Newton Knight was born in 1837 in Jones County, Mississippi. Knight opposed the state seceding from the United States, saying that white farmers like himself did not support slavery. After deserting from the Confederate army, he led a rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, according to lore and declaring it “The Free State of Jones.” After the war, he lived with a woman who had been enslaved. They had five children. Knight's descendants formed a biracial community in the segregated South.
Newton Knight was born in Jones County, Mississippi in 1837. His grandfather had owned a large number of slaves, but his father did not. The Knight family grew food crops and raised livestock on their farm, and did not align themselves with the slave-holding class that supported secession and the Civil War.
The Civil War
Knight married Serena Turner in 1858. The couple would go on to have nine children together. Shortly after the Civil War began, Knight enlisted in the Confederate Army. His reason for doing so, however, is unclear. Some accounts say that he was coerced by the pro-war passions of the times; others that he wanted to avoid conscription; still others that he liked being a soldier. In late 1862, however, Knight deserted and returned to his Jones County home. There he discovered that farms were suffering. With so many men at war, there were not enough people to do the work. To make matters worse, the Confederacy levied a “tax-in-kind” that allowed the army to take from local residents whatever it needed in the way of supplies.
Knight was captured as a deserter in early 1863, but by later that year he was back in Jones County. In November 1863, Maj. Amos McLemore, sent by the Confederacy to capture deserters, was shot and killed in Ellisville, the county seat of Jones County. It is generally believed that Knight killed him.
"Free State of Jones”
Newton Knight rallied about 125 others—some deserters, some enslaved people—and formed the Knight Company. They saw themselves as defending the residents of Jones County from the Confederacy. Their insurgent actions included impeding tax collectors, taking Confederate army supplies to redistribute to Jones County’s residents, and even killing supporters of the Confederacy.
By early 1864, Knight Company had raised a U.S. flag in Ellisville, although whether they actually declared “The Free State of Jones” is uncertain. Nonetheless, their rebellion had come to the attention of Confederate leaders who sent troops to stop it. The troops found and executed many members of Knight Company, but not Newton Knight or other leaders who had hidden in the swamps. They continued to interfere with the Confederate war efforts, fighting their last battle in early 1865, only months before the Civil War ended.
After the war, during Radical Reconstruction—the period from 1867-1876—Knight worked for the government, helping liberate enslaved children who had not been freed. In 1875, Knight led a regiment that tried to aid in the protection of African-American citizens so that they could vote. But the attempt was unsuccessful, with decades of black disenfranchisement to follow.
After that defeat and the restoration of a segregationist government, Knight returned to his farm. There he lived with Rachel (1840-1889), a formerly enslaved woman, and the couple had five children. Knight's wife Serena and their children lived nearby. History is unclear about his wife's attitude about their marriage but during Knight's relationship with Rachel, Serena also bore children by Knight and remained a strong presence in their community and family until her death in 1923. Unwelcome in segregated Mississippi, Knight’s descendants, from both women, intermarried. As an example, one of Newt and Serena’s daughters married one of Rachel’s sons. (Knight was not his father.) The families formed a tightly-knit, biracial community in Soso, Mississippi.
Newton Knight died in Mississippi on February 16, 1922.
In summer 2016, the story of Newton Knight's stand against the confederacy was captured on the big screen. Directed by Gary Ross, The Free State of Jones stars Matthew McConaughey as Knight and co-stars Keri Russell as Serena and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel.
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