The Free State of Jones

Did Jones County Secede from the Confederacy?

Newt Knight, leader of the Knight Company guerrilla band

Newt Knight, leader of the Knight Company guerrilla band

By Vikki Bynum


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 wrote 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. They have the luxury—and often feel the necessity—of presenting plausible scenes as well as factual ones. 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, for those who love history, the Free State of Jones is one of the most exciting stories of the American Civil War and needs no embellishment.

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

7 replies »

  1. My name is Jim Brashier, I founded a politically active conservative Facebook group a few years ago called “FREEDOM TO SPEAK”. The Brashiers and our cousins the Dedwylders have ancestors that were connected with the Jonesians and Folks in Enterprise.
    My main concern is the film remaining true to the facts and not twisting your words into a liberal racial divisive propaganda piece. Can you please give us a little hope on this point. Thank you Mam.

    • Hello Jim, welcome to Renegade South.

      First, the movie The Free State of Jones is not based on any one book, including my own. Its screenplay is original, but driven by solid documentation. That said, all films, even those based on true stories, must employ creative license to recreate a plausible, likely, and entertaining story in the space of a few hours. Such license includes invented dialogue, composite characters, compressed time frames and events, etc. This process is not a matter of either “conservative” or “liberal” propaganda; it is the way in which long, complicated stories are transferred from books to movie screens. A movie is not a documentary; it is a creative retelling of a fictional work or an event of history.

      Second, filmmakers, like authors, must interpret a historical event according to their best judgment. Your concern is that the film will be a “liberal racial divisive propaganda piece.” I find your words quite vague, but whatever they mean to you, you will have to judge for yourself, and love or hate the movie accordingly. Others may find the very same film inspiring, uplifting, informative, and truthful. So it has ever been—one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. It’s a movie—a true story brought to the screen—and those who want a more detailed, more factually-based version of that story need only turn to their favorite bookstore.


  2. Jim Brashier,
    Descendant . Did you get assurances of any kind that Holly wood would not use their script and artistic freedom to turn your book into a political statement. Mississippi still suffers fro left of center revisionism.

    • Jim,

      No, I did not ask for “assurances” that Hollywood would not turn my book into a “political statement”. My book is itself a political statement, as all history is political.


  3. Jim, My wives Great, great, Grandfather who was a Foot Soldier in the Civil War from Stanley Co North Carolina would have said “That’s Bull Shit”…I ain’t Political, I’m here to DEFEND the SOUTH!
    And Hollywood can Go to HELL”

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