Free State of Jones - Story

Free State of Jones Movie Poster

Newton Knight

The True Story Behind Free State of Jones

Mississippi was a land of small farms and large plantations in the mid-19th century. It was the highest-producing cotton state in the South, a direct result of the backbreaking forced labor of enslaved African Americans. It was made up of rich, slave-owning aristocrats, poor white farmers and half a million slaves. Like much of the South, Mississippi was a state in turmoil as the wealthy members of the upper class sought to suppress the masses and resist the Union. Confederacy was what those in power preferred and anyone suspected of opposing it was met with violence.

But there was a man from Jones County in southern Mississippi named Newton Knight who was vocal about his anti-Confederate views. Leaving his wife Serena Turner behind, he joined the Confederate army only under the threat of arrest, but deserted it as soon as he could, opting to hide in the northern swamps of the state. He was aided by enslaved people, who commonly took in Confederate deserters, and his distrust of the Confederacy boiled as he learned about the movement's goals (and its methods of achieving them).

Newt, who was born in 1837, began spreading his pro-Union sentiments and by 1861 had developed a following. After seeking shelter in the swamps, he returned to Jones County a "strike-first killer and dedicated enemy of the Confederacy," as recorded in the 2009 book The State of Jones by Sally Jefferson and John Stauffer.

With as many as 200 fellow deserters by his side, Newt was dubbed the captain of The Jones County Scouts (also called the Knight Company), a group that declared independence from the Confederacy. As a unified force, they raided Confederate supply convoys, distributed food to destitute families and freed slaves.

Newt's position as the group's leader was solidified in 1863, when, according to legend, he made a bold and brazen killing. As Major Amos McLemore of the Confederate army waltzed through Jones County searching for deserters, Newt shot him in the head at a local tavern. Due to the high volume of people in attendance when it happened, it has never been confirmed that Amos' murderer was in fact Newt.

The Jones County Scouts — otherwise known as a guerilla army, which is a group of armed civilians who use military tactics to combat larger, more traditional military organizations — had allies in the black population. Their numbers grew as more enslaved black people were liberated from plantations and came to the swamps to join the movement, where they gathered and found asylum.

But their pro-Union efforts were counteracted with venom and fierce hostility from the Confederates. The slave owners' army drew them out of the swamps by torturing their families, destroying their farms and stealing their food and animals. Jones County became a target for the Confederates, who sent nearly 500 soldiers in to assert power and re-establish Confederate control. To do this, they lynched 10 guerillas and left them hanging in public as a warning sign. Although the Jones County Scouts initially fractured, they reorganized and 53 went on to join the Union army.

Eventually, as the tides turned in favor of the Unionists, the Jones County Scouts overthrew the Confederate authorities. In the spring of 1864, they raised the United States flag over the Jones County courthouse in Ellisville, declaring the county free.

Newt is heralded as one of the heroes of the Civil War. He led the pro-Union rebellion, and according to Jenkins and Stauffer, "had more in common with the slaves he had met in the swamps, who treated him better and showed him more basic humanity than the Confederate authorities who claimed to be his countrymen."

After the war ended in 1865, he worked for the government and helped liberate enslaved children who had not been freed.

Although Newt was married to Serena throughout the war and had nine children with her, he developed a relationship with his grandfather's former slave Rachel. Together, the pair would have five children. The two families lived in separate houses but on the same 160-acre farm. The unorthodox arrangement stirred controversy as Newt had not divorced Serena — and never did — when he entered a common-law marriage with Rachel.

Newt's children, regardless of mother, were unwelcome in segregated Mississippi. They turned to intermarriage, with one of Serena's daughters marrying one of Rachel's sons, for example. The families formed a close-knit bond that blossomed into a biracial community in Soso, Mississippi.

On February 16, 1922, Newt passed away. He is buried with Rachel outside a cemetery because at the time of their deaths it was illegal to have integrated burial grounds.

A film following Newt's anti-Confederacy efforts during the war stars Matthew McConaughey as Newt, Keri Russell as Serena and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel. Called Free State of Jones, it was directed by Gary Ross.

~Matthew Pariselli

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