Legend of the Free State of Jones
By Rudy H. Leverett
University of Mississippi Press
Reviewed by Keith Jones
With Hollywood at it again producing harsh depictions of the South in the new movie, The Free State of Jones, I decided to investigate the actual story. The Legend of the Free State of Jones by Dr. Rudy H. Leverett is the full study of the real facts surrounding these events. Of course Hollywood produced a movie based on the popular legend of a county led by a band of deserters who had been pressed into Confederate service unwillingly. This county, Jones, then seceded from the Confederacy led by Captain Newt Knight to form an independent republic of its own where everyone loves everyone else and hates all of the evil people of the South. If, like Hollywood, you hate the South, its people and especially its history, then this is the movie for you. There’s one problem… the facts don’t entirely square with the story being told.
The narrative Newt Knight and his son, T. J. Knight told claims that Newt Knight reluctantly joined the Confederate army when pressed into service and only agreed if he could serve in a medical function such as a hospital orderly. The truth is that Newt Knight joined the army at the time of secession, long before the conscription acts, and attained the rank of Second Sergeant, a position of great responsibility and not one that someone serving under protest would ever be trusted with. Despite the fact that Knight would complain about Mississippi’s secession had been effected despite his county having opposed it and Knight himself opposing it, it appears that his real beef was with the “20 slave law”, the law which exempted from service any man owning 20 slaves or more. This ill-advised law gave rise to the term, “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” So, in short, it appears that Knight’s disaffection was more a product of good old fashioned class warfare.
Fun fact about Newt Knight, he was a natural born killer who committed his first murder while still a minor. His victim was a slave boy and Knight’s mother falsified his birth date to prevent his being prosecuted as an adult. This likely saved Newt Knight from the gallows. Knight would commit another murder before the war, this time he shot his brother-in-law over an alleged affair.
The swamps of Jones County provided a perfect hiding place for deserters from the Confederate army. There were several bands of deserters and a couple of others held a clearer claim to the true unionist title than Knight and his group. Knight’s group mostly faced local home guard groups in their fights, but despite what Hollywood depicts, his band was driven underground and nearly destroyed every time the Confederate government sent actual combat troops against them. Far from having the support of the local citizens, the deserters were instead feared. The locals frequently petitioned the government to send troops to protect them from Knight.
Knight’s first killing of a Confederate officer was Major Amos McLemore, who had been Knight’s captain when he had first enlisted in the army. McLemore was a very popular school teacher in Jones County before the war and an ardent opponent of secession. Like many in the South who opposed secession, however; once it was a fact, he quickly adapted and volunteered his services. McLemore’s killing did not come in a grand battle with the “brave” Knight.
McLemore’s mission was to recapture deserters and if possible to encourage any willing to surrender and voluntarily return to their units. He had been highly successful in this endeavor, having enticed about a thousand men to return to the army with little actual violence necessary. Knight was unhappy about this and decided that McLemore must die. Knight and a few of his men crept upon McLemore’s porch at night while he slept in his bed and shot him through his window.
If you want to know the true history of the so-called “Republic” or “Free State” of Jones, read this book.