If there?s one thing I love, it?s discovering a new, interesting, little known piece of history ? especially American history. Recently, I saw a trailer for the film, ?The Free State of Jones?. While I have yet to see the movie, I took it upon myself to research the inspiration for the story and I was amazed at what I discovered.
In rural southeast Mississippi lies Jones County. Founded in 1826, Jones County was a county made up primarily of small farms and rural homesteads when the American Civil War broke out. Among the residents of Jones County, Miss., was a man named Newton ?Newt? Knight, a farmer, hunter and all around man?s man.
Historians believe that Knight was taught to read and write by his mother at home, as there were no public schools for dirt farmers? children. He was the grandson of one of Jones County?s largest slaveholders before the Civil War, however his father, Albert, never owned slaves. Writings of both Knight and his father point to the two of them as being both morally and spiritually opposed to slavery, as they were both devout Christians.
After Mississippi lawmakers voted to succeed from the Union in 1861, Knight along with most of the able-bodied young men in Jones County, were enlisted in the Confederate Army. History will later show that the Confederate Army lost more men to desertion than to death, illness or injury. Among the chief reason, and certainly among the reasons that Knight himself eventually deserted, had to do with the Twenty Negro Law.
This act allowed large southern plantation owners to avoid military service if they owned 20 or more slaves. An additional family member was exempted from service for each additional 20 slaves owned by the planter. It was this vital piece of legislation that led many men in Knight?s position, who opposed slavery, to realize that the South?s involvement in the Civil War was irrevocably due to rich Southern elite?s desire for the continuation of slavery and nothing more. In fact, for poorer white Confederate men like Knight, who did not own slaves, the legislation would prove to contribute to the saying of the Confederate war effort being ?a rich man?s war, but a poor man?s fight.?
Knight reportedly deserted the Confederate Army in October of 1862. In early 1863, however, Knight was caught, arrested and tortured for desertion by the Confederate Army. To drive the point home, Confederate generals ordered Knight?s homestead and farm to be razed, effectively threatening the lives of Knight and his family as their sole livelihood came from their farmstead.
Despite the Confederate Army?s attempts to keep Knight in check, he deserted for a second time shortly after, this time taking a small group of Jones County men with him and retreating into the Jones County swamps where they could avoid detection.
Eventually, Knight and his band of deserters organized the Knight Company, which became a band of guerrilla fighters from Jones County and other surrounding counties, who wanted to protect the families and farms from Confederate authorities who were taking from local farms to keep the Confederate Army supplied. Local women and slaves were also admitted to the Company, and at its peak, historians believe that anywhere from 125 to 200 men were a part of the Knight Company, of which Knight himself led.
By the spring of 1864, the Confederate government in Jones County had been effectively overthrown. One piece of writing from the time described the conditions in Jones County, stating that the band of deserters were ?in open rebellion, defiant at the outset, proclaiming themselves ?Southern Yankees,? and resolved to resist by force of arms all efforts to capture them.?
By late 1864, Knight led the Company in a successful capture of a major county city, raised the U.S. flag over the courthouse in Jones County and declared the county?s independence from the Confederacy.
Finally, in 1864, the Civil War came to a close. After settling down to rebuild his home in Jones County, Knight entered into a common law marriage with a black woman named Rachel whom he had fought with in the Knight Company, as the two were not permitted to legally marry.
Knight was eventually called into service by the U.S. Army as a commissioner in charge of distributing food to the poor in the Jones County area and to rescue black children who were still being held in slavery in surrounding counties. Later, from 1867 to 1876, while Mississippi was under radical reconstruction, Knight became a supporter of the Republican Party. In 1872, he was appointed as a deputy U.S. Marshal for the Southern District to help maintain the still fragile democracy in the South.
At the time of his death, it was a crime for whites and blacks to be buried in the same cemetery within the State of Mississippi. However, in one final push for harmony, he requested to be buried beside Rachel in an all-black cemetery. The inscription on his tombstone, which still stands today reads, ?He Lived for Others.?
If there?s one thing that the legacy of Newt Knight can teach us it?s that no matter the circumstances, and no matter what odds are stacked against us, it?s always important to stand up for what?s just. Newt lived in a world where the consequences for his actions meant he could lose everything - including his life. But he understood, I think, that what he was fighting for was much bigger than himself.
Was Newt Knight a perfect man? Certainly not. But at his core he believed that all people, no matter their race, sex, religion or creed, are created equal under God, and that all men should be given the opportunity to live freely and with dignity.