This blog post was updated on November 9, 2018.
Despite all the books, museums and films that seek to document, history is filled with people and stories that don’t get the recognition they deserve (it is a vast task). But every now and then, men and women lost to history find their way into popular culture.
The latest example? Newton “Newt” Knight and the rebellion he led in Jones County, Mississippi during the American Civil War… AGAINST the Confederacy. Knight and his story are the basis for the new movie Free State of Jones, which stars Matthew McConaughey and hits theaters on Friday.
Knight and his rebellion have been the stuff of legend, as well as the subject of half-a-dozen books, and not all of it has been kind–many Southerners wrote Jones off as a murderous bandit (and his ahead-of-its-time multiracial family didn’t win many fans at the time). But Free State of Jones is part of a new trend in appreciating Southern history that isn’t whitewashed with pride in the Confederacy and instead interested in real-life incidents of defiance against the South’s infamous racism.
So if your curiosity is piqued about Newt Knight and you just happen to be traveling near Jones County, here some places there you’ll want to check out.
Knight deserted the Confederate army (for the first time) in the fall of 1862 after Southern slave owners with 20 or more slaves were made exempt from fighting (as one of Knight’s compatriots put it, the law made the south’s effort to succeed a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”). When he returned home to Jones County, Mississippi, Knight and other deserters hid from Confederate authorities in the area swamps, assisted by their families and runaway slaves. The most famous hideout being Devil’s Den (also known as Deserter’s Den), an area of wilderness near the Leaf River close to the border of Covington County which can still be visited today.
The Deason Home
As Knight and his group of fellow deserters grew, Confederacy leaders became more concerned about the situation and sent Major Amos McLemore in late summer 1863 to hunt the men down. Knight and McLemore became nemeses, exchanging taunting notes during months of playing cat and mouse. It all came to a heads when someone broke into McLemore’s house in the county’s main town of Ellisville, home of the Deasons (the county’s richest family,) and assassinated him. Although it’s never been proven, most believe the unidentified killer to have been Knight. The Deason Home was eventually restored and is now historical landmark that can be toured.
The Ellisville Courthouse
Soon after the killing of McLemore, the Jones County deserters became the “Jones County Scouts,” declared allegiance to the Union and vowed to fight the Confederacy. They also unanimously elected Knight their leader. In March of 1864, the group had so much support and control of the area that they were able to fly the United States flag over the county courthouse in Ellisville, which still stands today, and reports were reaching the North that the county had seceded from the Confederacy and declared itself a “free state.” In response, Confederate soldiers were sent to swarm Jones Country and hang suspected deserters and members of the rebellion. For the next year, the Jones County Scouts fought a guerilla war against Confederate forces with most (including Knight) evading capture. They fought their last battle just three months before General Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
The Graves of Newton and Rachel Knight
After the war, Jones continued to take on the Southern status quo. He helped fight against the Klu Klux Klan, helped defend the rights of African Americans, and successfully petitioned to change the county’s name back to Jones after it was renamed Davis (in honor of Confederate president Jefferson Davis). He also started a second family with his common law wife, Rachel, a black woman who was his grandfather’s former slave and who brought him supplies while he was hiding in the swamp. When Knight died 1922, he was buried at his request with Rachel (who passed away in 1889), despite it being illegal at the time for black and white people to be buried in the same cemetery. Today, the family cemetery (which is on Knight’s old land near the border of Jasper county) is on private property, but you may be able to find it and visit, if you ask the right people. Supposedly, Knight’s gravestone features an image of his favorite shotgun and the epitaph “He lived for others.”
You can catch The Free State Of Jones in theaters nationwide this Friday.