History books and movies like to the portray the Confederate South as completely united against the Union forces of the North in the American Civil War. But one man and his rebellion prove that this idea is not completely true.
Newton Knight was born in Jones County, Mississippi in 1837. Jones County was a relatively poor area of the state, and many of the white farmers did not own slaves. Knight’s grandfather did, however, but he and his father did not. By the time Knight reached adulthood, most of his family was no longer a part of the slave-holding class of Mississippi and did not support secession.
Nonetheless, when the Civil War began, Knight enlisted in the Confederate Army, though this was probably not by choice. The army was forcibly conscripting men of fighting age, and he might have received a better choice of post by joining on his own. Soon after he joined, though, the Confederate government passed the Twenty Negro Law that released slaveholders from military duty. Those who did not own slaves still had to stay.
This angered Knight, and he deserted in November of 1862. About a year later, he was captured and made to return to the fighting, but he went AWOL again. In addition to disagreeing with the Confederate cause, he did not like what was happening back home. Farms were falling into ruin with nobody to work them, and the army was stealing food and supplies from Jones County residents.
Knight decided to fight back, and he gathered about 125 other men from among the slaves and other deserters from the area. Women and slaves provided the group with food and supplies while they hid from the army.
Amos McLemore, a Confederate officer, was sent to find the deserters, who had been causing trouble for soldiers and tax collectors. Knight decided to end the manhunt himself, and on the night of October 5, 1863, while McLemore was sleeping at a friend’s house, he and two of his band broke into his bedroom and shot him. After this, the group decided to call themselves the “Knight Company.” They decided to help the Union army defeat the Confederates, and Knight was officially elected their leader.
It is a legend that the group declared their own secession from Mississippi and declared “The Free State of Jones,” but no one is sure if this is true. What we do know is that they caused a lot of trouble for the Confederates, killing many of them, and even raised the Union flag over the courthouse in the city of Ellisville. Support for the Knight company spread throughout southern Mississippi, and the number of fighters grew. This did not stop the Confederates from retaliating, though, as they continued to hunt down and execute members of the Knight Company. Some of the “Knights” even rejoined the Confederate Army to avoid a death sentence.
Knight survived the war and was given a job overseeing poor relief for Jones County after the fighting ended. He also worked to make sure that all slaves in the area were set free and tried to provide protection so that African-Americans could safely vote, though he met with some resistance on that score.
He also moved in with one of his grandfather’s former slaves, Rachel, even though he was still married to another woman. He had five children with Rachel and had several other children with his wife, Serena. The Knights were not accepted due to segregationist attitudes at the time, so the two families formed their own biracial community in the town of Soso, Mississippi.
Newton Knight died in 1922, anti-segregationist to the end.