I wrote The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War for professional and personal reasons. As both a historian and an individual, I am on the hunt for ordinary people who commit extraordinary acts. I am especially drawn to those who confront systems of power in unlikely ways alongside unlikely allies. In Civil War Jones County, Mississippi, deep in the so-called “solid” South, some 100 ordinary white farmers banded together to fight against the Confederate Army (a few of my distant kin were among them). Doing so earned them the label of outlaws. But outlaw means different things to different people. To pro-Confederate Mississippians, these were cowardly deserters. The core members of the Knight band, however, viewed themselves as principled Unionists.
In my book, I struggled against writing a “Great Man” history; I did not want to portray Newt Knight as the “Rambo” of Jones County dissent. Rather, I dug deep into historical records from NC, SC, GA, and MS, to uncover the cultural and class roots of those families who contributed the greatest number of participants in the Jones County uprising. I emphasized how earlier historical events—for example, the American Revolution and the opening of the Southwestern frontier—shaped attitudes toward authority and government among these plain folks of the Old South.
While my version of the Free State of Jones disputes the Lost Cause narrative of a solid white South united over a “noble cause” that continues to permeate much of popular Civil War history, it does not present the uprising as the tale of Southern abolitionism that some would like it to be. What I believe happened in Jones County—and in other pockets of resistance throughout the Confederate South—is too complex to be told in broad strokes of Southern slaveholder versus Southern abolitionist. More fascinating to me, and more truthful, is how the expansion of slavery created class divisions among families who were equally “Southern” in their roots and their culture. In other words, the Jones County insurrectionists were neither abolitionists nor “Southern Yankees”; they were Southern white farmers driven by war to cross lines of race, question slavery, and to declare their own war on the Confederacy. [Note: this paragraph was added on June 27, 2015]
The Civil War constituted a crisis of authority for many such Southerners, especially those who lived outside the plantation belt. Newt Knight did not singlehandedly create the Knight band, although he became its charismatic leader. By his own admission, the Civil War transformed his life and his character. Would Newt have developed an open relationship with his grandfather’s former slave, Rachel, one that led to creation of a mixed-race community that thrives today, had the war not erupted? Would he have become a New South Republican after the war? Like all important figures of history, Newt was as much shaped by his times as he in turn shaped them.
I hope that you are as fascinated by the history of this renegade county as I am. On Newt Knight, see also the post, “Did Jones County Secede From the Confederacy?”