Baptists and the American Civil War: March 31, 1864

Newton Knight

Newton Knight

Confederate leaders’ mounting fears of insurrection find evidence in the activities of Newton (“Newt”) Knight (1837-1922), Primitive Baptist and Unionist in Mississippi.

Knight is leader of the Knight Company, a group of Confederate Army deserters and Confederate dis-loyalists who banded together in late 1863 to form the “Free State of Jones” in the Mississippi counties of Jones, Jasper, Covington, Perry and Smith. Knight is known by some as the “Emperor of the Free Republic of Jones.”

Although the grandson of one of Jones’ County’s largest slaveholders, neither Knight nor his father were slave owners. Nor did many other residents of Jones’ County own slaves, as only 12% of the county’s population were enslaved–the lowest of any county in Mississippi.

Like many other men of Jones County, Knight in early 1861 voted against secession. Mississippi’s secession from the Union was driven by the interests of wealthy slaveholders, as the opening lines of the state’s Declaration of Secession plainly spelled out: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery ….”

Yet, like many non-slaveholders who voted against secession, Knight set aside his opposition once the war started and enlisted in the Confederate Army, fulfilling his duty to his home state.

By the fall of 1862, however, the Primitive Baptist’s reservations and anger mounted to the point where he chose to desert from the army. Multiple factors contributed to his decision, as was the case with many other deserters. In Knight’s case, news of his family’s hardships, the seizure of his family’s horse by Confederate authorities, and the passage of a Confederate law allowing wealthy slaveholders and planters to avoid service in the military seem to have collectively led to his desertion from the army. In addition, news that his brother-in-law was abusing his children doubtlessly hastened Knight’s decision.

Of his desertion, Knight later declared, if they had a right to conscript me when I didn’t want to fight the Union, I had a right to quit when I got ready.” Quite likely many other deserters would have nodded their heads at these words.

In a twist of irony, even some Mississippi elites at this time were concerned about what was happening on the home front. At the time of Knight’s desertion, one planter from Smith County wrote the governor: “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.”

Returning home after a 200 mile, dangerous trek, Knight surveyed a scene of despair and poverty. Confederate authorities had confiscated almost everything of value from the families of Jones and surrounding counties, leaving residents hopeless and on the brink of starvation. His family desperately in need of him, Knight set about the difficult job of simply surviving, while keeping a watchful eye over his shoulders for Confederate officials.

And came they did. The crisis of the Battle of Vicksburg led Confederate authorities to attempt to re-enlist deserters like Knight. When offered the opportunity to join the army again in May 1863, Knight refused. For his refusal, he was arrested and imprisoned, his horses and mules confiscated and his family left more destitute than before.

Managing to escape within a matter of weeks, Knight favored better than some. After the loss at Vicksburg in July, many more Jones County soldiers deserted and returned home. One returned home to find that his wife had starved to death, having given the only remaining food she had to her children.

So it was that when Confederate Major Amos McLemore was sent to Jones County in August 1863 to round up deserters, he was most unwelcome. On October 5, 1863 the officer was shot and killed. It was commonly believed that Newton Knight had pulled the trigger.

Thereupon Knight quickly organized a local company of some 125 men drawn from Jones, Jasper, Covington and Smith counties–Knight’s Company. Following the formation of Knight’s Company came reports of Confederate deserters in Jones County looting the houses of Confederate sympathizers. Hiding out in the swamps, the Company was aided by many sympathetic locals, white and black alike, who provided food and information for the men of the Company.

During this time several strands of the Knight family were intertwined in the fight for survival. Serena was Newton’s (white) wife. One of the blacks who helped provide for the family was Rachel, a slave owned by Newton’s grandfather, and with whom Knight may have already been having a relationship. Meanwhile, Knight’s son Tom, born in 1860, spent several of his childhood years in the swamp, later writing his early memories in a book.

The raids by the Knight Company escalate, included instances of stealing army food supplies and distributing them among hungry families. Neither Confederate soldiers nor local officials were exempt from assaults by the Knight Company.

So successful in their anti-Confederate activities was the Company that by early 1864 the American flag was raised over the county courthouse in Ellisville and Confederate officials were powerless in their attempts to collect taxes. A letter written to Union General William T. Sherman declared the region’s independence from the Confederacy. Knight’s raids impact much of eastern Mississippi.

So troublesome are Knight’s forces that they are brought to the attention of national Confederate officials. Today, a letter is en route to Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon expressing grave concern over the happenings in eastern Misssissippi:

Camp Twenty-fourth Mississippi Regiment,

Dalton, Ga., March 29, 1864. Hon. James A. Seddon,

Secretary of War, C. S. Army:Sir: I would most respectfully submit for your consideration the following statement of facts, and for the relief of the loyal citizens of Southeastern Mississippi earnestly solicit the attention of the War Department to the condition or affairs now existing in that section of the State. I have just returned to the army from a short leave of absence, which I spent in Greene County, Miss., and I therefore make my statements from a personal knowledge of their truth. Previous to starting to Mississippi I was aware of the presence of large numbers of deserters and conscripts in that section of the State, but until I arrived in the country I did not know that they were in organized bodies and committing depredations and deeds of violence, bloodshed, and outlawry, and that there was no force in the country to contend against them or to defend the loyal portion of the citizens from their savage caprices and brutal whims. But such I found to be the case, and the whole southern and southeastern section of Mississippi is in a most deplorable condition, and unless succor is sent speedily the country is utterly ruined, and every loyal citizen will be driven from it or meet a tragic and untimely fate at the hands of those who are aiding and abetting our enemies. Several of the most prominent citizens have already been driven from their homes, and some have been slaughtered in their own homes because they refused to obey the mandates of the outlaws and abandon the country. Numbers have been ordered away and are now living under threats and in fear of their lives. It is a matter of great personal danger and risk for an officer or soldier of the Confederate army to make his appearance in the country, and so perfect are these organizations and systems of dispatching that in a few hours large bodies of them can he collected at any given point prepared to attempt almost anything. On the 24th of February Capt. John J. Bradford, of Company B, Third Mississippi Regiment, who had previously been commanding conscript rendezvous at Augusta, Perry County, was captured by them and barely escaped with his life by accepting a parole, the conditions of which were that he would never again enter the county as a Confederate officer under orders or authority, or in any way aid or assist in molesting them. The house in which he was sleeping was surrounded at daylight, and he was called out, and after some discussion and persuasion on the part of the gentleman with whom he was staying, they agreed to take a vote of the crowd as to whether he should be hanged or be permitted to accept the parole, and by a majority of one vote he was granted the parole. There were in that company 21 men, well armed and equipped, and on the same day they took forcible possession of the depot containing the tax in kind and compelled one of the citizens to issue it out to families in the neighborhood.

Every officer or soldier who enters the county is compelled, if they can catch him, to submit to one of the following requirements: First, desert the army and join them; second, take a parole not to molest them or give information in regard to their acts and localities of rendezvous, or to pilot Confederate cavalry into the country; or, third, to leave the country immediately. Through the instrumentality and assistance of loyal friends, and my own influence with certain citizens whom I knew to be vedettes and spies for these outlaws, I remained in the country several days without being troubled, but was compelled to be very guarded in my actions and words. The citizens are afraid to speak of them in their own houses for fear of spies. Government depots filled with supplies have been either robbed or burned. Gin-houses, dwelling-nouses, and barns, and the court-house of Greene County have been destroyed by fire. Bridges have been burned and ferry-boats sunk on almost every stream and at almost every ferry to obstruct the passage of troops; their pickets and vedettes lie concealed in swamps and thickets on the roadside; spies watch the citizens and eavesdrop their houses at night, and a tory despotism of the most oppressive description governs the country; citizens’ horses, wagons, guns, &c., are pressed at the option of any outlaw who may desire them, and if the citizen makes any remonstrance he is treated to a caning, a rope, or is driven from the country. Deserters from every army and from every State are among them. They have colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants; boast themselves to be not less than a thousand strong in organized bodies, besides what others are outsiders and disloyal citizens (of whom I regret to say there are many). They have frequent and uninterrupted communication with the enemy on Ship Island and other points; have a sufficiency of arms and ammunition of the latest Northern and European manufacture in abundance, and I was told that they boast of fighting for the Union.

Gentlemen of undoubted veracity informed me that the Federal flag had been raised by them over the court-house in Jones County, and in the same county they are said to have fortified rendezvous, and that Yankees are frequently among them. Companies of 40 or 50 men go together to each other’s fields, stack arms, place out a picket guard, and then cut and roll logs, repair fences, &c, and in this way they swear they intend to raise crops and defend themselves from cavalry this season. The country is entirely at their mercy. Colonel Maury with a regiment of cavalry had been sent from Mobile into Jones County and had encountered and captured some of them, but cavalry, unaided by well-drilled infantry troops in large forces, will never be able to dislodge them and relieve the country. The loyal citizens are sorely oppressed and are looking to the Government for relief, and unless they get such relief soon the country will be utterly and irretrievably ruined. It is a serious matter, one that calls loudly for prompt and immediate attention on the part of the Government, and as a Confederate officer, as a citizen ot that portion of Mississippi, whose friends and family are exposed to this growing evil, I have felt it my duty to lay the matter before the proper authorities and in behalf of the oppressed to solicit the consideration and succor of the Government. I give it as my honest opinion, based upon what I saw and learned, that not less than a brigade of well-drilled infantry troops, a force sufficient to sweep the country at once, will be able to exterminate them from the country. Cavalry can never do it, and as yet only cavalry has been sent, and only in small bodies. These they have heretofore driven out of the country, and have grown the more daring after each success. Trusting that this may meet the serious consideration of those into whose hands is committed the destinies of our struggling young country, and with the assurance that I can substantiate by as much evidence as may be desired all and even more than has been stated in the foregoing,

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

W. WIRT THOMSON, Captain Company A, Twenty-fourth Mississippi Regiment

Finally, Confederate officials determine to subdue the uprising. In early April Colonel Robert Lowry (a future governor or Mississippi) of Smith County is dispatched to nearby Jones County, were he unleashes “packs of howling bloodhounds to flush the Knight men out of the swamps.” A few of Knight’s men are mauled to death, while ten are captured and hanged. Captives who escaped death are forced to return to the army.

Many, however, are never captured. When Confederate forces leave, they come out of the swamps and return to their homes, chastised yet defiant. Reflecting the yet present anti-Confederate mood of the region, the July 12, 1864 edition of the Natchez Courier reports, inaccurately, that Jones County has seceded from the Confederacy.

Following the war, the United States Army calls Knight into service as a commissioner charged with distributing food to the destitute of Jones County, and with rescuing black children yet being held in slavery in nearby Smith County.

Statewide elections of 1875, however, characterized by the suppression of black votes by white terrorists, reverse the freedom given to blacks during Reconstruction. White supremacists seize the levers of political power and threaten Republican governor Governor Adelbert Ames. When U. S. President Grant refuses his pleas for help, the governor appoints Newton Knight as Colonel of the First Regiment Infantry of Jasper County in a desperate attempt to prevent “an era of second slavery.”

The efforts of Ames and Knight are too late. The white supremacists are too powerful. A century will pass before blacks are once again freely allowed to vote.

Upon retreating to his farm in Jasper County in 1875, Newton yet remains defiant. The former slave Rachel lives with his family. Newton’s wife Serena soon leaves him, whereupon Knight marries Rachel, who bears him several children.

For the remainder of his life Newton Knight remains an outsider within the larger Southern world of white supremacy. So separated are the races that it is illegal for whites and blacks to be buried in the same cemetery. Rachel dies in 1889. And upon Knght’s death on February 16, 1922, he is buried–according to his wishes–“on a high ridge overlooking his old farmstead in a simple pine box beside Rachel.”

Inscribed on this tombstone are the words, “He Lived for Others.”

Newton’s death marks the beginning of a new saga in the Knight family, an epic story of race and racism in early 20th century Mississippi, of which Knight’s descendants play center stage. In 1942 James H. Street writes a novel, Tap Roots, based on the life of Newton Knight. In 1948, Davis Knight, a descendant on the black side of the family is arrested for impersonating a white man and charged, as a black, with being married to a white woman. The case goes all the way to the state Supreme Court. The same year, Tap Roots premiers as a movie.

While Mississippi’s racial divisions have been somewhat alleviated in the wake of the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s, the “Battle of the Newts” continues among Knight’s desendants in Jones County, according to author and Mississippi native Jon Odell. Beyond internal family squabbles, the narratives of the Knight clan racial diversity continue to provide material for popular and scholarly analysis of the larger story of Mississippi’s racial past and present. Currently in the works is a new movie about Newton Knight, Confederate deserter and Primitive Baptist who remains controversial almost a century after his death. The movie is to be entitled The Free State of Jones.

Sources: “Newton Knight,” Wikipedia (link); James R. Kelly, Jr., “Newton Knight and the Legend of the Free State of Jones,” Mississippi History Now, Mississippi Historical Society (link); Jon Odell, “Newt Knight: Emperor of the Free State of Jones” (link); Sondra Yvonne Bivins, “Rachel Knight and Her Descendants” (link); Victoria E. Bynum, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012 (link); Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy, Anchor, 2010 (link); United States War Dept, Henry Martyn Lazelle, Leslie J. Perry, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XXXII, Part III, Washington: 1891, pp. 711-713 (link); “Capt. Newton Knight (1837-1922),” Find a Grave Memorial, including photo (link); Tap Roots, Wikipedia (link); IMDB, The Free State of Jones (link); see also Thomas Jefferson Knight, The Life and Times of Captain Newton Knight and his Company, 1942; Ethel Knight, The Echo of the Black Horn, 1951 (link); Rudy H. Leverett, Legend of the Free State of Jones, University of Mississippi, 1984 (link)