Today, the story of the Free State of Jones opens in theaters, starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight. The movie focuses on an unusual piece of Civil War history. During the Civil War, Newt led a band of Southern farmers from the Piney Woods region of southeastern Mississippi, in a rebellion against the Confederacy. Newt further fueled controversy after the war by marrying his grandfather’s former slave Rachel and fathering several children, in defiance of Mississippi anti-miscegeny laws.
Who was Newt?
Newton was the son of Albert Knight, whose father, John “Jackie” Knight, had moved the family from North Carolina to Georgia and then to Mississippi, where he first appears in the 1830 federal census of Covington County. The 1830 census showed that Jackie Knight owned 4 slaves at that time, but by 1860 that number had grown to 22, among them, Newt’s future wife Rachel.
By 1860, Newt had married Serena Turner and they had one son, George. He was a farmer with real estate valued at $800 and a personal estate valued at $300. His world was about to change though.
His grandfather Jackie died in 1861 and in his will, he dictates that “…to my son Jesse D. Knight I do Will and bequeath a certain negro boy named Jack and a certain negro woman named Rachel & Jeffrey her child.”
The inventory of his estate sale, which runs for 3 ½ pages, values the farmer’s holdings at more than $2,000. Newt was among the locals at the auction and he bought 2 spades and a shovel, as well as 1 cross cut saw and sundries.
By the time the executors had submitted the inventory, the Civil War was underway. A number of Knight family members served the Confederacy, including Newt who enlisted in the 8th Mississippi Infantry, Co. K, in August of 1861 for a one-year term.
In 1862, the Knights lost another family member when Newt’s father Albert passed away. In 1863, Albert’s brother Jesse, who had inherited Rachel, died of pneumonia while in the service of the Confederacy. Below is a page from his service record with the 27th Mississippi Infantry.
The Free State of Jones
With the passage of the Twenty-Negro Law in October 1862, men who owned 20 or more slaves were exempted from conscription in the Confederate Army. This angered smaller farmers who owned few or no slaves. The sentiment of “a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight” drove many to desert, including Newt Knight and others from the area around Jones County, Mississippi.
After making his way home and seeing the devastation that the war had brought to the area, Newt resolved to fight the Confederate forces who took food and supplies from residents, leaving them with little or nothing to eat.
Forming the Knight Company, he enlisted other Confederate deserters and even young teens. They waged guerilla warfare on Confederate troops and supply wagons, ducking in and out of the swamps to evade capture. At one point they raised the American flag on the courthouse in Ellisville, the county seat of Jones County, although it’s unclear whether they officially seceded from the Confederacy.
The Knight Company came to the attention of General William T. Sherman and they are mentioned in his correspondence with Major-General Halleck on 29 February 1864, as recorded in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Series 1 – Volume 32 (Part II), which can be found on the Making of America website.
Newton Knight continued to thumb his nose at the government after the war, taking Rachel as his wife and siring children with her. The Knights formed a bi-racial community that intermarried and lived in the area for decades after the war.
In 1920, Rachel’s daughter George Ann was able to bequeath land to her two daughters, and had already given her son land when he turned 21. She left him “my gun, my first looking glass, my old “Log Cabin” quilt, and a skirt I had when he was a baby.” Newton Knight is among the witnesses on her will.
Newton Knight died 16 February 1922 and is buried with Rachel in the Knight Cemetery. His tombstone inscription reads, “He lived for others.”