This weekend I saw Free State of Jones, a dramatic and thought-provoking depiction of one man’s little known contribution to the Civil War. A controversial figure even among his own kin and understandably so – to some Newton Knight is a hero and unheralded example of civil disobedience, a Robin Hood of sorts standing up for the rights of poor whites and blacks in a war and its aftermath that pitted neighbor against neighbor and fueled sentiments of personal and states rights to preserve a way of life that benefited the privileged few. To others Knight was a traitor to the South, an outlaw, a murderer, adulterer and thief. The movie depicted the former view, but a little research on Newton Knight and Jones County, Mississippi reveals that others held the latter view.
Newton Knight was a complex man – a deserter and rebel, husband to Serena Turner, lover and later husband to former slave Rachel, loving father to children by both women, leader of a rebellion to some, outlaw and assassin to others. The descendant of slave owners yet owning no slaves, Knight was incensed that he and others had to fight a war, while the privileged owners of 20 or more slaves could go home and that the poor were taxed to the point of starvation to support the South’s war effort. Knight led others in a rebellion that took Jones County from Confederate control and offered support to Union forces. After the war, Knight continued to rebel against southern political forces and moral conventions, helping in Reconstruction efforts, marrying Rachel, and even in death being buried by her side.
Regardless of where you stand, it is important to uncover these hidden stories and to know history is much more complex than condensed text and common lore would have us believe. I have a passion for reading, hearing and telling stories of how we got where we are today. I love when a story challenges my thinking. Free State of Jones made me view the Civil War through a different lens.
You can read more about Newton Knight here.