Not everyone in the South wanted to secede from the Union. One band of rebels against the Rebels declared themselves “Southern Yankees.” They were led by Newton Knight, a deserter from the Confederate Army who fought to protect the rights of black folks in the South. His followers became known as the Knight Company.
Knight’s story is the basis of the 2016 Matthew McConaughey movie Free State of Jones, but the true story of Newton "Newt" Knight, the man who set up a free state during the Civil War, is even more dramatic than the Hollywood version.
The Free State of Jones, Mississippi, became a thorn in the side of the Confederacy, as the Knight Company burned bridges, destroyed railroads, and murdered a Confederate major. Jones County, Mississippi, had opposed secession from the start, and with the help of poor farmers and slaves, Newt Knight led the county to independence – and after the war, he married a former slave.
Newton Knight Was A 6'4" Ruffian From The Swamp Who Joined The Confederate Army To Avoid The Draft
Newton Knight was born in 1837 and grew to be 6 feet, 4 inches tall with a head of curly black hair and a full beard. He was an expert at backwoods wrestling and “a ruffian yet a devout Christian.” Knight struck an imposing figure in the swamps of Jones County, Mississippi, where he was known as “a loner yet a generous neighbor whom others could count on for help.”
When the Civil War began in 1861, Knight enlisted in the Confederate Army, even though he was against succession. He enlisted to avoid being drafted.
The Confederacy Was Really Into Slavery; Knight Wasn't
The Confederacy was clear from the start: the war was about slavery.
Mississippi’s declaration of succession made that clear: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.” The declaration adds, “a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
And the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, gave a speech in March of 1861 that did not just defend slavery, but it also actively promoted the institution. The Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
Knight Deserted The Confederate Army Because Of The “Twenty-Negro Law”
In 1862, the Confederate Congress enacted the “Twenty-Negro Law.” This exempted one slave owner for every 20 slaves from fighting in the army.
Poor farmers like Knight, who did not own slaves, felt the law protected the rich at the expense of the poor. One of Knight's comrades, Private Jasper Collins, declared: “This law... makes it a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Collins deserted on the spot and later named his son Ulysses Sherman Collins after two famous Union generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
In November 1862, Knight deserted the army, making a dangerous 200-mile journey home along roads swarming with Confederate patrollers.
Newt Was Captured And Tortured By Confederate Forces
In May of 1863, Knight refused to go back to the Confederate Army. For his defiance, he was arrested and thrown into prison. According to his friends, the Confederates tortured Knight and destroyed all of his possessions, including his horses and mules. This “left his family destitute.”
Knight railed against the Confederates' treatment of women and children during the war. The Confederate government had imposed a “tax-in-kind” system where tax collectors could seize anything for the use of the army, including meat, horses, corn, and even cloth meant to dress children.
A planter warned Mississippi’s governor that “Men cannot be expected to fight for the Government that permits their wives and children to starve.” And the situation got much worse in 1863.