SECEDING FROM THE CONFEDERACY
By Doug Coleman
It looks like Hollywood has picked up on this theme in the upcoming Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey as outlaw Newton Knight and set for release in June. McConaughey even looks like Knight. Having seen nothing more than the trailer, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EMkxEKKSQI, I am in no position to review the movie, but I’m guessing the Confederates are not the good guys. Hollywood goop and bias aside, it looks like it might be “alright, alright, alright.”
The movie is based on a true story and highlights the resentment of the lower and middle class Southerners who faced a compulsory draft, while their richer neighbors were exempt from service if they owned twenty or more slaves. Contrary to modern apologists, the war really did have a lot to do with slavery, but only a quarter of Southerners owned slaves. Less than 1% owned more than 50 and only 2,358 families owned more than 100. Nonetheless, over half of the South’s slaves lived on plantations with 20 or more, and fully a quarter lived on plantations of 50 or more. But the average slaveholder did not live in a mansion and had perhaps five slaves, often sharing their labor. And 75% of Southerners owned no slaves at all. Many wealthy Southerners did elect to serve, but the guys in the Big House had a choice, while the other 75% simply got drafted. In fairness, Northerners shared similar resentment when their draft was enacted in 1863; rich draftees were allowed to hire a substitute for $600, a lot of money where a soldier’s pay was $13 a month, and well beyond the reach of the average draftee. The New York draft riots in July 1863 were in part fueled by this common resentment.
In the South, the PR battle was lost and Confederate morale sagged when the grunts in gray figured out that the fight to preserve slavery was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Sam Watkins, who served in the Army of Tennessee, complained: “A law was made by the Confederate States Congress about this time allowing every person who owned twenty negroes to go home. It gave us the blues; we wanted twenty negroes. Negro property suddenly became very valuable, and there was raised the howl of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” The glory of the war, the glory of the South, the glory and the pride of our volunteers had no charms for the conscript.” Actually the purpose of the law was to ensure there were enough able-bodied white males left at home to discourage a slave revolt, but the damage to morale was done.
While these dirt farmers faced the very real possibility of death or disability by disease or Yankee lead, their wives and families were left to fend for themselves. Fields went unplowed, winter firewood was not stacked, and if the Yankees did not seize your livestock and provisions, Confederate agents might take them under the Impressment Act or as a “tax in kind.” There are stories of mothers who starved to death sacrificing every last bite for their children. One can imagine the anguish of husbands and fathers reading letters from home. Government, especially your own, is hardly ever your friend.
This brings us to Jones County Mississippi and Newton Knight. Jones County, being mostly yeoman farmers, was not keen on secession and instructed its delegate to vote against it (he didn’t). Though Knight was a Unionist, he enlisted with his neighbors when war came. When the Twenty Negro Law was passed exempting fatcats owning 20 or more slaves from service, Knight, like a lot of other disgusted soldiers, said “to hell with this” and went home to take care of his family. When he got home he shot a man who had been abusing his children. Knight was apprehended as a deserter and returned to his unit after being jailed, tortured and having all his property destroyed. Any wonder why he did not love the Confederacy? He went over the hill again in June of 1863, returning to Jones County to find he now had plenty of company in the deserter’s club.
By this time in the war the Confederacy was reliably executing deserters, especially in the Army of Tennessee. At first Knight and other fugitives hid out in the woods and swamps, fed by sympathizers. Eventually the number of outlaws grew to a point meriting concern in Richmond. A Confederate officer named Amos McLemore was given a body of troops and detailed to round up the renegades. Instead, someone (probably Knight with a couple of friends) broke into the house where McLemore was sleeping and shot him dead.
Facing a noose or a firing squad, the deserters organized as the “Jones County Scouts” or the “Knight Company” numbering perhaps 600 and elected Knight as their leader. They began assassinating their opponents, particularly tax collectors and conscription agents. Then the rebellion spread to four other counties. Knight’s men hijacked Confederate supply wagons and redistributed provisions to the hungry citizens of his protectorate. Soon Old Glory was flying over the Jones County courthouse once again.
General Polk dispatched 500 troops, essentially a regiment, to deal with the situation. Two of the rebels were hung in March 1864. Soon 32 of Knight’s men were dead and about 500 under arrest. But it went both ways – reportedly more Confederates were killed than outlaws in 14 skirmishes. Knight himself made it to war’s end without being captured.
While Knight had been hiding in the swamps, he was aided by a slave named Rachel. Post-war, Knight took Rachel as his mistress and reputedly had five children with her, ultimately conveying her over 100 acres of his farm. He also had another two children with his wife Serena before they separated. The white and black relatives of Knight and Rachel formed their own community and began to intermarry in violation of Mississippi’s miscegenation laws. By the 1900 census, everyone who lived on the farm – including Knight himself – was classified as black.
Knight continued to serve the Yankees during Reconstruction as a Republican operative. He was detailed by the occupying forces to provide food and other relief to the starving citizens of Jones County. Later he was deputized to fight the Klan. He also became a tax collector. One is less amazed that he survived the war than that he made it through Reconstruction. (Perhaps it is even more amazing that Serena did not kill him for those five babies with Rachel). Despite his efforts to see his troops compensated for their service to the Union, an ungrateful Federal government rejected these claims.
Knight died in 1922 at 84, unrepentant to the end. Patriot or traitor? Probably a trick question – Knight was loyal to a particular community. Bad government – Confederate or Federal, then or now – makes men like Knight.
Sources: Sam R. Watkins, Company Aytch; James R. Kelly, Jr., http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/309/newton-knight-and-the-legend-of-the-free-state-of-jones; Vicki Bynum, Rebels Against the Confederacy: Mississippi’s Free State of Jones, https://renegadesouth.wordpress.com/2008/12/19/rebels-against-the-confederacy-mississippis-free-state-of-jones/; The Old South: Images and Realities, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3557; The Real Free State of Jones, http://deepsouthmag.com/2015/08/05/the-real-free-state-of-jones/
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at email@example.com.