Visitors to Renegade South often express interest in where Newt Knight and his band of deserters hid out during the Civil War; there’s even an essay devoted to the question on this blog. Recently, Jones County historian Ed Payne pointed out to me that a pretty good description of the location was provided by local citizen Ruby Huff during the 1930s. Huff was an unabashed admirer of the Knight Company, and I quoted liberally from her essay in my book, Free State of Jones, to demonstrate how vividly the story remained seared in the minds of local people.
Ruby Huff’s essay was part of the Works Projects Administration’s (WPA) historical research on Covington County, Mississippi. My thanks to Ed Payne for suggesting that I reprint it on Renegade South. The section that describes the location of “Deserters’ Den” is shaded below in green.
Vikki Bynum, Moderator
“A Skirmish – Cavalry versus Deserters – Where in Newt Knights men raid Lowrey’s Raiders”
By Mrs. Ruby Huff for the Works Progress Administration (WPA)
After the 20 Negro Act was passed, by the Confederacy, the men, to whom fighting (in so one side a struggle as the Civil War was) was abominable and seemingly very un-called for, became rebellious; therefore, after the damnable siege and slaughter at Vicksburg many officers, privates and younger recruits left the lines of battle to join a rank of men, who dare to rebel; these rebels were termed deserters, at many points in the south these men had haunts suitable for protection; because of this act of their desertion at so critical a period in the struggle enraged higher officers to the extent that orders were given to the cavalry to bring the men back or shoot them dead in their tracks.
Many skirmishes and drives were staged in Jones and Covington Counties because the notorious deserter leader, Newt Knight and his cohorts lived near the boundaries of these counties and the most outstanding hide out or secret haunt intersects the boundary between the two counties; this historical land mark (unorthodox) is known as Deserters’ Den Lake and is situated about .5 mile east of Leaf River (Reddoch’s Ferry) Bridge south of Highway 84; to the general public this unique natural feature is unknown, but in its course of time many a weird tale, many a heart rending sob and much beautiful bravery has centered around this particular protector. The lake is situated so the entrance faced the old Reddoch’s Ferry, another mark of history now so contritely in the background.
While in the reminiscent trend let me retell of a skirmish or drive that marked quite a turning point in General Lowrey’s * dare-devil squad of Cavalry men.
In May of ’65, the Cavalry under the leadership of General Lowery * decided to break camp at Jimmy Knight’s old mill which was located on the Etahoma part of Big Creek above Gitano, to gain trail back toward Raleigh, the County seat of Smith where a Confederate Divisional Headquarter and a hospital (now Harrison Hotel) were located; in order to get to Raleigh from their location in Jones, they had to sallie forth to Reddoch’s Ferry, be ferried across Leaf River, then cross Cohay at the old Jackson Trail Ford near Hot Coffee (bridge now in construction at the point on U.S. Highway #35).
The Cavalry had done much harm while encamped at the old mill in the way of robbing helpless widows of their last bit of “grub”, chasing down and slaying innocent men who knew nothing of the Deserters, too, of unmercifully hanging and slaying the Deserters without so much as giving them a chance to return to service or make explanation. This had enraged the Deserter Crew, so much that when the signal was given that Lowery’s bunch was crossing the ferry about fifty Deserters, who knew the lay of the land quite well, slipped hurriedly through the old Jackie Knight’s home field, swam to Cohay and rushed into secreted hiding places in and around the old Ford and when the tramp, tramp of the weary men in uniform about a thousand strong, neared the banks and ventured into the water one brave Deserter hollered “Newt here they air”, at which signal the Deserters shook the bushes and dispersed tumultuously into a panic and simultaneously Newt fired a few wild shots, the “rookus” was, so unexpected and so riotous the 1000 strong Cavalry did pretty much like ole’ sis’ cow in Uncle Remus’ tales “dey hist deir tales and away dey flewd.”
Sometimes this spirit of the South, gets so unsouthy as to want to clap my hands and say three cheers for the most daring troop that ever tramped the Southern soil—the Deserters
The Deserters were men, honest good and true men, who liked to live and let live as well as I or you. Men who were hounded in chase, like creatures of the lower animal race. No home, no church, no school could withhold The Cavalry from those ill-treated pioneers out in the cold. So refuge these much abused citizens did take, in the protecting arms of Mother Nature’s (Deserters’ Den) Lake.
*Huff was referring to Col. Robert Lowry
Categories: The Free State of Jones
Indeed, Ed Payne has been a terrific contributor to your ‘Renegade South’ blog. Thank you, Ed Payne of the mighty pen!
This essay written by WPA writer and local resident, Ruby Huff is, indeed, exceptional. (Bless her heart!) Indeed to read of events that led to the butchering and slaughtering of innocent Jones Co residents during this epochal period is a visceral experience. Today one cannot help but wince while reading Ms. Huff’s essay. So powerful! So very, very sad!
I value reading all of the comments/essays from your contributors, painful though many of them might be. I remain keenly aware of how vital it is to remember these historic events. I shall be forever grateful to the WPA writers and to those who shared their personal stories for the benefit of future generations. I owe a debt of thanks to many people…Ed Payne is one of them.
Vikki, thanks so much for making all of this possible. It’s no wonder that your speaking engagements continue to pile up. Word gets around…..
My very best,
Vikky (Wilburn) Anders in San Diego
Thanks, Vikky, for once again taking the time to comment!
You are so right about what a wonderful resource the WPA interviews and essays (most of which were never published) are for anyone who studies history. They are filled with stories–what today we call “oral history,” since many were based on interviews with local folks.
Of course, they must be used with great care, as they are filled with many inaccurate “facts,” and conflicting opinions about the same events (the Free State of Jones is an excellent example of both). But they are no less a resource for historians–it’s important to know what people believed, even when they got the facts wrong!
In writing the Free State of Jones, the unpublished WPA county histories (held at the state archives in Jackson) helped me to understand divergent popular views about the Knight Company, and also which families were likely to come down on which side of the Newt Knight-as-hero versus Newt Knight-as-outlaw debate.
A timely post from my perspective as I’ll be travelling to Jones/Covington in a couple of weeks to do some exploring with my father (who was born in Laurel) and my son. I agree with Mrs. Anders that Mrs. Huff’s essay evokes haunting images of the conflict that took place in the area.
Does anyone know if Reddoch’s Ferry was located at the the same point on the Leaf that Highway 84 crosses now? I have seen some information that suggests that as the location, but nothing I would hold as definitive. Based on the information in Ruby Huff’s essay, I would guess that if not there, Reddoch’s Ferry was not too far south of there.
On the 1992 Hot Coffee Quad map there are a couple of features that look as if they fit the bill for Deserter’s Den, as described by Mrs. Huff. Anyone know of other sources that discuss the location?
Rich, I’m glad to know this essay is helpful to you. I hope some of our readers who live in the Jones County area can answer your question about Reddoch’s Ferry. (I do have a photo of the Reddoch’s Ferry hwy sign that I took while my husband and I were traveling on Hwy 84 back in 1992)
I’m sure you and your son will have a great time exploring the area–good luck!
Thank you so much Vicki, for your follow-up on this part of Miss. history. My ancestors were in Newt’s army, and Newt’s brother married Patsy Corley. My maiden name is Corley. my Dad was raised on the Corley farm mentioned in your book, The Free State of Jones.
Isn’t it wonderful to know your ancestors participated in such a rich and important slice of Civil War history? I remember my amazement in learning that my Bynum ancestors participated on both sides of this inner civil war. Having been raised outside of Mississippi, I did not hear of the Free State of Jones until I saw a reference to it in a Civil War history book’s footnote.
Joyce my Grandfather was Lonnie Biff Corley and my Great Grandfather Hiram Corley. I would be interested in anything you could tell me about our ancestors.
Thanks for posting the WPA essay. I grew up in Laurel and was told as a kid that Devil’s Den was off a dirt road in Gitano, but it seems that most sources locate it somewhere south of the current Hwy 84 bridge and describe it either as an oxbow lake or (more fancifully) as a cave.
A 1930 map of the area – available at:
appears to show the Hwy 84 bridge in its current location. I understand Ms. Huff is saying there was a lake 1/2 mile east of that bridge on the south side of the highway. There’s no lake currently in that location, and I wonder if perhaps the lake in question was 1/2 mile east of Welch Landing and the now-gone Pitts Bridge which are discussed in your post from February 28, 2009, and in the excellent comments. There is an oxbow lake identified by google maps as “Horseshoe Lake” in that location (coordinates 31.663876,-89.375546), and it fits the description given by Judge Pickering in his book “A Price Too High,” where he states (p. 21): “Newt Knight’s band had a hideout between old oxbow-cypress lakes in the swamps of the Leaf River that borders my farm. People still call that area ‘Deserters Den.'”
Ethel Knight, who lived on Hwy 84, placed Deserters Den on the west side of the Leaf just downstream from Welch Landing. She described a small stream flowing into the Leaf cutting a ravine in a high bluff, and up the stream a short distance at its source is a cave that could accommodate a hundred men.
This description is similar to the description T. J. Knight gave of a hideout used by a different deserter band in western Jones County, which he located at “two miles above Myrick” at a big bluff on Mill Creek. That bluff, according to T. J. Knight, had a “big hole … large enough to accommodate seventy-five or a hundred men” (Life and Activities of Captain Newt Knight, p. 70). He claims they had “a place fixed up in there to cook and eat and sleep.” It’s possible Ethel and T. J. were describing the same hideout but that one or both were confused as to location.
The area of Jones County described by T. J. Knight, just east of Masonite Lake, is fairly flat and it’s hard to imagine a bluff of any size. The area described by Ethel Knight across the Leaf River from Cracker’s Neck is hilly by Jones County standards, although there are no recognized caves in the county and it seems unlikely that a formation of that size would go unnoticed. Still, the descriptions by both authors are specific enough that someone not afraid to wade through a creek or swamp could check the areas out.
Thank you, Dan, for such a complete and well-informed description of the Den’s likely location!