All too often history is distilled to its most rudimentary form. A narrative where one side is in the wrong and the other side is in the right is the easiest type of story to tell. It is that kind of thinking that reduces individuals to caricatures, their own personal beliefs being eclipsed by the need to simplify certain history.
In 1863, ninety-five native sons of Jones County, Miss., returned home after abandoning their posts in the Confederate States army. But, unlike many deserters, these men chose to fight back against the confederacy, who were, in their eyes, poor men fighting a rich man’s war. They hid out along the Leaf River launching guerrilla attacks on Confederate forces. Their wives, daughters and other family members supported their actions, supplying them with food and medical care. Of the soldiers who formed the company, only 11 members came from families that owned slaves.
The man chosen to lead them was Newton “Newt” Knight — a relatively poor farmer who owned no slaves. After the war he would leave his wife and marry Rachel Knight, a former slave who was once owned by his grandfather. He was a Southerner born and bred, yet he sided with the “Yankees” during both the war and reconstruction. Newt and the Knight Company became mythical in scope; and it’s easy to see why. The very idea that any sort of opposition to the confederacy could not only survive in the heart of Mississippi, but thrive captures the imagination. It is especially intriguing to a public raised learning the rhetoric of the Civil War.
In 1860, records show that just over 12 percent of the population in Jones County owned slaves, the lowest percentage in all of the state of Mississippi. The majority of landowners in the county had descended from journeyman farmers who had moved to the Mississippi territory in search of a better life. There were few aristocrats in Jones County to be found. Indeed, the majority of residents in Jones County were opposed to secession from the Union. This tended to be landowners who owned no slaves, and therefore would have no one to tend to their homes in the event of a war.
Newt’s grandfather John “Jackie” Knight was one of Jones county’s most successful landowners. At the time of his death, he owned 22 slaves. Newt’s father Albert Knight never owned any. Newt, like his father before him, lived in a modest home and made his living by farming.
When the Confederacy seceded from the Union, most men, Newt included, chose to enlist rather than be conscripted into service. This assured that they would be able to choose to serve alongside their neighbors and be relatively close to home rather than being shipped off to parts unknown. The motivations of the deserters vary. Horror stories telling of how ill-equipped the newly formed army was at supplying its soldiers with basic necessities abound. Some were motivated by stories from home complaining of failing crops and livestock wasting away while their owners fought for a cause many felt was not their own.
In 1862, the Twenty Slave Law was passed as a countermeasure to The Emancipation Proclamation. Fearing that slaves would openly defy their owners and flee en masse to the North, the Confederate Congress passed a law allowing that for every 20 slaves owned by a family, one male family member would be excused from service. This law showed favoritism towards the more wealthy members of the confederacy. For many men who already viewed the conflict as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” this was the last straw. Newt and several of his fellow Jones County soldiers fled home.
Soon after, CSA Maj. Amos McLemore was sent to Jones County in order to round up the deserters. There, he stayed in the Ellisville home of his friend Amos Deason, where he was shot in the back by one deserter (some accounts claim it was Newt) and died. The Deason Home has since been converted into a museum, and there have been reports of paranormal activity. According to several accounts, blood stains become visible in one room upon the anniversary of McLemore’s death. Years later, McLemore’s great-grandson Rudy Leverett wrote his own account. Leverett’s version of events was less than favorable toward the men held responsible for his great-grandfather’s murder.
This act of violence led to a series of attacks not only against the Knight Company, but also against the townships of Jones County. There were 14 known skirmishes between Confederate forces and the Knight Company, as well as several guerilla assaults on Confederate supply lines. These supplies were redistributed amongst the people of Jones County.
In 1935, Newt’s son Tom Knight wrote a dramatic retelling of his father’s time as the leader of the Knight Company. By all accounts, he painted his father in broad strokes, creating an idealized version of the man. This account was reinforced in 1943 by Historical novelist James Street in his novel “Taproots.” It told a similar account of the life story of Newt Knight and the Knight Company’s seceding from the confederacy. Five years later, the novel was turned into a film. Although the names had been changed in the novel, it was widely considered to be based on the life of Newt Knight. This increase in public awareness led to much speculation about the Knight family. Notably, while both versions of the story paint Newt as a hero, they only skim his relationship with Rachel Knight, and the other slaves who helped supply the Knight Company.
Ethel Knight, Newt’s great-niece, attempted to counter what she perceived as defamation of her family’s character, in her book “The Echo of the Black Horn.” Ethel’s take on the material exaggerated many aspects of her family’s history. She depicted Newt as a villain who bullied weak-willed men into following his orders, and the rest of her family as the very definition of Southern gentility. Her account flies in the face of the fact that the Knights were mostly poor farmers.
In her book “The Free State of Jones,” Victoria E. Bynum attempted to reconcile these contradictory interpretations of Newt Knight. Was he the Robin Hood-like figure his son would have you believe, or a dastardly traitor to the “lost cause” of the confederacy as some would like to believe? She found that the answer lies somewhere in between.
In his twilight years, Newt reflected on his decision to defy the social norms of his day, stating, “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.” He would go on to serve the Union Army during reconstruction, and he and Rachel had a family. The story of the Knight Company has once again captured the attention of the public. A film based on Bynum’s book is anticipated to hit theaters June 24. The Free State of Jones was directed by Gary Ross (director of The Hunger Games) and stars Matthew McConaughey.