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 corrective biographies of her). 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 United States government. 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.“