BASED ON A TRUE STORY
“We stood firm to the Union when secession swept as an avalanche over the state. For this cause alone, we have been treated as savages instead of freemen by the rebel authorities.” 1
-- Petition to Gov. William Sharkey signed by Newton Knight
The Knight Company Rebellion has been a source of great interest for over a hundred years. Though often debated, most now see it as an economic revolt— poor farmers who didn’t want to shoulder the burden of a war fought to benefit rich slave-holders. They called it a “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.”
The Knight Company was organized and surprisingly effective. There is clear and compelling evidence that the area around Jones County declared “independence” toward the end of the Civil War. In 1934, Newt Knight’s son wrote the following:
“They did not want to be put under a slave government. They believed in a free government, equal rights to all people, rich or poor. It should not make any difference who they were. So as my father told us, [of] the 375 men that voted to stay with the Union about 250 of them met together with the understanding they would come together and bind themselves together and to constitute a Free State of Jones.”
-- Tom Knight
The Official Record of the War Between the States corroborates that an armed rebellion seized this area of Southeast Mississippi and declared it a Free State of Jones. On March 29, 1864 Captain W. Wirt Thomson of the Confederacy wrote to his superior James Seddon, secretary of War for the Confederate States:
“Deserters from every army and from every State are among them. They have colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants; boast themselves to be not less than a thousand strong in organized bodies. They have a sufficiency of arms and ammunition of the latest Northern and European manufacture in abundance, and I was told that they boast of fighting for the Union. Gentlemen of undoubted veracity informed me that the Federal flag had been raised by them over the court-house in Jones County… the country is entirely at their mercy.” 2
-- W. Wirt Thomson
News of this rebellion even reached Union lines. In a letter to Major General Halleck in 1864, William Tecumseh Sherman references an attached “declaration of independence from certain people who are trying to avoid the southern conscription and lie out in the swamps.” 3 Newspapers of the era even reported on it. And in a newspaper article dated July 12, 1864, The Natchez Courier (a union newspaper) wrote:
It may be interesting to many of our citizens to know that the county of Jones, State of Mississippi, has seceded from the State and formed a Government of their own, both military and civil. The Confederacy, after claiming the right of secession, not being willing to extend the same to the said Republic, has declared war against it and sent an army under Col. Mowry (Maury), of Mobile, to crush the rebellion.4
-- Natchez Courier
So why did this rebellion occur?
Jones County was a poor area with comparatively few slaveholders, particularly among those who joined the Knight Company. They had no personal stake in the war and most resented the institution of slavery.
When the Confederacy passed a law exempting rich slave holders from the draft, but still drafting non-slave owners, it was more than many could take... “Rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.” 5
While the men were off fighting, their families’ livelihoods were being drained by the Confederate tax system. In order to supply the needs of the war effort, the Confederacy confiscated livestock, grain, even handmade textiles from yeoman farmers and their families.6 They were supposed to take 10% but frequently took much more. The Knight Company rebellion rose in part as an anti-tax, class-based movement rallying against the interests and policies of the slave-holding elite.7
But Newt’s beliefs ran deeper than that. While the entire Knight company opposed the war on economic terms, Newt’s activity after the war indicates a much larger moral imperative. He helped to free African-American children from “apprenticeship”—a second form of slavery after the war.8 There are numerous accounts of him burning down a school that refused to educate mixed race children.9 In 1875, he accepted a commission to lead a largely African-American unit of the Mississippi state militia, whose sole purpose was to protect the voting rights of freedmen.10 A year later, he deeded one-hundred-and-sixty acres of land to his common law wife Rachel (a former slave), making her one of the few African-American women to own land in the area.11 By his own directive, he was buried in a mixed race cemetery defying the racial codes of his time.
1 Petition to Gov. William Sharkey from Newton Knight and citizens of Jones County, July 15, 1865. Governors’ Papers, RG 27, MDAH. (Bynum, Victoria. The Free State of Jones. p. 131, chapter 7.)
2 Captain W. Wirt Thomson to James A. Seddon, Secretary of War, March 29, 1864, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, D. C., 1880-1901), ser. 1, vol. 32, pt. 3, p. 711-13; hereinafter cited as O. R..
3 Letter to Major General Halleck in 1864 from William Tecumseh Sherman
O. R., ser. 1, vol. 32, pt. 2, p. 498-99.
4 The Natchez Courier, July 12, 1864.
5 There are many examples of this, but a compelling one is from Yeomen farmers in Smith County (adjacent to Jones) to the Governor:
“…we who have but little or nothing at stake but honor are called on to do the fighting and to do the hard drudgery and bear the burden, and brunt of the battle while the rich, and would be rich are shirking and dodging in every way possible to shun the dangers, unless they can get an office that will give them a big name.”
Letter from D. W. Platt, John A. Womack to Miss Governor John J. Pettus, November 7, 1862,
Pettus Correspondence and Papers, 1861-1863, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS. (hereinafter referred to as MDAH)
6 Tom Knight (Newt’s son) offers a description of Newt and Jasper returning to Jones County to find “…that the confederate army had been all through Jones county, destroying everything they could. They would go into a poor woman’s home where they had cloth in the loom, trying to make clothing for their little children while their husbands were off in the war, and they would take the cloth and many other valuables.”
Thomas Jefferson Knight, “Intimate Sketch of Activities of Newton Knight and ‘Free State of Jones County’ ” (1935), p. 22, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS, Call Number: MF/B/K74t.
7 Abuse of the tax system was reported throughout the South. The excerpt below (from a Confederate Colonel) refers to Jones County in particular:
“In several circumstances there has been improper shirking, robbing, stealing [by tax collectors]. These [tax-in-kind] acts have done more to demoralize Jones County than the whole Yankee army. . . .”
Confederate Col. William N. Brown to Mississippi Governor Charles Clark, April 16, 1864, Clark Correspondence and Papers, 1863-1865, MDAH.
8 U.S. House of Representatives, Barred and Disallowed Case Files of the Southern Claims Commission, 1871-1880, Newton Knight Folder, box 15, RG 233, National Archives.
9 Ethel Knight, Echo of the Black Horn, p. 267.
Martha Wheeler Interview, Works Progress Administration, Jones County, Series 447, MDAH, hereinafter cited as WPA.
Thomas J. Knight, p. 96.
10 Testimony before Congress inquiring into the Mississippi election of 1875 describes the militia units as being all Republican and largely African-American. It lists Newt Knight as being a colonel in “The First Regiment.”
“Boutwell Report”, Select Committee to Inquire Into the Mississippi Election of 1875 (Washington: Government Printing Office; 1876), p. 466.
11 Land Deed written by Newton Knight, December 3, 1876 and recorded on December 23, 1876 Jasper County Deed Book, No. 19, p. 223, Clerk, Jas. F. Parker.