The Free State of Jones

Tracing South Mississippi’s Inner Civil War through Documents.

By Vikki Bynum

Newt Knight by VB

Newt Knight by VB

Discussions of the Mississippi insurrection popularly called the “Free State of Jones” often begin with questions like, “Was Newt Knight a traitor or a patriot?” or, “Was Newt Knight a villain or a hero?” Yet, while catchy phrases generate animated conversations, even heated arguments, they rarely lead to a greater understanding of what actually happened in Civil War Jones County and why.

One reason such questions are of limited value is because the Free State of Jones was not simply Newt Knight’s war. Rather, it was a community war.

Having led one of the many anti-Confederate insurrections that erupted throughout the South during the Civil War, Newt Knight is an important historical figure regardless of whether one admires or disdains him. Even more important, the internal rebellions in which he and others fought tell a deeper, broader story of a divided white South than one man’s story can ever provide.

That’s why Renegade South addresses inner civil wars from southeast to southwest. Home front wars were as deadly as the national war that spawned them, and should not be viewed as mere protest movements, or efforts to reform Confederate policy, though those occurred as well. These were bloody armed conflicts in which participants adhered to the maxim, “kill—or be killed.”


Opposing interests of life and death were at stake in local wars. Confederate leaders were determined to fight to the end to prevent the destruction of slavery that was threatened by the rise of the Republican party and the election of Abraham Lincoln (if you doubt this, please read Mississippi’s declaration of support for secession). Anti-Confederate guerrillas increasingly refused to risk lives, farms, and families for a cause they either opposed, or which meant little to them. As the war dragged on, many of these inner wars widened beyond county borders.

Jones County, Mississippi, where slaves constituted only 12.2 percent of the population, was prime for such an inner war. Here, sentiments against fighting a “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” ran high.

Since creating this blog late in 2008, I’ve been assisted by many individual researchers (most recently, Jeff Giambrone) who have shared their findings with me. The documents they’ve provided have increased our knowledge of the inner civil wars that raged throughout Mississippi’s southern half between 1863-1865. Numerous deserter bands roamed the piney woods and gulf regions of the state, spilling over the borders of neighboring states. Likely, these bands joined forces with one another at crucial junctures, particularly during the crucial months between January and April, 1864.

Several of the documents that follow have appeared in other posts, or in books, mine included. Here, however, we see them together, and in chronological order.

The first is a citizens’ petition, signed and sent in late January 1864 to Governor Charles Clark. Note the petitioners’ estimate of at least 300 deserters in Jones County, and their statement that deserters were procuring ammunition from “the coast of this state”:

civil-war-deserter-1861-grangerMississippi, Jany. 28/64

To His Excellency Govr. Charles Clark –

The undersigned citizens of the S.E. part of Smith Co. & of the S.W. part of Jasper Co., respectfully represent to your excellency that they have good reason for believing that there are at least 300 deserters in Jones County & some few in Smith & Jasper; that there is reason to believe that they get ammunition on the coast of this state; that they are compelling good & true men to leave Jones County; that they have recently taken by force much valuable property from H. Horsey, B. Rogers & others living in Jasper Co., near the Jones Co. line; & that unless a strong force is soon sent for our protection many, or all of us will be plundered of our moveable property.

Arick Coleman, E.P. Noble, (?) Gowen, (?) O’Neil, John Young, Jesse Vanzyke, Isaac Anderson, L.H. Smith, Mary A.L. Noble, J. Agee

[Charles Clark Correspondence, Series 768, Box 949, Folder 3, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Courtesy of Jeff Giambrone]

Barely ten days later, Governor Clark received the following letter of concern from Perry County sheriff, G. W. Bradley. Bolded sections below denote Sheriff Bradley’s descriptions of depredations committed by Confederate cavalry sent to the region to arrest deserters. In providing specific details of a deserter take-over of local government, he emphasized that the deserters robbing and pillaging was mainly aimed at citizens loyal to the Confederacy:

civil-war-deserter-1861-grangerAugusta, Perry Co., Miss., February 8, 1864

To his Excellency Governor Charles Clark of the State of Mississippi


I think the condition of things in this county require me as the highest civil officer of the county to report to you hoping there may be some relief offered. The State & County taxes are now due & it will be at the risk of my life to collect. The deserters have already threatened my life because I have done what I conceived to be my duty as an officer & loyal citizen of the county. There has been soldiers sent here for the purpose of arresting deserters & forwarding them to their commands, but they are doing but little or no good – they prowl through the county frolicking & stealing too much – there is no discipline or order among them every one doth very near as he pleases. Some officers have done their duty so far as was in their power, but the commander of the post is wholy incompetent for the impossible position. He is a fine man and no doubt he does his best, but I am satisfied things could have been managed much better than they have in this county. The cavalry have been suffered to break their horses down a riding through the county a frolicking & stealing & in addition to all the civil laws of this state have been trampled under foot by military power which has had a very demoralizing effect upon the minds of the citizens. The citizens know not where to apply to have their rights protected, not long since the commander of the post here furnished a commissary with a file of men to force property out of my possession that I had _____ on by virtue of an attachment. The soldiers have eat out the county & the wives & children of some volunteer soldiers are likely to suffer for the want of the necessarys of life. This country is very poor when all the men were at home they hardly made support. I will venture to say that there are more deserters in this county today than was here when the cavalry came here & they are in formidable gangs a doing mischief. They are burning & destroying the property of all loyal citizens. Such as will not sympathize with them, if there is not a change soon the deserters will kill & burn out every loyal citizen in the country. They have already killed & scared citizens for piloting the cavalry. My private opinion is that the commander wants to prolong his time here causes him to remain so inactive. The above fact can be established by every respectable citizen of the county.

Very Respectfully,

Your obst.,

G.W. Bradley, Sheriff

[Charles Clark Correspondence, Series 768, Box 949, Folder 4, MDAH. Courtesy of Jeff Giambrone.]

On the same day, from Raleigh in Smith County, former Confederate soldier W. H. Hardy likewise described to Governor Clark the growing power of deserters. Like Sheriff Bradley of Perry County, Hardy acknowledged the inefficiency of Confederate cavalry assigned to the region, but unlike Bradley, did not accuse them of abusing or plundering the local citizenry. Note also that Hardy, like the January 28 petitioners, implored Gov. Clark to send troops, specifically, “one or two hundred well mounted [cavalry] under some efficient officer to five of Mississippi’s southern counties, including Jones.

civil-war-deserter-1861-grangerRaleigh, Smith County, Miss., Feby. 8th 1864

To His Excellency, Gov. Charles Clark –

Dear General,

I address you in this familiar style as my old commander who gave me my first instruction as a soldier at Corinth Miss., in 1861.

The object of this communication is to inform you of the formidable character which the bands of deserters in this section of the state are beginning to assume. They are in strong force supposed to be about 200 or 300 in Jones County and the smaller bandits through the country have conferred with these and confederating for mutual protection and depredation they have become quite bold and in some sections of the country have so intimidated the people that to save themselves and their property from depredation and pillage they are beginning to give them aid and comfort, and I perceive now a spirit of this find beginning to pervade the people to such an extent that almost every man now is afraid to say anything against the deserters for fear of some private injury and unless it is checked all law and order will soon be suspended and every loyal man driven out of the country.

There is now in this town a respectable citizen who was driven from Jones County all his property destroyed & because he was a true and loyal citizen last week the Rev. Mr. Carlile a Baptist minister in the south western part of Jasper County was brutally murdered in his house by them. The Rev. Wilson West was yesterday with his family given notice to quit the country or that he shall suffer the fate of Mr. Carlile – all last week. A bunch of them sacked several houses in Trenton of all their arms and ammunition, and subsequently whipped a small band of cavalry belonging to Capt. McLean’s Co., who had been sent in pursuit.

Here I will remark that the cavalry stationed in this country to apprehend deserters are very inefficient they never interfered with anyone except a sick or discharged soldier or some man who doesn’t try to evade them.

Having given you the facts General I know you will be able to ascertain how to remedy the evil, but allow me to suggest a plan – send one or two hundred well mounted under some efficient officer with instructions to impress every man liable to militia duty into the ranks of his command in the counties of Smith, Scott, Newton, and Jasper & Jones Counties; and with this command to scour the country until every rascal is caught and hung – I think the people will readily join a command of this character for their own protection having it as an organized nucleus around which to rally if not then they deserve to be pillaged by these outlaws.

Your obedient servant,

W.H. Hardy, Formerly Capt. In 16th/Miss.

[Charles Clark Correspondence, Series 768, Box 949, Folder 4, MDAH. Courtesy of Jeff Giambrone.]

On February 13, 1864, just five days after Sheriff Bradley and W. H. Hardy wrote their letters to Governor Clark, Maj. Gen. John M. Palmer of the Chattanooga headquarters of the Union army received the following intelligence from Union scout, James Lamon:

civil-war-deserter-1861-grangerA 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.


[Letter of James Lamon, 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. Courtesy of Adam Domby.]

Taken at face value, the scout’s estimate of 600 deserters suggests that the number of deserters in the Jones County region had doubled in the space of two weeks! Perhaps the scout exaggerated. Or perhaps separate deserter bands were joining forces across county lines in hopes that a Union victory was near.

There’s plenty of evidence to support a theory of collaboration—not only among deserter bands, but between deserters and slaves. For example, on March 8, 1864, Captain A. F. Ramsey of Co A, 3rd Mississippi Volunteers, reported that about fifty deserters in Jones and Perry counties bragged that:

civil-war-deserter-1861-grangerthey were in regular communication with the Yankees, were fighting for the Union, and would have peace or hell by August. They told the negroes they were free. [Quoted in Rudy Leverett, Legend of the Free State of Jones, p. 74]

Just two days earlier, Lieut. W. C. Parsons of the 12th Louisiana Regiment reported that deserters in Jones County had been reported as high as “five or six hundred;” Parsons himself estimated the number to be closer to 150-250. Still, he wrote,

civil-war-deserter-1861-grangerThey have killed several citizens, and eight men belonging to our forces sent there to arrest them. From their being well-armed and having plenty of ammunition, it is supposed they are in communication with enemy at Honey Island, near the mouth of the Pearl River. [Quoted in Leverett, Legend of the Free State of Jones, p. 75]

It’s important to note that Newt Knight is not mentioned by name in the above reports and letters. In fact, the Perry County deserters mentioned by Capt. Ramsey and Lieut. Parsons are referred to as the Edwards/Landrum band, further suggesting that various bands interacted with one another during critical periods of the war to bring down the Confederacy.

Between March 2 and March 11, 1864, Jones County deserters were under attack by Colonel Henry Maury’s forces, who hanged three deserters and captured some twelve more. Maury estimated the county’s deserter numbers at about 150, but commented that other deserters had come over “from Perry and Covington [counties] to help whip the cavalry.”  Col. Maury claimed he had defeated the men, although “a few will have to be hunted out with dogs.” Interestingly, Newt Knight’s name does not appear in correspondence between Col. Maury and Confederate authorities, although a local leader named “Woolfork” was mentioned. [Bynum, Free State of Jones, pp. 116-117; Leverett, Legend of the free State of Jones, pp. 89-92]

Collaboration between neighboring bands is again strongly suggested by the evidence. We know that the Knight Company was not quashed by Col. Maury’s March raid; indeed, Newt’s men may have escaped it altogether judging from the roster he submitted to Congress in 1870, which lists no men executed or arrested by Col. Maury’s men.

Whatever the case, the following article from the Massachusetts Springfield Republican,  published March 23, 1864, just twelve days after the Maury raid on Jones County, describes a flourishing guerrilla war throughout Southern Mississippi:

civil-war-deserter-1861-granger“Devastation in Mississippi”

Internal reports are given by a Union scout, lately arrived at New Orleans from a trip through Hancock, Marion, Person, Jones, and Jasper Counties, Mississippi. He had been absent a month, and as the fruit of his visit to these counties he had recruited 115 men for a Union regiment. He also brought away several women and children. He states that the Union sentiment now predominates and that the Union men have things their own way, completely turning the tables upon their enemies. Instead of being driven to the swamps and other hiding places for shelter, they have driven the secessch [sic] to those places to preserve their lives. They had declared a war of extermination and hunted down the rebels and shot them wherever found. This man is a native of Mississippi and well acquainted throughout the region through which he passed. He states that so relentless has been this civil strife that most if not all of the old men of his acquaintances are in their graves, shot in their very home.

And then, five days later, Governor Clark received this report from Macon, Smith County, Mississippi:

civil-war-deserter-1861-grangerMacon, Miss., 28th March 1864


I desire to inform you of the bad state of affairs in our (Smith) County. The cty. Is infested with deserters of the worst class. Peacible citizens are driven from their homes. Our shff. A refugee. A few days ago I was ambushed near my plantation and shot. Union or peace meetings are boldly held and Union speeches made – No men’s life is safe who dares to speak out against them. In the name of our citizens and myself I appeal to you for assistance to drive them out of our county.

I am sir with great respect,

Your obedient Servant

Wm. H. Quarles

[Charles Clark Correspondence, Series 768, Box 949, Folder 5, Miss. Dept. of Archives and History. Courtesy of Jeff Giambrone]

The Confederacy quickly realized that Col. Henry Maury had not defeated the deserters of Jones County. On its next expedition into the region, the Knight Company would indeed be the target. As I wrote in The Free State of Jones:

civil-war-deserter-1861-grangerThe infamous Lowry raids of April 1864 delivered the strongest blow yet against the Knight Company.  . . . Despite the havoc wreaked by Colonel Lowry and his men, including their decimation of the Knight Company, core members Newt Knight, Jasper Collins, William Wesley Sumrall, and James Morgan Valentine were among twenty deserters who remained uncaptured, unrepentant, and a potent force in Jones County. [Bynum Free State of Jones, 115, 125]

In the aftermath of Lowry’s raid on Jones County, Confederate enrolling officer B. C. Duckworth reported on conditions in the county seat of Ellisville. Even though the new normalcy included not having held a justice court “since the war commenced,” and even though “if a man is found dead, the civil authorities pays no attention to it any more than if it was a dog,” Duckworth was breathing easier by June 1864—yet not entirely easy, as the final line of his letter revealed.

civil-war-deserter-1861-grangerWe have been overrun by the Deserters but at present they are thinned out so that Citizens & civil Officers could keep them under if they would—-I am over the conscript age. Not withstanding I have joined a company in Smith County for the purpose of home protection & I hope I never will be fixed as I was some three months ago under the dictates of the deserters——There is at the present some twenty Deserters in the settlement. The main leaders of the Deserters in my settlement is in the woods——-.

. . . . Retain the contents [of this letter] as I am in a settlement that I am afraid to speak my sentiments on the account of the Deserters. [B. C. Duckworth to Gov. Clark about conditions in Jones County. Ellisville, Jones County, MS, June 14, 1864, Governors Papers, RG 27, v. 56, MDAH]

By August, 1864, many members of the Knight Band had fled to New Orleans and joined the Union Army; those captured but not killed by Col. Lowry had been forced back into the Confederate army.  But plenty of Jones County men continued to battle Confederate forces (and contribute to disruptions of slavery) on the Mississippi home front, as the letter below makes clear.

On August 14, 1864, Brigadier General L. Brandon reported to Maj. General. Dabney H. Maury the troubling news that:

civil-war-deserter-1861-grangerA number of Yankees in concert with deserters, both from Honey Island and that vicinity, have been committing serious depredations in the region of country bordering upon Jones and Jasper Counties, driving off large numbers of negroes and a great deal of stock. [Commanding Regiment, Headquarters, Defense of New Orleans; War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, vol. xxxix, pp. 776-777]

Some final thoughts about Mississippi’s inner civil war. Documentation is the lifeblood of any historian’s endeavor to tell a true story. The documents presented here leave no doubt that anti-Confederate sentiment, Unionism, and outright insurrection against the Confederate army raged throughout the state’s southern half (there was plenty in its northern half, too) during the final two years of the Civil War.

The documents confirm Jones County as a central location of dissent and rebellion against the Confederate state. Confederate officers, prone to describe deserters as belonging to the “worst class” of lawless Southerners, generally presented their own behavior as lawful and necessary to winning the war. 

But not always. Echoing the words of Perry County Sheriff G. W. Bradley, above, Colonel William Brown, who accompanied Col. Lowry to Jones County, cited “several small commands of cavalry” who had earlier engaged in “improper shooting, robbing, stealing about the houses, cutting cloth from the looms, taking horses, etc.,” in the process turning the county’s women against the Confederacy [Bynum, Free State of Jones, p. 123].  

In part because the Jones County courthouse burned to the ground around 1887, the above contemporary descriptions of home front depredations, plus stories passed down through families, are mainly what survive of women’s voices from that county. In addition, documented evidence of women’s Civil War experiences, which abound in collections held by the North Carolina State Archives, are only thinly represented in the collections of the Mississippi State Archives. I suspect that early Mississippi archivists did not save such letters with due diligence.

In recognition of the Mississippi women whose voices are missing here, I invite readers to contribute whatever evidence they may have in their own collections. The next Renegade South blog will shift to the state of North Carolina and feature selected examples of the abundant documents left by women of that state.





4 replies »

  1. A recollection from my Granny who got it from her mother. The family lived during the Civil War in Hancock County, MS. They were yeoman farmer people, not at all wealthy but like all their relatives & friends at the beginning of the war the men willingly joined the Confederate army. As things went along & time passed things in Hancock County got worse & worse for the families left behind. My Granny tells of their farm being raided by Jayhawkers & losing livestock to men from both sides. Great Granny’s only brother who had come home was hidden by the women of the family from Confederate soldiers searching for deserters by hiding him between the mattresses in a bed in which one of his sisters was placed. Their mother told the men sister had yellow fever so they didn’t want to come close to her & left. Her brother almost suffocated before they got him out. After that he & one of his uncles joined many other men from the area by going into Honey Island swamp to avoid being caught & sent back to the fighting. He was one of the men who surrendered at Ft. Pike to Union troops & went to New Orleans where he joined Union troops. While all that was going on, his family’s farm was raided again by Jayhawkers who while the women of my Great Granny’s family watched from hiding in the nearby woods stole every thing that wasn’t nailed down & burned the place down. Luckily for the women the local men had a plan in place to help local families who became destitute so they survived the war until their men came home. The family’s son’s short time in the Union army wasn’t spoken about although everyone knew that many local men had been with Union troops. I guess it didn’t leave any hard feelings because Granny never said anything more about it.

    • Thank you so much for this, Marcie Lee! Your Granny’s mother’s stories give such a vivid sense of the chaos that dominated home fronts while men were off to battle—or in the woods and swamps. The description of how women and their families were caught in the middle, raided from both sides, rings true, especially in Hancock County, where many of the deserters were down from Jones and Perry County, and wouldn’t have likely cared which “side” a family supported in the war–they, like the Confederate troops, were out to sustain themselves and make war on each other.

      I think of all those young men like your great-grandmother’s brother, caught in a disastrous war not of their making, trying to survive by whatever means necessary. For many, that mean joining the Union army at New Orleans. For others, it meant joining the home guard and chasing deserters. Truly a “neighbor-against-neighbor” tragedy.

      Again, my thanks.

  2. Thank you Vikki. Many folks may not know that in 1861 men in Hancock & Harrison Counties on the coast of MS voted for the Union Party, they were mostly for staying with the Union down there. The counties of southwest MS had fewer slaves than the rest of the state & the people were mostly small farm owners like my ancestors. A book on what life was like in the area at that time contains stories with the letters of the local Koch family of Hancock County, Christian & Annette Koch. They were caught on opposite sides of the Union/Confederate lines in southwest MS during much of the war. Annette was at home with the children & Christian was in the New Orleans Union zone of control, the captain of a small schooner which as a non combatant & foreign born he was able to rent to the Union & so able to sometimes get supplies & people & letters back & forth through the lines. The book is called Mississippi’s no-man’s land an echo of the Koch family letters by Marco Giardino & Russell Guerin. The family wrote hundreds of letters during the war & some how kept most of them with part of them in the small book. It tells the desperate conditions civilians were living under during the war. Neither Annette nor Christian were careful in their letters as to where their loyalties lay with their family & unlike one of their more prominent neighbors they were not out & out spying for the Union. Although Newt Knight isn’t mentioned by name in the letters, the goings on in Jones & other nearby counties are. I think anyone interested in the state of the southern home front in the war would find the book interesting. Also Russell Guerin has a blog called a Creole in South Mississippi which has so much information on the history & people of south MS & southeast Louisiana, it just covers everything. Check it out, you will not be disappointed. Marcie

    • Hi Marcie,

      Thanks to historian Dwayne Bremer, and now you, I have begun learning about Civil War Hancock County, and have also visited the blog of Russell Guerin–and need to visit it even more!

      Dwayne and I have each been on the look out for direct mentions of Newt Knight and/or his men visiting Hancock County during the height of the inner civil wars. So far,we have seen references to “Jones County men”–but not to Newt as their leader. This is what leads me to theorize that several bands roamed during the Civil War within and outside the immediate boundaries of Jones County. If you do ever find a Hancock County mention of Newt himself–or any of the men listed on his 1870 roster, I hope you’ll report it here!


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