Birthday: November 10, 1829
Died At Age: 92
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Born in: Jones County
Famous as: Military Leader
Spouse/Ex-: Rachel Knight (m. ?–1889), Serena Turner (m. 1858–1922)
father: Albert Knight
mother: Mary Mason Rainey
children: Mat Knight, Molly Knight, Thomas Jefferson Knight
Died on: 1922
U.S. State: Mississippi
Newton Knight was an American farmer, a southern Unionist, and a soldier in Mississippi, who was also the leader of the ‘Knight Company,’ a group of soldiers who fought in the Civil War and opposed the ‘Confederate’ government. The ‘Knight Company’ consisted of Lincoln loyalists. They were against slavery and formed the ‘Free State of Jones,’ which did not abide by national laws, in their home state of Mississippi. However, there is no exact historical record that shows the exact degree to which Newton opposed slavery. Once the war was over, Newton joined the liberal ‘Republican Party’ and served as a US marshal in Mississippi. Newton may have been an iconic figure in America, but he divided his followers and haters in many groups over the years, owing to his doubtful motives and his tendency to change sides during the Civil War. His marriage to a freed slave, after the war, also invited quite a lot of speculations about his exact motives. The marriage was considered illegal by the Mississippi state laws. Newton’s establishment of a locality where both the black and white Americans could live peacefully also invited a lot of controversies.
Childhood & Early Life
Newton Knight was born Stuart Newton Knight, on November 10, 1829, in Jones County, Mississippi, to Albert Knight and his wife. Theirs was a relatively poor family of farmers. Some reports suggest that Newton was actually born in 1837, and this has been the subject of a never-ending debate. He belonged to a backward group of people called “yeomen,” who were not allowed to study in school. However, it is believed that he was educated by his mother.
His grandfather, John “Jackie” Knight, was quite famous. He was known as one of the biggest slaveholders in the Mississippi area, before the Civil War erupted. Albert, Newton’s father, was a completely different person in terms of his social and financial status. Albert did not inherit his father’s vast estate. He did not have any slaves either. He relied on farming to make ends meet.
Newton followed in his father’s footsteps and never owned a slave. Newton was an ardent Baptist and stated that slavery was opposed to his religious beliefs. He never touched alcohol in his life. He raised livestock in his small farm and relied on farming to earn money.
In the early 1860s, a chunk of Americans, especially from the northern states, led by Lincoln, heavily opposed the practice of slavery. The war became inevitable and finally broke out in 1861. Newton had married Serena Turner three years before the war, and the couple had nine children.
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The Civil War
The Civil War broke out in America in April 1861, and Newton Knight enlisted in the ‘Confederate Army,’ supporting the group of states that believed in slavery. This decision of his shocked everyone. It is still not known what compelled a man who was against slavery to join the ‘Confederate’ forces. Some accounts state that he wanted to fight for his state, and others mention that his decision fulfilled his long-term dream of being a soldier.
Newton did not fight for the pro-slavery ideology for too long, and deserted the army the very next year. Upon returning home, he realized that his farming had suffered quite a lot. Many men were enlisted in the army, and there were not enough workers to work on the farms. To make matters worse, the ‘Confederate Army’ had declared that any soldier from their army could claim anything they desired and that it was farmers’ duty to help them.
In 1863, Knight was captured, along with several other deserters, by the ‘Confederate Army.’ However, he was soon back in Jones County. Later that year, the army sent Major Amos McLemore to Jones County to capture Knight and the other deserters, but Amos was shot dead. It was widely believed that Knight killed him, but no concrete evidence was found to prove it.
Free State of Jones
Soon, Newton Knight was miffed with the ‘Confederate’ forces and its attempts to mess with the peaceful life that he and the other deserters from Jones County wanted to lead. He created the ‘Knight Company,’ a group of 125 deserters, who vowed to protect the residents of their locality from the brutality of the army.
Soon, they started taking action to bring the ‘Confederates’ down. They eluded the tax collectors, killed the supporters of the ‘Confederate Army,’ and indulged in distributing army supplies to the locals. In early 1864, an American flag was raised in Ellisville, but whether the ‘Free State of Jones’ was an official name is not certain.
The ‘Confederate Army’ soon came to know about the ‘Knight Company’ and sent troops to bring them down. Knight and his team fought them bravely whenever they could and hid in the swamps at other times. Soon, heavy bloodshed ensued, and Knight ended up losing many members of his army. However, this was not enough to stop Knight, as he continued fighting the ‘Confederates’ until the end of the war in 1865.
By the spring of 1864, the ‘Confederate Army’ had been overthrown by Knight’s forces, and once the war ended, the ‘Union Army’ took over Jones County. Knight was then tasked with providing food to the poor, which was earlier taken away by the ‘Confederate Army.’ He also embarked on several missions to free the slave children in the nearby counties. He supported the ‘Republican Party’ and returned to farming once things went back to normal in the country.
In 1870, Knight filed a petition to honor several members of the ‘Knight Company,’ who had put their life on line to fight the ‘Confederates.’ In 1875, he went on a mission to make sure that the slaves were given enough rights, such as the right to vote. However, as it turned out, it was a fight that went on a little longer.
Later Life & Legacy
Newton Knight fell in love with a former slave girl, Rachel, and married her. The couple had five children. His first wife, Serena, and her children lived nearby. Although it is not known whether Serena was happy with her husband’s marriage to a black woman, accounts claim that she gave birth to one of his children after his second marriage. This could be an indication that she had no problem with Knight’s second marriage.
Newton’s second marriage was not accepted by the law of Mississippi. However, he did not care and lived with his second wife for the rest of his life. A controversial aspect of his life was the fact that many of his children from both his wives intermarried later.
Newton died on February 16, 1922, at the age of 92. The Mississippi laws forbade his resting place to be near Rachel, his black wife. In spite of this, he requested to be buried in the same cemetery, which is now known as the ‘Knight Family Cemetery.’ Newton’s grave reads “He lived for others.”
Newton Knight is known as one of the national heroes of America. Several films and novels have been based on his life. The Gary Ross-directed 2016 film ‘Free State of Jones’ starred Matthew McConaughey as Newton. The film was a major critical and commercial debacle. However, it was appreciated for its noble intentions of portraying an American hero in his true glory.