The Free State of Jones
The Free State of Jones County is a tale of secession from the Confederate state of Mississippi. It is a somewhat controversial episode in the American Civil War whose effects still linger in modern times. Here is a story that it almost too strange to be true but it is.
Newton Knight was born near the Leaf River in Jones County, Mississippi in 1837. Knight’s family had lived in Jones County since the end of the War of 1812 when his grandfather had been awarded land grants for his military service. The land in Jones County was covered with virgin longleaf pine forests. Wolves and panthers still frequented the area.
Knight married Serena Turner in 1858. The couple moved to the edge of Jasper County and began to farm corn and sweet potatoes. They also raised chickens and hogs. Knight worked the land himself. According to his son, Newton Knight never drank or smoked. He was a Primitive Baptist.
In November 1860 Mississippi’s slave-owning planters joined South Carolina in seceding from the Union. The yeoman farmers and cattle herders of Jones County had little use for the institution of slavery. Jones County had the lowest percentage of slaves of any county in Mississippi at 12%. The voters of Jones County had elected a representative, J.D. Powell, to Mississippi’s Secession Convention with instructions to vote no on secession. However, their representative was browbeaten into voting for secession. When the citizens heard about his vote they hung him in effigy. He stayed away from the area for some time.
In April 1861 war fever raged throughout the state. Anyone who opposed secession and the Confederacy were painted as cowards and traitors. Knight reluctantly enlisted in the Confederate army in the early fall of 1861. After several months he was furloughed to go home for a family matter. His father, Albert, was dying and Knight remained in Jones County until he reenlisted on May 13, 1862. He joined his friends and neighbors in Company F of the Seventh Battalion, Mississippi Infantry in Jasper County.
Mississippi had passed the “Twenty-Negro” law that allowed any planter who owned 20 slaves an exemption from serving in the army. His best friend Jasper Collins saying that “This law … makes it a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” deserted and made his way home to Jones County.
In early November 1862 Newton Knight went Absent Without Leave near Abbeville, Mississippi and made his way home on a 200-mile journey to Jones County. Along the way he had to avoid Confederate patrollers who were searching the countryside for deserters.
Conditions on the home front were abysmal with the men off to war and women and children trying to run the farms. Many of the farms had crop failure due to a lack of labor. People were struggling to feed themselves and their families. Meanwhile, Confederate authorities took anything that they wanted for the war effort: food, livestock, horses and cloth.
Confederate Colonel William N. Brown said that the corrupt Confederate tax officials had “done more to demoralize Jones County than the whole Yankee army.” A planter in neighboring Smith County warned Governor John J. Pettus in November 1862, “If something is not done by the legislature to open the corn cribs that are now closed against the widow and the orphan, and soldier’s families, who are destitute, I know that we are undone. Men cannot be expected to fight for the Government that permits their wives and children to starve.”
Knight was arrested when he refused to return to the army. There are stories that say he was tortured and everything that he owned was destroyed. After the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863 many of the Jones County men returned home to find their wives and children destitute and starving.
Knight organized a company of about 125 men from Jones, Jasper, Covington and Smith counties to protect their families and neighbors from the Confederate authorities. They became known as the Knight Company after they elected Newton Knight their captain. They would disappear into the swamps when larger Confederate forces appeared. Newton Knight’s good friend and First Lieutenant Jasper Collins was his biggest supporter. They were aided and assisted by the people of the area, both white and black. Another major supporter was the slave woman, Rachel who had been owned by Knight’s grandfather.
By early 1864 Confederate authorities in Richmond had become aware of the Knight Company. Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk informed President Jefferson Davis that Jones County was in “open rebellion” and the combatants were “… proclaiming themselves ‘Southern Yankees,’ and resolved to resist by force of arms all efforts to capture them.” There were rumors that they were flying the United States flag.
The Natchez Courier reported in its July 12, 1864, edition that Jones County had seceded from the Confederacy. Union General Sherman wrote that he had received “a declaration of independence” from a group of local citizens who opposed the Confederacy. The Free State of Jones had been born.
In April 1864 Confederate authorities detailed Colonel Robert Lowery of Smith County to root out and destroy the Knight Company. Using packs of bloodhounds he hunted down the men and captured many of them. Ten men were hanged and their bodies were left hanging as a warning to the other members of the Knight Company. A number of men were returned to the Confederate army. But they never captured Newton Knight who managed to hide out in the swamps until the end of the war.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. At the end of the war the state was occupied by Federal troops whose main role was to protect the rights of the former slaves. From 1867 to 1876 Mississippi was under the control of radical Republicans. Over 200 former slaves were elected to local, state and federal offices. Pushback came from the Democrat Party and vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1872 Newton Knight was appointed deputy U.S. Marshall for Mississippi at great personal danger to himself. In the statewide elections of 1875 the supporters of the former Confederacy and white supremacy used intimidation and vote fraud to sweep back into office. Republican Governor Adelbert Ames for Federal troops to quell the violence but President Grant turned down the request. Ames formed his own state militia. One of his appointees was Newt Knight who was made colonel of the First Infantry Regiment of Jasper County.
But the tide had already turned against Republican rule in Mississippi, and Governor Ames was forced to resign. He lamented that blacks “are to be returned to a condition of serfdom — an era of second slavery.” Blacks could not vote freely in Mississippi again for nearly 100 years.
Newton Knight returned to his farm in Jasper County and brought Rachel with him. Eventually, Serena left him and he married Rachel who bore him several children. His marriage was considered a scandal but he seemed not to care, saying “There’s [sic] a lots of ways I’d ruther [sic] die than be scared to death.”
Newton Knight died on February 16, 1922 at the age of 85. Even in death he was defiant being buried next to his wife Rachel despite a state law forbidding the practice. Newt and Rachel’s descendents still reside in the Jones county area.
Newton Knight and the members of the Knight Company in the Free State of Jones never formally wrote a document of secession from Mississippi, at least none that was ever found. Yet, they always insisted that they were members of the Union Army and on several occasions sent members to meet with Union generals to ask for formal recognition. Knight petitioned the Federal government for years for an army pension but it was never granted.
To this day the police cars in Ellisville, Mississippi still bear the nickname “The Free State of Jones”.
Dissent in the South was not just confined to the Free State of Jones. In Winston County, Alabama a similar series of events occurred. The citizens there proclaimed the Free State of Winston and actually helped to form the 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment. There were Unionists in North Carolina and other Southern states. Here’s an article about the Unionists in North Carolina. Just as there were pro-slavery elements in the border states and in the North their opposite numbers resided in the South.
If you would like to read more about this interesting part of the Civil War check out Victoria Bynum’s book The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War. There is also a book by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy. Finally, there is Rudy H. Leverett’s book The Legend of the Free State of Jones.