Archive for December, 2008

Newt Knight, leader of the Knight Company guerrilla band

Newt Knight, leader of the Knight Company guerrilla band

The question of whether or not Jones County seceded from the Confederacy has intrigued historians, folklorists, and ordinary folks for well over one hundred years. In 1886, G. Norton Galloway, a Northern historian of sorts, claimed that one “Nathan Knight” had headed up a local “confederacy” in Jones County, Mississippi, that had written its own constitution and proceeded to declare itself as having seceded from the nation founded on secession. It’s a great story, one that ranks right up there with Sojourner Truth’s “Arn’t I a Woman” speech for pure spine-chilling boldness and righteousness.

Well, Sojourner Truth did give an important speech at the Akron Women’s Rights Convention of 1851, but it was considerably less rousing than the legendary speech for which she is famous (see Nell Painter and  Carlton Mabee’s biographies). Likewise, Newt Knight DID lead an uprising against the Confederacy, but there is no evidence that he and his guerrilla band drew up documents of secession. In fact, as I documented in my book, The Free State of Jones, Newt himself, as well as his 1st Sgt., Jasper J. Collins, and Jasper’s son, Loren, all denied the myth of secession during their lifetimes. In separate interviews or publications, these three men made the same point: that it was their belief that Jones County had never left the Union in the first place. The county’s voters had elected an anti-secession delegate, John H. Powell, to the Mississippi State Convention of 1861. Under pressure by fire-eating delegates in Jackson, Powell caved in and voted for secession. That didn’t matter to Newt and Jasper (who was Powell’s own son-in-law!); as far as they were concerned, their delegate had no right to vote as he did, and they had no intention of following him out of the Union.

There is even more evidence that the legend of secession-within-secession is just that. In my upcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, I detail Newt Knight’s long, unsuccessful battle between 1870 and 1900 to gain compensation from the U.S. Government for the Knight Company’s service to the Union during the Civil War. The revealing depositions that accompanied Newt’s three separate petitions all tell the same story: the men of the Knight Company formed an ad hoc military unit in late 1863 for the purpose of remaining faithful to the Union. To this end, they had pledged their loyalty to the Union before a local magistrate. Significantly, not one of the Knight Company men ever mentioned any sort of “secession” from the Confederacy, only their determined effort to bring down the Confederate Army and restore the Union. Nor did the government’s lawyers ever ask them whether they had attempted secession. This, despite the fact that to claim secession–even attempted secession–could only have helped the Knight Company prove their Unionism and win compensation. But not one of them made such a claim. (For my post on Newt’s claim, click here.)

Screenwriters and novelists love dramas that offer a singular hero with a clear, bold plan of action. Historians love a good story, too, but their first commitment must be to the truth, with all its complicated twists and turns and sometimes unsatisfying conclusions. Besides, just as the real Sojourner Truth is every bit as remarkable as the legendary one, the Free State of Jones is one of the most exciting stories of the American Civil War; it needs no embellishment.

(for more on my view of Newt Knight, see “Why I wrote the Free State of Jones.”

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When I decided in 1976 to pursue a degree in U.S. history, studying the American Civil War was the furthest thought from my mind. All that changed, however, during a long bus ride to my parents’ home during Thanksgiving break as I passed the time reading an assigned Civil War text. In a section devoted to white Southerners who opposed the Confederacy, I noticed a curious footnote. Jones County, Mississippi, the authors noted, had allegedly seceded from the Confederacy in the midst of the war after declaring itself the “Free State of Jones.”

A Deep South county that seceded from the Confederacy? What was this, and why had I not heard about it, especially given that my own father was born in Jones County? In this moment, I began dimly to perceive that the practice of history might as easily refute time-worn images of the South as reinforce them.

In the case of Jones County, located in the piney woods of southeastern Mississippi, history had first to be rescued from the realms of legend, myth, and folklore. Thanks to novelists, moviemakers, and a longstanding family feud, the Jones County uprising had remained a living story, but with pro- and anti-Confederate members of the family each presenting their “side.” Those who opposed the Confederacy were alternately presented as a gang of marauding outlaws, or as unionist heroes protecting families from harm. What was the “true” story of this region? 

I was not prepared in 1976 to tackle so formidable a task. A junior in college, I had neither academic training nor funding. Still, I never abandoned my goal of researching the history of my father’s place of birth. Sixteen years later, as my first book (Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South) was being published, I began to investigate the “legend” of Jones County’s secession from the Confederacy. What I discovered during eight years of summer research trips, and after endless writing and rewriting, was a story that utterly confounded popular notions about a “Solid (white) South” that had supported the “Lost Cause” of a separate southern nation.

In December, 1860, Jones County voters expressed widespread opposition to southern secession by electing a pro-Union delegate, John Powell, to the Mississippi State Convention of January, 1861. At that convention, delegate Powell caved in to pressure and changed his vote to favor secession, outraging many folks back home. Confederate conscript laws passed the following year dictated that Jones County’s young men join the Army. Most did so, but many did not remain there long. The northern Mississippi battles of Iuka and Corinth, coupled with passage of the so-called “Twenty-Negro Law” in October 1962 (which provided military exemptions for the owners of twenty or more slaves), convinced many to leave the Army for good. Sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups, they straggled home.

Until the Confederacy organized troops to track down deserters, AWOL men merely resumed normal activities at home. But, as Confederate militia became active in the Jones County area, deserters from the region armed themselves and headed for the swamps. By late 1863, they had formally organized themselves, unanimously electing Newton Knight, a nonslaveholding farmer, as their captain, and naming their band the Knight Company. The Knight Company proceeded to wage war on the Confederacy.

By all accounts, “Captain” Newt Knight possessed a forceful, charismatic personality. Tall, eagle-eyed, and remarkably self-possessed, he had extensive family ties in the community and quickly rose to prominence among fellow deserters. Befitting the leader of a guerrilla band, he could be ruthless as well as charismatic. “Kill or be killed” was necessarily the motto of anti-Confederate guerrillas, who faced execution for treason if captured.

The cold-blooded murder of Major Amos McLemore, Jones County’s most powerful Confederate officer, is universally attributed to Newt, although he was never charged in court. By 1864, the Knight Company had crippled the government of Jones County, contributing to news reports of the county’s secession from the Confederacy.

There were many guerrilla bands that roamed the South during the Civil War. They commonly came from solid nonslaveholding majorities and drew on strong kinship ties and assistance from the civilian populations of their communities. Such factors were fundamental to the formation and survival of the Knight Company. Slaveholders were few, with slaves comprising only 12 percent of the county’s population, while the importance of family networks was demonstrated by the fact that twenty-six of fifty-five core members of the band shared six surnames.

Women and slaves were vital participants in Jones County’s inner civil war. In April, 1864, when Confederate Colonel Robert Lowry and his forces raided Jones County in search of deserters, they encountered fierce resistance from civilians as well as dissident soldiers. The Knight band’s female kin, as well as Newt Knight’s slave accomplice, Rachel, not only hid and fed the men, but also sprinkled red pepper and ground glass along the paths frequented by militia hounds who tracked down deserters.

Rachel’s alliance with Newt Knight bound her to him for the rest of her life. After the war, she gave birth to several light-skinned children reputed to have been fathered by him, and farmed ten acres of Newt’s 170 acres of land. By 1880, Rachel owned 126 acres of land adjoining the 320 acres owned by Newt. Together, the couple created a mixed-race community that endures to this day.

Although few would have predicted that Newt Knight’s crossing of the color line would be permanent, by war’s end, he had rejected southern racial mores altogether. Newt was active in Reconstruction politics until public knowledge of his interracial relationships made it impossible for him to win office. He also repeatedly petitioned the U.S. Government for wartime compensation for his Knight Company soldiers until those claims were once and for all rejected in 1900.

Rachel died in 1889 at age 49, but Newt lived to a ripe old age, remaining in his community and achieving legendary status in the process. He never repudiated his wartime behavior and rejected the New South’s glorification of the Confederate “Lost Cause.” Shortly before his death in 1922, an unrepentant Newt told reporter Meigs Frost, of the New Orleans Item, that “I guess we’ll all die guerrillas.”


Vikki Bynum

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There are many participants in the Free State of Jones that I wish I knew more about. One of them is Serena Knight, the white wife of Newt Knight. 

Serena is often forgotten in the rush to spotlight Newt’s interracial relationship with Rachel.  And, yet, Serena appears central to Newt’s decision to desert the Confederate Army; she was the mother of nine of his children. And she still lived with him in 1880, long after Rachel had begun to give birth to children believed to be fathered by her husband.

There was nothing unusual about Southern white men having sexual relations with black women, either forced or consensual, right under their wives’ noses, particularly before slavery was abolished. But Newt and Serena Knight’s post-Reconstruction interracial homestead was quite unusual. In 1878, two of their children, Matt and Mollie, married two of Rachel’s children, Fannie and Jeffrey. That made three interracial Knight unions that lived on the same land, although not in the same households. By 1880, these Knights constituted an interracial community that continued to grow over the years.

Interestingly, Serena left Newt’s household sometime between 1880 and 1900, yet did not vacate the Knight community even after several of her grown children married white partners and left.  Instead, she lived with her daughter Mollie and son-in-law Jeffrey (Rachel’s son) until her daughter’s death around 1917. Photographs indicate that even after Mollie’s death, Serena remained close to Jeffrey and her grandchildren. They were, after all, family.  Serena’s relationships over the years clearly suggest that she, as well as Newt, broke the social (if not sexual) rules of southern segregationist society.

But what about Serena and Newt’s personal relationship? Rachel died in 1889; what effect did her death have on them, particularly since Newt apparently fathered two children (Grace and Lessie) with Rachel’s daughter, Georgeanne, within five years of Rachel’s death?  Was that the final straw for Serena, the moment when she left their household forever?

Newt and Rachel may indeed have shared a great love for one another, as many believe. If so, it was a love fraught with consequences for others over the years: Newt’s white son Tom never got over the shame associated with his father and siblings crossing the color line; Newt’s multiracial great-grandson, Davis, was convicted of miscegenation in 1948 for marrying a white woman (the conviction was overturned); Newt’s grand-niece, Ethel Knight, published The Echo of the Black Horn in 1951 to dispel any notion that her branch of the family approved of either the Knight Company or Newt’s interracial relations.

But what about Serena? We probably know the least about the feelings of the wife who shared Newt’s household for decades, and remained in the Knight community long after she had left her philandering husband.

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I wrote the book Free State of Jones for professional and personal reasons. As both a historian and an individual, I am on the hunt for ordinary people who commit extraordinary acts. I am especially drawn to those who confront systems of power in unlikely ways alongside unlikely allies. In Civil War Jones County, Mississippi, deep in the so-called “solid” South, some 100 ordinary white farmers banded together to fight against the Confederate Army (a few of my distant kin were among them). Doing so earned them the label of outlaws. But outlaw means different things to different people. To pro-Confederate Mississippians, these were cowardly deserters. The core members of the Knight band, however, viewed themselves as principled Unionists. 

In my book, I struggled against writing a “Great Man” history; I did not want to portray Newt Knight as the “Rambo” of Jones County dissent. Rather, I dug deep into historical records from NC, SC, GA, and MS, to uncover the cultural and class roots of those families who contributed the greatest number of participants in the Jones County uprising. I emphasized how earlier historical events–for example, the American Revolution and the opening of the Southwestern frontier–shaped attitudes toward authority and government among these plain folks of the Old South.

The Civil War constituted a crisis of authority for many such Southerners, especially those who lived outside the plantation belt. Newt Knight did not singlehandedly create the Knight band, although he became its charismatic leader. By his own admission, the Civil War transformed his life and his character. Would Newt have developed an open relationship with his grandfather’s former slave, Rachel, one that led to creation of a mixed-race community that thrives today, had the war not erupted? Would he have become a New South Republican after the war? Like all important figures of history, Newt was as much shaped by his times as he in turn shaped them.  I hope that you are as fascinated by the history of this renegade county as I am. (On Newt Knight, see also “Did Jones County Secede From the Confederacy?”

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