constituents' position on secession [i.e. opposed to secession].

Newt's words do not clearly describe a unionist, although they suggest that he was a staunch believer in representative government and individual liberty (consistent with his father's and grandfather's resistance to evangelical discipline). Ben Sumrall's description of his grandfather Riley Collins, however, left no doubt of Collins's unionism. In the aftermath of secession, according to Sumrall, he "called a meeting at old Union church in Jones County where he made a great speech" condemning the "injustice" of secession. Collins urged the men of Jones to "not fight against the union," said Sumrall, "but if they had to fight [to] stay at home and fight for a cause in which they believed."

I'd have to say that Bynum seems to be a tad finicky when she says the opinion Newt expressed and that she quotes "do not clearly describe a unionist."  He opposed secession.  He opposed being required to fight for the Confederacy.  Or to use his own words, "I didn't want to fight the Union." He justified desertion from the Confederate Army because most of the local voters had opposed secession.

How much more Unionist did someone need to be to deserve the name?  We're talking about a guy who fought against the Confederacy, and justified his actions in the name of loyalty to the Union.  Compared to a lot of the mealy-mouth politicians who passed themselves off as anti-secession because they wanted to wait a few weeks longer until the Lincoln government rejected a number of impossible conditions they posed, Newt Knight had the American flag branded on his heart.

But overall, Bynum's account is very fair to Newt.  She also includes Newt Knight's postwar story, in which he lived in a mixed black-and-white settlement in a county adjoining Jones.  Not only was he a staunch Republican politically in the postwar period - in those days the Republicans were the champions of equal rights for blacks - but his living arrangements showed he didn't share the common racial attitudes of Mississippi whites, either.  Newt had both white and mixed-race (black and white) descendents.  The mixed-race members of the homestead where Newt and his neighbors lived became known as "white Negroes" or, to some white, "Knight's Negroes."  Apparently, a couple of Newt's white descendants married a couple of his mixed-blood descendents who were rather closer blood relations than might be thought proper for spouses.  (Some of those stories about Mississippi are true.)

Bynum gives a detailed account of the intricacies of Newt's kinship relations in this period.  And Davis' descendents were involved in race-related controversies throughout the segregation period.  One of his decendents was convicted in 1948 of "miscegenation" because he married a white woman.  In this instance, the state supreme court overturned the conviction not on any constitutional grounds but because they found the state had not established that the man had "one-eighth or more of Negro (or Mongolian) blood."

How did Newt and his pro-American band of resisters look to the Lost Cause advocates?  A very hostile account of his story was published in 1951 by Ethel Knight, a grandniece of Newt's, under the title Echo of the Black Horn.  Bynum desribes Ethel as an "avid segregationist who insisted that the South was in the midst of a holy war" in 1951, even before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.  Bynum's account of Ethel's book illustrates the way that devotion to the segregation system was strongly connected with the dishonest, ideological Lost Cause version of event related to the Civil War:

In spite of a growing number of historical works during the 1940s and 1950s that subjected the Myth of the Lost Cause to withering criticisms, she zealously asserted all of its chief tenets. Publishing The Echo of the Black Horn in the same year as C. Vann Woodward's pathbreaking Origins of the New South, Ethel successfully packaged the Free State of Jones in a straitjacket of Lost Cause sentimentality and indignation reminiscent of the publications of the Mississippi Historical Society.

Ethel's version of the Free State of Jones became the story primarily of one man: Newt Knight, a traitor not only to the Lost Cause but also to his own race. She even gained Tom Knight's [Newt's son by his white wife]endorsement of her version of his father's life by cleverly showcasing his bitter denunciation of his father's interracial relations in bold letters on the book's dust jacket. With God's help, Tom proclaimed, he had lived down "the disgrace and shame that my father heaped upon me when he went to the Niggers!" Since Tom was "soon to die," he authorized Ethel "to tell it all, the whole truth about my father." The cover of Ethel's book assured readers that even old Tom agreed that the truth must be told.

Although Tom Knight wasn't as open-minded on the racial issue as his father - and perhaps he was also embarassed by the marriage choices of his brother and sister (which raised that question about blood relations) - Bynum tells us that Tom's own book about his father, The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight and His Company and the "Free State of Jones County" (1935; revised 1946), "portrayed 'Captain Newt' as a principled Robin Hood who had defied the Confederacy and created the Free State of Jones in order to protect the community's women and children from its depredations."  Now that's a Southern heritage of which any patriotic American son could be proud!

Certainly for any Jacksonian democrat, Newt Knight is one of the unmistakable good guys of American history.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)


chadfhs said...

Growing up in Jones County the story of Newt Knight was one that often was not celebrated.  Jones County was embarrased by the fact that they seperated themselves from the confederacy.  Within the last fifteen years though, Jones County has seemed to celebrate its past and advertise the famous slogan "Free State of Jones!"


goldclaw83 said...

In my research of my Family Tree, I discovered that my gg-grandfather (John C. Holifield who was known as Cow John was a soldier in the 8th Mississippi(the Ellisville Invincibles) as well as most of my other relatives that served the Confederacy---Anyway I looked up the roster of men that served in that unit and saw the name Knewt Knight---So I believe that my ancestor knew ole Knewt---It said the unit was involved in several engagements with the yankees---I am not sure if Knewt took up arms against the union soldiers or when he deserted back to Jones County and hid in the Bluffs along the Leaf River---I always look at ole Knewt as the "Jonh Brown"(the abolitionist that was taken at Harper's Ferry ,Virginia by Robert E. Lee) of Jones County---The mixed children that he had --I think lived around SoSo and were called the Knight Niggers---These were the stories I heard from my Grandmother who was born in Ellisville----I think Knewt Knight was a traitor to the South myself-----for the simple reason that all my ancestors fought for the Confederacy and didn't own slaves---My email address is anyone wants to share some info with me,I will be glad to communicate with them----Van C. Lowe

tyrasmomkc said...

I am an African-American descendant of Newton Knight and I am proud of his stance against the confederacy and his progressive ideas on love and race.  Through research I have met many of my distant cousins, white and black.  I've had the opportunity to speak with author Vicky Bynum and be mentioned in her forward.  

I can recall being a child visiting the "country" as we called it, and seeing a picture of an older white man embossed in a plate.  I remember asking my great-aunt why she had that picture on her mantle.  It was then I learned of the various bloods that ran through my veins.  

Amazingly, I have learned that not only were we separated by race, Black Knights/White Knights, we were also separated by religion, Baptist/Seven Day Adventist.  

I am surprised and please that Newton's ideologically.  May his ideas live on...

K. Carter

bknightinc said...

It's Ironic to be surfing the WEB and see this article about my GreatX4 Grandfather Capt. Newton Knight. On July 15-17 in SOSO, Ms our family is have our Reunion. We will go clean the Cemetary where Newt is and fellowship with the other (white Knight negro) family members along with the Booth family which my grandfather Oree Knight married Eddress Booth. We have all the books and help extensively with the Bynum Book. Keep the Legacy Alive!

mmusgro said...

I recently began interviewing family members in an effort to trace my roots and Newt Knight was one of the first names mentioned to me. I grew up in Jones County and recently visited. In fact, it was during my last visit that I decided to start this research. I'm not sure yet what -- if any -- the connection is. But it should definitely be interesting.

rhndwal said...

I am Newton Knights 39 year old great-great grandaughter from Mississippi.  When I was growing up my grandfather would not even say the word night because he hated his grandfather so much.  My grandpa a a little boy when Newton died.

ajonesdal123 said...

My grandfather always told us that his father brought clothing, food, shoes and other necessities to his father and a group of "deserters" living in a cave on the Leif River in Mississippi. My grandfather was born in Ovett, Mississippi. My aunt, his daughter said she had his father's desertion papers from the Confederacy. My great-great grandfather was a shoemaker from Alabama. His surname was Jones.

ajonesdal123 said...

I would like to get any information or names of men who were part of Newt Knight's Company. My family owned no slaves and as I understand they helped the underground railroad before the Civil War. Anyone with information about the group, please contact me.

ajonesdal123 said...

I visited Ovett in 2001 and met with the game warden there who told me about the caves. I always thought they were not real but it confirms that what my grandfather said was true.

norcott466 said...

Newton Knight is my second great grand-father,I have a copy of the family "Knight", as well as a signed copy of prof Bynums book I was at the book signing at Texas State University, and a signrd copy of  " the echo of the Black Horn by Ethel Knight. I also have researched this with my brother, and we have our family tree with The Knights and the Welborns. Please feel free to e-mail me at or  aol im at norcott466

glcollins77 said...

I'm Gaston L Collins III, my g-g-g-grandfather was Jasper Collins - first liuetenant in Knight's Company. Jasper was sent (by Newt) to Vicksburg to meet with Union Gen. Hudson from Memphis. He returned with orders and instructions related to have been sworn in to the Union Army.

Knight, Jasper Collins, Welborns, Sumralls, and others played key roles in battles against the Confederacy.

In an interview with the New South newspaper in 1904 (mostly about Jasper being the oldest living Native of Jones County) Jasper Collins claims there is no truth to the story that Jones County seceeded from the Confederacy.

Many historians of this story would have people believe that this group of men were deserters because they were afraid to fight. Which isn't the case at all...

Jasper Collins goes on to say that many of the soldiers that served with himself and Newt served valiantly with the confederacy until the "twenty negroes" law was passed and many grew more opposed to the war.

According to census reports, my entire Collins pedigree, including Jasper, never owned a single slave. Jasper married into a semi-wealthy slaveholding family (John H. Powell - mentioned above), but his family never owned any.

His father-in-law, John H. Powell was elected to vote against a secession from the Union. John voted against it first and soon after voted for ithe secession of MS from the Union. I believe he was hanged by the people of Jones County when he returned home - more proof on top of what I've mentioned that the Knights, Collins, Wellborns, Sumralls and other so-called "deserters" were on the right side of the war and history.

It wasn't (and still isn't) popular to believe that the confederacy was on the wrong side of history and human rights. Many people were disgraced by Newt Knight, Jasper Collins and the others because to many people, it's still the same old South. Many beliefs remain the same as they always have.

Gaston L Col

sctthadaway said...

I am a Greatxxx Grandson of Newt Knight.  My Aunt wrote, Echo of the Blackhorn and cleary, this is one of my favorite stories.  I am blown away to see so many people on the web relaying the story.  Dickie Knight is also in my family tree but I honestly can't remember how.

samarafreemark said...


My name is Samara. I'm a journalist for National Public Radio, and I'm working on a story about the Free State of Jones. I'm trying to get in touch with descendants of people who lived in the county in the 1860s, especially people descended from the Kinghts.

If any descendants are out there, please contact me. You can email me at, or call me at 212-533-5247.

Thanks so much!

All the best,

strawberrypope said...

I am a decendent of Andy Knight. I grew up in Soso, Ms, and learned of my connection to Newt Knight years ago. I presently live in SC. Today a visiting minister, Dr. Carolyn Knight spoke at my church. She spoke of a book about John Knight. I knew of Newt Knight and the books "Echo of the Black Horn" and "The Free State of Jones". You never know who you're going to run in to that's a part of your Knight family-Black or White.  I attend the reunions in Soso, and I have visited the cemetery of my ancestors. I have enjoyed reading all of the comments.

bmiller224 said...

Thanks to everyone who has commented here. This post has generated continuing interest and some of the most interesting comments of any of my posts.  AOL is closing its AOL Journals feature as of 10/31/08 and all posts will be erased. For anyone who might see this before that time, I have transferred this post and its comments to my blog's current location at Blogspot.  The address there for this post is: