The Free State of Jones

An Important Archival Discovery: 1864 Letter describes Free State of Jones

Newt Knight drawing

News flash:

While conducting Civil War research at the National Archives, historian Adam Domby recently discovered a letter from Chattanooga, Tennessee, that provides a striking contemporary description of Jones County deserters and their war on the Confederacy from the swamps of Piney Woods Mississippi.*

The letter, written by Union scout James Lamon,**  was forwarded on February 13, 1864, to the Chattanooga headquarters of Maj. Gen. John M. Palmer of the Union army.  In the course of describing behavior by both rebel and Unionist Southerners, Lamon veered from his original topic and shared a story told to him by an unnamed Confederate deserter:

A Rebel Soldier who recently deserted and came into our lines tells me that in the Tulahoma [Tallahoma] Swamps in Jones Co., Mississippi, there are some six hundred Deserters who are waiting for our forces to get near, so they can join them. They have deserted the Confederate cause and are determined to fight them to the last. All efforts from the Confederates to force them out have been unsuccessful and they are now offering a bounty to Deserters to join them.


This one short paragraph contains several nuggets of information on the history of Newt Knight and the Knight Company!

The letter’s date is highly significant. Mid-February, 1864, is just one month before Confederate Col. Henry Maury’s unsuccessful raid on Jones County, and just two months before Confederate Col. Robert Lowry’s crippling raid on the same; thus the letter confirms evidence of the Knight Company’s growing power and ambitious plans. These are the days and months in which the Knight Company reportedly held three public meetings, raised a federal flag over the Ellisville courthouse, and traveled down to Honey Island where its men boasted of being in contact with Yankees. (Bynum, Free State of Jones, pp. 110-129)

Lamon’s further description of Jones County deserters as “waiting for our forces to get near, so they can join them” corroborates Gen. William Sherman’s statement on 29 February 1864 that a “declaration of independence” had been issued by “certain people who are trying to avoid the Southern conscription, and lie out in the swamps. I promised them countenance and encouraged them to organization for mutual defense.” Both Sherman’s, and now Lamon’s, remarks are consistent with Jasper Collins’s 1895 testimony under oath that he traveled to Memphis and Vicksburg between March and July of 1864 seeking to unite the Knight Company with the Union army. (Bynum, Long Shadow of the Civil War, pp. 87-88)

The letter’s reference to “some six hundred deserters,” is the highest contemporary estimate I’ve seen to date; most estimates suggest an organization of 100 to 300 men. While we don’t know the exact number, we do know that the 55 men listed in Newt Knight’s 1870 roster is too low a number. Newt himself stated that he eliminated from the roster men “who did not hold true” to the band’s mission. We also know from Ed Payne’s painstaking research that over 200 men from the Mississippi Piney Woods fled to the Union army in New Orleans following Lowry’s April 1864 raid. The number 600 may be an exaggeration, or it may signify local deserter bands consolidating their forces in anticipation of fighting the Confederacy “to the last.”

My profound thanks to Adam Domby for spotting the above paragraph in James Lamon’s letter, and for copying and sending it on to me so that I could share it with you. When historians cooperate with one another, we all win. And so do our forebears. Newt Knight struggled unsuccessfully—for thirty years—to explain himself and his company of men to the U.S. Court of Claims. His voice is ever clearer thanks to this new document!

—Victoria Bynum


*James Lamon’s letter is in Box No. 1, Reports of Operations and Casualties Received, 1864, Intelligence Reports Received By General Thomas, 1863-65, Department of the Cumberland and Division and Department of Tennessee, 1862-70, Record Group 393 (U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920), Pt. 1

**Lamon was a Civil War Union scout who in 1864 reported the movements of Confederate troops in the Northern Georgia–Southern Tennessee corridor. See Military Intelligence during the Civil War: Provost Marshal Records on Spies, Scouts, Guides, and Detectives, Frame 0518, p. 43.


21 replies »

  1. Lucky to have a historian like Adam Domby, keeping his eyes open on military maneuvers in Jones Co. Ms. Just in time for the movie to come out, and confirming the record as a go along with. We will be about to watch the movie (Jun 2016), and see documents like this one that proved what happened.

    Got to luv those historians, good job.


    • The timing could not be better. I love this latest find….GREAT news!!!! Adam Domby has my heartfelt thanks…..

      Wow! And then some…


      • Vikky,

        Yes, great news and timing! And Adam’s willingness to take the time to copy and send the evidence . . .



    • Fannie,

      Because of Adam Domby’s historical expertise, our academic relationship, and, of course, the movie, he knew exactly what he’d found when he came upon that paragraph in James Lamon’s letter.

      I’m proud to have been one of the professors on his doctoral dissertation committee little more than a year ago. Adam produced a powerful study of Southern Civil War Unionism and Reconstruction under the direction of W. Fitzhugh Brundage. Our interests thus overlap, and we’ve kept in touch. I’m looking forward to reading the book that develops from his dissertation.



  2. Fascinating reading! While I am mostly a genealogist, I am a closet historian of sorts, and I love historical documents that validate what we’ve believed to be true. What a thrilling discovery!


    • I know just how you feel, Denessia, because I’m a historian who is a closet genealogist! I’m absolutely fascinated by kinship connections, to the point that I use kinship as a category of analysis, right along side class, race, and gender.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. When I was at the University of Michigan and doing research that was really considered post-grad research because of the professor who assigned it, I used to hate it. I spent hours and days in the state archives, then in a rundown old building, now in a nice complex that includes the State Historical Museum. It is also considered to be one of the top ten genealogical archives in the country. I got over my dislike of the research real fast when within ten minutes of scrolling through a reel of microfilm, I found the answer to a mystery that had plagued a local family for well over a century.

    I knew I was researching his next textbook as did everyone else in the class, a small seminar on writing history. The instructor was also my advisor and we knew each other fairly well. I was not surprised when he assigned the Michigan forest fires of 1871 and 1881 to me. Both involved the Thumb quite heavily, and that was where I grew up, although 71 started on the west side and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow got the blame for that one too because citizens insisted the ashes flew across Lake Michigan.

    I advertised for letters, diaries, anything families might have from those times in local history and one family contacted me that lived just a few miles from me but whose ancestors in 1871 had lived up on the lakeshore some distance away in a town that no longer existed, but the structure the family lived in did still exist as a bar and restaurant. Their family tragedy had been relatively public for decades in an off and on fashion. The family who had put their children into Lake Huron in a boat with a neighbor and their family stayed behind to fight the flames in 1871 and remarkably survived. The neighbors and all of the children were picked up by a Canadian vessel and taken to Ontario. They were not so fortunate. The five year old boy had died, probably from smoke inhalation. He was buried in the Ontario town that the family had been told the ship had put in to, Kincardine. For over a century the family and the descendants that followed tried to find this child’s grave and, of course, there were other dead taken ashore during that crisis.

    So there I was in grubby Lansing, in the government section of town, unaware I’d be working for that government several years in the future, feeling miserable and scrolling through a reel of microfilm from a newspaper that had to be ordered and there it was. That five year old boy, the one written about every five to ten years in many state papers, who had never been found, had indeed been put on a ship that put into Goderich, not terribly far from Kincardine. By the next evening, I had a phone call from the mayor himself confirming graves of unknown fire victims, including a child. It’s not a piece of paper but this was the thing that motivated me to look for Kate Hewitt, the missing fiancée of General John Reynolds. There’s always a paper trail somewhere and after my little book was published someone put into my hands a promissory note she had written at age nine for something to do with her education. It was only a few dollars but it was amazing.

    Sorry this is so long and rambling but these stories always stoke a chord with me and now I love the thrill of the chase and I hope to get back to it again soon.


    • Marian,

      “The thrill of the chase.” How well I know the feeling. We who love historical research spend long, tedious days in archives. Just one important find will keep us coming back again and again. And we find amazing things! But there are long, long stretches between many of those discoveries.



  4. This is indeed fascinating stuff, and given the negative reaction of the Jones county SCV to the recent Smithsonian Magazine article on Newt Knight, I dare say this bit of evidence should have them squirming uncomfortably.


  5. “A Rebel Soldier who recently deserted and came into our lines tells me…”

    -Second hand info from an unnamed source.

    “There was about 50 or 60 of us out here in Jones and Jasper counties. Later there was about 125 of us. Never any more.”

    -Newt Knight (interview), New Orleans Item, March 20, 1921


    • Good use of evidence, Border Ruffian! I’d forgotten about that quote from Newt himself. Convinces me more than ever that we’re probably seeing both exaggerated numbers AND the combining of various local bands as the confrontations grew fiercer. The formerly highest estimation of 300 might be accurate for this volatile period.



  6. There may have been 600 deserters in that region (I have read of other groups) but I don’t believe they ever joined forces.


  7. So, could Newt’s estimate of forces, post-war, have been a covert statement purposed to cover up the potential total of his actual numbers? I’m just bringing that question to bear because I’m a soldier and it’s what I would do – even after the shooting stopped I’d try to mask the total capability of my forces.
    Also, after the war, Newt could have limited his true numerical strength so that people wouldn’t dig too deeply and find out about all those who deserted – this could have been a way for him to protect his friends from any negative consequences. I know it all may seem a bit far-fetched, but soldiers keep the faith with one another even long after the fighting is over. I know this because of my deep connection with my brethren in arms from my service in Afghanistan. We circle the wagons around one another and will never utter any words that would cause them harm.
    Looking at the total potential population (we’ll never know accurate numbers of inhabitants of the Piney Woods region) of the area, and the numbers who enlisted versus the numbers of present effectives on muster rolls late war, one can easily see those Piney Woods men went somewhere, I think a number of 500-600 from the region is entirely within the realm of possibility.


  8. Hi! Vikki!. I have been away from history and genealogy for so long that I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw an ad on Fox about your “Jones County” movie about to be released. Wow! This is great news. Sonja and I will be among the first in Lakeland, Florida to grab tickets. I hope this note finds you and yours in good health and doing well. I so look forward to the release of the movie and to get back into my research. I have discovered the location of the burial sites of both of Sonja’s missing and unaccounted for Gr., Gr., Gr., “Thomas” Grand Parents since we last talked. I have also discovered more on her “Welborns of Jones County” family. I look forward to chatting with you about these sometime in the future. Best wishes for a great opening. Ken & Sonja Hughey, Lakeland, Fl.


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