Newton Knight, an American hero

My friend Hal Bauer urged all his friends to see the movie, Free State of Jones.  I saw it, and it is as good as Hal said it is.

The movie tells the story of Newton Knight, a white farmer in southern Mississippi, who led a rebellion against the Confederacy itself.

Newton Knight

Newton Knight

Knight was 6-foot-4 with black curly hair and a full beard—“big heavyset man, quick as a cat,” as one of his friends described him.  He was a nightmarish opponent in a backwoods wrestling match, and one of the great unsung guerrilla fighters in American history.  So many men tried so hard to kill him that perhaps his most remarkable achievement was to reach old age.

“He was a Primitive Baptist who didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, doted on children and could reload and fire a double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun faster than anyone else around,” said [local historian Wyatt] Moulds. 

“Even as an old man, if someone rubbed him the wrong way, he’d have a knife at their throat in a heartbeat.  A lot of people will tell you that Newt was just a renegade, out for himself, but there’s good evidence that he was a man of strong principles who was against secession, against slavery and pro-Union.”

Source: Richard Grant | Smithsonian

Knight hated the 20-slave rule, which gave slave-owning families one exemption from military service for every 20 slaves they owned.  He also hated Confederate confiscations of livestock, crops and food from small farmers.

For a time, his Knight Company drove the Confederate Army out of Jones County and surrounding areas of southern Mississippi.  Contrary to the impression given by the movie title, he didn’t intend to set up Jones County as an independent nation.  He was loyal to the Union.

He didn’t only fight for independent white farmers.  He fought against slavery himself.  He defended the rights of newly-freed slaves after the Civil War.  After the triumph of the Ku Klux Klan, he retreated to his homestead where he lived with his inter-racial family.

I had no idea Newton Knight existed until I saw the movie.


When I see a movie such as this, I always wonder how true it is to history.  Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Matthew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity were pretty much true to the facts about Abraham Lincoln and Srinivasa Ramanujan.  But Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game was not at all true to the facts about Alan Turing.

I have not yet read Victoria Bynum’s The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, but based on a two-part interview with her and an article in the Smithsonian magazine, I think the sequence of events in the movie is not historically accurate, but that movie does present an accurate portrait of Newton Knight and what he stood for.

jonescountyMAPMSI grew up with an entirely different view of the Civil War from what the movie presents.  I was taught that it was a great national tragedy caused by radical abolitionists and fire-eating secessionists on the other. because slavery was an aberration that eventually would have died out of its own accord.  African-Americans, according to this view, were passive ou-lookers.

I grew up with another prejudice that was nearly as bad—against so-called “rednecks” and “poor white trash,” who supposedly were so degraded they were even inferior to black people.   These are words I never use.

Of course there is nothing shameful about being a hard-working farmer who works all day in the hot sun.  There also is a vast difference between the status of an independent farmer working his own land and an impoverished sharecropper in a hopeless economic situation.  The majority of Southern white men prior to Civil War era were independent farmers.

I’ve come to realize how wrongly I viewed history.  I’ve come to understand, for example, how black people fought for their own liberation, and I’ve also come to understand, especially through the writings of Eric Foner, the complexity of the politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

I’ve come to understand that slavery was not an aberration, but an important factor in American economic life.  Statisticians have calculated that the investment in enslaved human beings prior to the Civil War was equal to the investment in railroads and factories.  And cotton was by far the most vauable American export.

Far from something that would have died out automatically, slavery was revived in the mid-20th century in the Nazi and Soviet forced labor camps.  Slavery in the United States might well have lasted as long as apartheid in South Africa.

African-Americans were not passive onlookers.  Black abolitionists pioneered the fight against slavery, and black regiments contributed mightily to Union victory.  The 20-slave rule was not an aberration, either.  Southern planters lived in fear of slave uprisings.  Without enough white men to keep the enslaved black people under control, they might well have risen up.  The Knight Company is evidence of this danger.

It was complicated.  There were Southern slave-owners who fought for the Union and felt betrayed by the Emancipation Proclamation.  There were white racist Free Soilers who hated slavery.  There were independent Southern farmers who hated slavery, but fought the Yankee invader.  There were Northerners who supported the Confederacy.  But there were not any black men who voluntarily fought for the Confederacy.

Eric Foner’s writings are not easy reading, but I think the three articles linked below give a good account of the movie’s historical background.


The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones’ by Richard Grant for Smithsonian magazine.  The writer visited Jones County and interviewed Newt Knight’s admirers and critics.  He also interviewed filmmaker Gary Ross on the making of the movie and what inspired him to make it.

An interview with Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones – Part One.

An interview with Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones  – Part Two.

[Added 9/6/2016]   With Free State of Jones, Hollywood’s Civil War Comes  Closer to History’s by Victoria Bynum for Zócalo Public Square.

[Added 9/6/2016]   Renegade South: histories of unconventional southerners, the web log of Victoria Bynum.

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