A new Civil War film tells the true story of the southerner who seceded from the Confederacy
An upcoming film set during the Civil War will tell the remarkable story of Newton Knight, a poor farmer who seceded from the Confederacy to establish his own independent state in Jones County, Mississippi.
It sounds like a crazy tale that only Hollywood could come up with, but “The Free State of Jones” is based on a true story, with Matthew McConaughey in the lead role. The film was shot in Louisiana and is set for release on March 11, 2016. Only a few photos have been made public, no trailer has been released, and little is known of the full plot, but if the movie follows the real story close enough, it’ll probably be quite awesome.
Newton Knight was born in 1837 and lived a simple life of farming on his own land. By 1860, that would quickly change after his state seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. Having the smallest percentage of slaves among all the counties in Mississippi, many in Jones County — including Knight — didn’t agree with the idea of secession.
Still, Knight knew he would have been drafted into the Confederate Army. He reluctantly enlisted in 1861, only to get a furlough after a few months to care for his dying father. Then in May 1862, he enlisted again with a group of friends so he wouldn’t be sent off to fight amongst strangers, according to The Smithsonian Associates.
It was in Nov. 1862 that Knight officially became a rebel among his rebel peers. He went absent without leave (AWOL) from the army, then he raised his own, bringing together roughly 125 men from Jones and nearby counties to fight against the Confederacy. This was shortly after Knight allegedly shot and killed Confederate Maj. Amos McLemore when he came around hunting for deserters.
Interestingly enough, the “Knight Company” didn’t technically secede from the Confederacy. Hailing from an anti-secessionist county, the band maintained that the county had never actually left the Union, writes Victoria Bynum, the author of “The Free State of Jones,” at her blog Renegade South.
The Mississippi Historical Society writes:
By early 1864, news of Newt Knight’s exploits had reached the highest levels of the Confederate government. Confederate Captain Wirt Thomson reported to Secretary of War James Seddon that the United States flag had been raised over the courthouse in Ellisville. Captain William H. Hardy of Raleigh, who later founded Hattiesburg, Mississippi, pleaded with Governor Charles Clark to act against the hundreds of men who had “confederated” in Jones County. Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk informed President Jefferson Davis that Jones County was in “open rebellion” and the combatants were “… proclaiming themselves ‘Southern Yankees,’ and resolved to resist by force of arms all efforts to capture them.”
The Natchez Courier reported in its July 12, 1864, edition that Jones County had seceded from the Confederacy. A few days after his destructive Meridian campaign in February 1864, Union General Sherman wrote that he had received “a declaration of independence” from a group of local citizens who opposed the Confederacy. Much has been written about whether the “Free State of Jones” actually seceded or not. Although no official secession document survives, for a time in the spring of 1864, the Confederate government in Jones County was effectively overthrown.
According to the studio’s brief summary of the plot, the film will be more than just outlaws fighting for their homeland. “His marriage to a former slave, Rachel, and his subsequent establishment of a mixed race community was unique in the post-war South,” it reads. “Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, which distinguished him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance long beyond the War.”
While most of his outlaw Army was eventually captured or killed, Knight survived the war and lived to the age of 84. The inscription on his gravesite reads, “He lived for others.”
These photos purportedly show some of the sets from the movie when it filmed in Clinton, Louisiana: