deason house

Hollywood has struck again with another “Civil War” movie that, unsurprisingly as it may seem, does not do justice to the real Southland or the Confederacy.  The latest episode is an epic by director Gary Ross, “Free State of Jones,” starring Matthew McConaughey as the film’s hero, Newt Knight.

“Free State of Jones” tells the story of a Knight-led rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi, whereby the county allegedly seceded and declared itself a free state.  This rebellion against the Southern Republic centered on the infamous “Twenty Negro Law” that exempted large slave-owners from the draft, raising the cry “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”

But aside from trashing history, the film has made Hollywood, and many of those on the political left, leap for joy because it does two things:  It supposedly destroys the “Lost Cause” narrative of a monolithic South, for here is a new hero fighting against the Davis government who is pro-union and, most importantly, anti-Confederate, thereby giving them a club to beat against the mythic notion of a strong and unified Southern Confederacy.

And secondly, helping this leftwing false narrative, the hero, Newt Knight, also brings in freed slaves as part of his band of freedom fighters and later has children with a former slave in what can be considered a common law marriage, essentially creating a racially mixed community.  Both Knight and the slave Rachel remained a couple until her death in 1889. So Knight is made into what amounts to an abolitionist, civil rights icon in favor of racial equality, which is why this film caught the attention of Hollywood.  There were other counties that allegedly seceded from the Confederacy, like Jackson County, Alabama, but none of the other rebellions had the juicy mixed race component.[1]

One writer, Kevin M. Levin, a Fellow in Public Humanities at Harvard University’s Colonial North America Project (which should tell you all you need to know), pronounced months before its release that the film had “delivered another nail in the Lost Cause coffin,” a narrative that he says “claimed a unified white populace and loyal slave population that valiantly resisted invading ‘Yankee’ hordes.”[2]

But this film does nothing of the sort.  It is but loosely based on events in the county during the war years. I know because I am a native of the “Free State of Jones,” born there in 1973.  I lived the first 40 years of my life in my hometown of Ellisville, Mississippi, before moving to Texas to work as a history professor at Tarrant County College.

My family history extends back to the days when Mississippi was but a territory in the same area that would become Jones County. I know the county through and through, as well as its storied history.  I know all about Newt Knight, the Knight Company, and the legend of Jones County’s secession from the Confederacy.  I’ve heard the stories all my life.  Every native of the Free State has.

And like all natives I am very well versed in my family’s part in it.  My 4th great grandfather, Riley J. Collins, served in the Knight Company, as did his younger brother, my 4th great granduncle Jasper Collins (portrayed in the film by Christopher Berry), who was Newt Knight’s best friend and second in command in the Knight Company.  So my family genes are certainly interwoven in the affair. But what I saw on the big screen is not what our history tells.

The film’s producers made use of many historical consultants, though none with an opposing viewpoint.  And though it is Hollywood, there are three major infractions that any trained historian should have known not to commit.  For one thing, they cherry-picked their evidence, choosing only those “facts” that supported their pre-conceived narrative, leaving out evidence that directly contradicted their story.

Secondly, they are guilty of “presentism,” which is defined as “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” in other words, using present-day 21st century thinking and using it to judge past generations.  The racial overtones in this film, in a present-day political context, are glaringly obvious, as one reviewer in Chicago dubbed it, a “plea for racial equality.”  Newt Knight “was a utopian socialist and integrationist,” he writes, “dreaming of a world where all races are equal and people keep the fruits of their labor. He’s a hero for our times, though to some extent Ross has had to invent him.”[3]  Invent him, that is, to make a political point.

And finally, they make quite a number of assumptions and heavily use less-reliable oral histories. Simply put, historians do not and should never make assumptions, but this film is full of suppositions, much of it based on oral history, which is of dubious factuality.  But even with the use of such evidence, not all the oral traditions were followed, and certainly not many of the ones I’m familiar with.

But why are these issues even a problem, you might ask, since this is a Hollywood production and everyone knows what they do to historical records?  Because the film’s producers, as well as the consultants, are working overtime to pass this movie off as real history.  They even have a website complete with footnotes to showcase their historical facts –  This is a first for Hollywood – “a movie with footnotes,” to quote director Gary Ross.

So, as a native of the Free State, what are my major concerns?

1) The Title – The Free State of Jones is a name that still resonates in the county with a great deal of pride.  It can still be seen on car tags and county government seals.  But the nickname is not about the Newt Knight saga. In fact at the time of this rebellion, it was referred to in a Natchez newspaper as the “Republic of Jones,” a name extensively used throughout the last 150 years, especially by historians writing on the subject.  Other names for the Knight rebellion have also been used:  the “Jones County Confederacy,” a “Confederacy within a Confederacy,” and even the “Kingdom of Jones,” which I had never heard until I watched the Ken Burns “Civil War” documentary.

The name “Free State of Jones” can be traced back to the 1830s and 1840s. When new lands opened up in South Mississippi, thanks to the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, Jones County, already sparsely populated, lost a sizable portion of its population, as people sought out more land and better opportunities. As that shift occurred, the civil government, in place since the county’s inception in 1826, essentially collapsed. With few slaves, not much government, and a small population, it was a very free place to live.  In fact, the state legislature had to pass a law in 1843 to reorganize the non-existent county government.  Many years after the war, the name “Free State of Jones” came to be associated with the Knight rebellion.

2) Jones County Unionism – The essence of the film was that Jones County, as well as a few of the surrounding counties, was a hotbed of unionist, as well as anti-slavery, support since it was sparsely populated with slaves.  In fact, there were just over 300 blacks in the whole county in 1860.  The film makes it seem as though the majority unionist Jones Countians reacted against the plantation-slave-cotton economy of the South, every bit as much as the hated “Twenty Negro Law” and the Confederate “tax-in-kind” policy.

And to build up this dramatic, anti-wealth narrative, what we see is a large-scale plantation right in the center of Ellisville, complete with a big house with a cruel and unjust master, named James Eakins, who raises a lot of cotton, enough to fill the cotton market in the small town.  The set up seems to be taken right from Natchez and transplanted in the heart of Jones County.  But it is complete fiction. Jones County had no major plantations and was comprised mainly of small yeoman farmers, who raised more cattle than cotton.

In fact, aside from Eakins, there are many fictional characters in this film, nearly as many as authentic characters in the true story – Moses Washington, the main freed slave in the Knight Company who occupies much of the center stage throughout the film, and Daniel Knight, Newt Knight’s nephew killed at the Battle of Corinth at the start of the movie, are both completely fabricated.

As for Confederate tax policy, the “tax-in-kind” that required farmers to give ten percent to the government, it was a tough tax in those farm-based areas and there were reports of rough tactics used to collect it.  But the film essentially portrayed the Confederate army and tax collectors as barbarians. I was unsure if I was seeing the Confederate army or the first coming of Hitler’s Wehrmacht.  One particularly nasty tax-collecting officer, a Lt. Barbour, was also a fictional character.

But the film left out the fact that the Confederate Congress changed the tax several times, including a major change in February 1864 that exempted poor and needy families but also heavily taxed the rich and affluent.  One political scientist from Yale wrote that the Confederate Congress, in this new change, “taxed all property including slaves at 5%; all gold, silver, and jewels were taxed at 10%; all shares or interest in banks, companies or businesses were taxed at 5%; monies in any form were taxed at 5%; and taxes on profits were increased to 10%, with companies that made more than a 25% profit taxed at 25%.”[4]  And all because of the complaints of, and out of concern for, struggling farmers.

And of course the film completely omits the fact that the Knight Company was burning homes and plundering farms of those who remained loyal to the Confederacy in a fashion much worse than actions undertaken by the Confederate army.

In one letter from Captain W. Wirt Thompson to the Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon, he recounts the carnage:  “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.”[5]

Although there was a rebellion in Jones, the county was not nearly as unionist as it is portended to be.  Jones raised eight companies of troops for the Confederate army, a sizeable number for a county of just 3323 white souls when the war started.  Colonel John Marshall Stone, who commanded Mississippi troops in the war and later served 12 years as governor, wrote that Jones County “furnished perhaps as many soldiers to the army of the Confederacy as any other county of like population.”[6]

Several of these units had very colorful names, indicating their loyalty and patriotism toward the Confederate cause:  Ellisville Invincibles (Co. K, 8th Mississippi, in which my 4th great grandfather William Hugh Graham fought and died doing his part to stop Sherman’s rampage in Georgia), Jones County Rosin Heels (commanded by Amos McLemore, who was murdered by Knight), the Beauregard Defenders, and the Renovators.[7]

3) The “Battle of Ellisville” and the Knight Company – The climatic battle scene, a full-pitched clash in the middle of town, is completely fabricated.  The fights between the Knight Company and Confederate forces were more of a guerilla, hit-and-run nature, more akin to what you can see in the Mel Gibson film, “The Patriot.” Or as many a former Confederate said, “Just a bunch of deserters hidin’ out and bushwhackin’” Confederates.[8]

But McConaughey’s “Newt Knight” boasts in the film that his company defeated an entire division of Confederate troops.  The Knight Company, though, has been estimated by several sources to be around 125 men, so the very idea of his victory over a unit that would have consisted of 9,000 to 12,000 men is completely unrealistic and utterly false.  The Confederate government did not send an entire division into Jones to defeat Knight.  A much smaller force under Colonel Robert Lowry came in 1864 and scattered most of the outlaws.

And even the Knight Company’s status in the Jones County rebellion is disputed. According to Rudy H. Leverett, author of The Legend of the Free State of Jones, there “never existed in Jones County a single, monolithic organization of deserters.  Instead, some of the resident deserters were organized into networks or confederations of small, neighborhood squads, each with its own leader.”  And only banded together, he writes, as “occasion demanded.”[9]

The most serious engagement during the war years near Ellisville is known as the skirmish on Rocky Creek, in June 1863, where a Union cavalry unit from Illinois, sent to cut the railroad at Mobile, was ambushed and decisively defeated by Confederate troops from Tennessee, along with the formation of a “home guard” unit consisting of mainly older men and young boys, because most of the military aged men in the county were at the front. The skirmish did not concern the Knight Company, or any other deserter unit, and thus did not make it into the film.

But the incident is telling. After the fight concluded, Lt. Wilson, commanding the 43rd Tennessee, wrote his report, from which we can gain a lot of understanding about the true nature of Jones County during the war, more evidence of an adherence to the Confederacy than in the control of a band of deserters.

Writes Leverett: “From Wilson’s report of this truly remarkable achievement, we learn a number of relevant facts. We learn, for example, that the Union raiders received no assistance, either before or after their capture, from any indigenous partisan force; we learn that Piney Woodsmen who were too old or too young for regular military service were eager to fight for the Confederate cause, even to the extent of doing battle with an elite group of Union cavalry raiders; and we learn that even after the Union soldiers were captured, Wilson had his hands full in protecting them from the natives. Concerning the latter, Wilson wrote, ‘It was as much as I could possibly do to keep sufficient order to guard my prisoners.’ In other words, among the ordinary ‘Piney Woodsmen’ of Jones County, there was no disloyal sentiment apparent in the early summer of 1863.”[10]

4) The Declaration of the Free State of Jones – Even though it might be a nice thought to consider the Free State of Jones to have existed in fact, and although Newt Knight was often said to have been the “Governor” or “President” of it, simply put there is no evidence that any official act, or any dramatic public declaration of the establishment of a “Free State of Jones,” as the movie portrays, ever took place.

There are references, however, to some kind of declared independence in a Natchez newspaper and in one letter in General Sherman’s correspondence but because of a lack of evidence is most likely rumor and hearsay.

The Natchez Courier newspaper wrote this in July 1864: “It may be interesting to many of our citizens to know that the county of Jones, State of Mississippi, has seceded from the State and formed a Government of their own, both military and civil. The Confederacy, after claiming the right of secession, not being willing to extend the same to the said Republic, has declared war against it and sent an army under Col. Mowry, of Mobile, to crush the rebellion.”[11]

The letter from General Sherman in the Official Records: “I enclose herewith … a declaration of independence by certain people who are trying to avoid the Southern conscription, and lie out in the swamps. I promised them countenance, and encouraged them to organization for mutual defense.”[12]  But what that declaration was has never been found.

Even Newt Knight himself never claimed the county seceded. In the only interview Knight ever gave, in 1921 to Meigs O. Frost of the New Orleans Item, he disputed it: “There’s one story that after Jones County seceded from the Union she seceded from the Confederacy and started up a Free State of Jones. That ain’t so.”[13]

Of course Knight’s reasoning was that since the county did not vote to secede, then it did not join the rest of the state in the Confederacy.  By that twisted logic, the county had no need to secede because it was still with the Union. But counties are not sovereign, nor autonomous, and therefore could not separate itself from the state.  The Constitution is very clear:  A sovereign state cannot be divided without the state’s permission.

Compounding the issue further is Knight’s service in the Confederate army, which was of his own accord until at least 1863, when he deserted for good.  Yet in his later years, Knight tried to down play his service.  In a petition to Mississippi governor Sharkey in the summer of 1865, Knight wrote, “We Stood firm to the union when secession swept as an avalanche over the state. For this cause alone we have been treated as savages instead of freeman by the rebel authorities.”[14]  But his Confederate service disproves that entire petition.

To get around that problem, as Knight told Meigs Frost, he only served because he was forced into service.  Mississippi voted to secede from the Union, he said, then the “next thing we know they were conscripting us. The rebels passed a law conscripting everybody between 18 and 35. They just come around with a squad of soldiers ‘n’ took you.”  But the conscription act did not pass until April of 1862, after Knight was already in the army, so he had, in fact, voluntarily joined, as did a great many members of his future Knight Company, including Jasper Collins.

As the movie portrays, and as Knight told Frost, he refused to fight and worked as a nurse. “I didn’t want to fight. I told ‘em I’d help nurse sick soldiers if they wanted. They put me in the Seventh Mississippi Battalion as hospital orderly. I went around giving the sick soldiers blue mass and calomel and castor oil and quinine. That was about all the medicine we had then. It got shorter later.”  But he is not listed on any muster rolls as a hospital orderly and eventually reached the rank of fourth sergeant during his time in the army.  He just decided to desert and start a campaign of “bushwhackin’.”

Despite the fantasy of Hollywood, there is no record of any official declaration, a vote on county secession, or a great flag-raising ceremony, as Knight and his merry band raise the US flag above the courthouse in Ellisville, an event that although the consultants say is documented, the only evidence of it is based on one letter that is itself based on second-hand information.[15]

Colonel Robert Lowry, sent in to put down the rebellion, and who later served two terms as governor from 1882-1890, wrote of Jones:  “The county furnished nearly and probably its entire quota of soldiers, many of whom did splendid service.  No such effort as establishing a separate government was ever attempted.  The story of withdrawal and establishing of a separate government is a pure fabrication – not a shadow of foundation for it.”  Other Mississippi governors of the period said much the same thing.[16]

Nor did the alleged “Free State of Jones” encompass as much territory as Knight proclaimed in the film.  In his grand speech on the courthouse steps, under the fluttering Union flag, he claims it extended as far south as the Pascagoula swamps and over to the Alabama line, which would have covered most of southeast Mississippi.  Yet in reality it would have extended no further than the 700 square miles of the county of Jones.  Knight’s influence scarcely extended further.

Writes Leverett:  “That there did exist in Jones County in 1864 something called the Republic of Jones or the Jones County Confederacy, or perhaps both, is hard to doubt.”  But taken with all the available evidence, including “the total absence in contemporary records of the area of anything even remotely suggesting the secession story,” the only conclusion is that the “Republic of Jones was a legendary, not a historical republic.”[17]  In other words, it existed in myth or in name only, not legal fact.

5) The Character of Newt Knight – The film attempts to portray Newt Knight as a great man, but aside from those in the Knight Company, most Jones Countians, then and now, had a low opinion of Knight.  He’s well known, even today, as a murderer, thief, plunderer, bandit, outlaw, and an adulterer.  One of his own neighbors called him “a mighty sorry man.”[18]

Although a big part of the film centers on the relationship between Knight and the slave Rachel, who is portrayed as belonging to Eakins, the fictional planter in Ellisville, it does not represent it accurately.  In the film, Rachel, with some obvious nursing skills, met Knight when she was sent to his house to help his sick son.  In reality Rachel belonged to Newt’s grandfather, who apparently owed 22 slaves, making him one of the largest slaveholders in the area, so Knight had presumably known her all his life.

As for Knight’s legal marriage to his white wife Serena, who he wed in 1849, the film shows but one child yet they had nine.  While still married to Serena, Knight got together with Rachel, which the film depicts, and they eventually had five children, although only one is shown. Rachel also had three children prior to her relationship with Knight, which the film left out.

Amazing as it sounds, when Rachel died in 1889, Knight actually took up with one of Rachel’s daughters, Georgeanne, and had two children with her, all while Serena lived in the same house. So the adultery charge, as well as the overall characterization of him as a moral degenerate, is very accurate. One old Confederate soldier, speaking of these things, said of Knight, “What he did after the war was worse than deserting.”[19]

Newt Knight was also well known for his meanness, not the film depiction of a kinder, more thoughtful gentleman.  In the 1921 Frost article, a Jones Countian told Frost to be careful when meeting Knight.  “Watch out you don’t come back with a charge of birdshot in your legs,” he warned him. “If Uncle Newt ain’t feelin’ right…”

Knight allegedly committed two cold-blooded murders before the war, one of which was a slave belonging to his grandfather, after which his mother falsified documents to show him to be a minor at the time of the killing, so as to shield him from the law.  The other alleged homicide was his own brother in-law, who he supposedly gunned down in 1861.  These facts are not portrayed or even mentioned in the film.

And during his rebellion, Knight killed Confederate Major Amos McLemore in cold blood, which is the centerpiece of the whole affair.  McLemore, a native of Jones, was sent by General Braxton Bragg to put down the rebellion and round up the deserters.  He was staying in the Ellisville home of Amos Deason, a house that is still standing today and is the focus of the story.  Knight and a cohort sneaked up to the house and shot McLemore late at night as the Major prepared for bed.

One version of the incident holds that Knight shot him through the window, or, in another version, burst in the door and shot him.  Either way, we do know that Knight shot McLemore in the back.  Yet the film portrays this incident in a church, for some reason, with Knight strangling him with his belt, seemingly an attempt to make it a much more dramatic and a more chivalrous act, supposedly in defense of his county and people from the murderous hordes wearing the gray.

6) Reconstruction – This film is one of the few to delve into the Reconstruction period, centering on Knight’s work on behalf of black voter registration, the Republican Party, and the Union League.  In one gallant scene, Knight marches into downtown Ellisville, as Federal troops occupy the streets, leading a contingent of black and white Republicans to cast ballots in a state election.  But again, there is no evidence that any Union troops were garrisoning Ellisville, or that Knight marched into town to demand the right to vote for everyone. Although Mississippi’s carpetbag governor, Adelbert Ames of Massachusetts, appointed him a colonel of a state infantry regiment in 1875, there is no evidence that Knight was in any Union League after the war.

In fact, Newt Knight is never mentioned in any scholarly work on Reconstruction in Mississippi.  And the historical consultant’s footnotes for this particular episode are three secondary books that simply mention the existence of such an organization and the number of black officeholders in the South during Reconstruction, but not Newt Knight specifically.

There are a few other minor problems I have with the film – Confederate soldiers marching into battle to the wrong cadence; Major McLemore’s rank being that of a full colonel; and a reference to Birmingham, which did not exist until after the war.

But the bottom line for this Free State native is despite the efforts of the film’s producers, historical consultants, and historians reviewing it, this movie is largely fiction, designed to make a scoundrel look better in the eyes of present generation.  Yet those who formed the Knight Company in 1863 were deserters, not heroes. When the chips were down, and the Confederacy was facing collapse, these deserters chose not to side with their fellow countrymen to fight for their fragile republic but to abandon their comrades in arms, as well as the cause, and save their own skin.

Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading

Victoria Bynum, The Free State of Jones:  Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, The State of Jones:  The Small Southern County That Seceded From The Confederacy, New York:  Anchor Books, 2009.

Ethel Knight, The Echo of the Black Horn:  An Authentic Tale of the “Governor” of “The Free State of Jones, York, Pennsylvania/Binghampton, NY: The Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing Group, 1951.  This book, along with a short memoir by Newt Knight’s son, Thomas Jefferson Knight, has been recently reprinted in one volume.

Rudy H. Leverett, Legend of the Free State of Jones, Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi, 1984.  Leverett, who died in 1999, was the great grandson of Amos McLemore.

“Free State of Jones vs. The True Story of Newt Knight,” History vs. Hollywood,

Richard Grant, “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones,’” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2016,

James R. Kelly, Jr., “Newt Knight and the Legend of the Free State of Jones,” Mississippi History Now, April 2009,

Meigs O. Frost, “The South’s Strangest Army Revealed By Chief,” New Orleans Item, March 20, 1921, reprinted as “‘Free State of Jones’ Newt Knight in his own words,” by James Karst, New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 24, 2016,

The Free State of Jones Official Movie Source Page:

End Notes

[1] William W. Freehling, The South vs. The South:  How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001), 145.  Freehling also refers to it as the “Kingdom of Jones.”  But strangely this is the only reference to Newt Knight and the “Kingdom” in the whole book.  Also see William L. Barney, The Secessionist Impulse:  Alabama and Mississippi in 1860 (Tuscaloosa:  The University of Alabama Press, 1974).

[2] Kevin M. Levin, “The Free State of Jones Delivers Another Nail in the Lost Cause Coffin,” March 10, 2015,; Kevin M. Levin, “ ‘The Free State of Jones’ Battles Civil War Clichés,” The Daily Beast, June 26, 2016,

[3] J. R. Jones, “Free State of Jones turns a Civil War legend into a plea for racial equality,” Chicago Reader, June 30, 2016,

[4] Rose Razaghian, “The Confederacy’s Financial Policies, 1861-1864,”

[5] Captain W. Wirt Thompson to Hon. James A. Seddon, March 29, 1864, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Ser. 1, Vol. 32, pt. 3, pp. 711-13.

[6] Alexander L. Bondurant, “Did Jones County Secede?” in Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, edited by Franklin L. Riley (Oxford, Mississippi, 1898), 104-106.

[7] Dunbar Rowland and H. Grady Howell, Jr., Military History of Mississippi, 1803-1898 (Madison, MS: Chickasaw Bayou Press, 2003 [Reprint]), 642.

[8] Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, The State of Jones:  The Small Southern County That Seceded From the Confederacy (New York:  Anchor Books, 2009), 4.  Also see Governor Stone quoted in Bondurant, 105.

[9] Rudy H. Leverett, Legend of the Free State of Jones (Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi, 1984), 117.

[10] Ibid., 61.

[11] “The Republic of Jones,” Natchez Courier, July 12, 1864.

[12] Major General William T. Sherman to Major General Henry Halleck, February 29, 1864, Official Records, Ser. 1, Vol. 32, pt. 2, p. 499.

[13] Meigs O. Frost, “The South’s Strangest Army Revealed By Chief,” New Orleans Item, March 20, 1921, reprinted as “‘Free State of Jones’ Newt Knight in his own words,” by James Karst, New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 24, 2016,

[14] James R. Kelly, Jr., “Newt Knight and the Legend of the Free State of Jones,” Mississippi History Now, April 2009,

[15] Captain W. Wirt Thompson to Hon. James A. Seddon, March 29, 1864, Official Records, Ser. 1, Vol. 32, pt. 3, pp. 711-13.

[16] Bondurant, 105.

[17] Leverett, 119.

[18] Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 3.

[19] Ibid.

Ryan Walters

Ryan S. Walters is an independent historian who lives and writes in North Texas. He is the author of five books, including The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding. He can be reached at

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