This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves

Trista - December 7, 2018

Not everything is black and white; when it comes to history, you barely scratch the surface. There are always colors hidden among the lines or words spoken. One of these gray areas happened during the American Civil War. When the Union divided, there were states for the emancipation of slaves. These states were called Union states. On the other side were the Confederate States. However, not everyone who fought for the Confederacy honored their beliefs. In fact, just as the Confederate States seceded from the Union, some Confederates seceded from the Confederate Army to protect the freed and enslaved men, women, and children.


This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
The Battle of Franklin, 1864. National Interest.

16. The Civil War Has Always Been About Slavery

Way before Abraham Lincoln was elected as the sixteenth President of the United States several slaveholding states refused to have him as their president. Many residents of the slaveholding states believed Lincoln wanted to emancipate all slaves. However, while Lincoln was against the institution of slavery, he felt that he had no right to end slavery in any state. However, through Lincoln’s speeches and open opposition to slavery, most of the slaveholding states began to believe Lincoln wanted to take away their right of owning slaves.

So that is indeed the birth of the Civil War, at least for the states who seceded from the Union. However, for Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War originally had to do with keeping all the states in the Union together. However, over time, the tables for the reasoning for the Civil War began to change for all sides. The Union side started to fight to put an end to slavery. The Confederate Army fought to keep their right to continue to the institution of slavery. By the end of 1862, the reasoning for the Civil War had even changed for President Abraham Lincoln. Not only did he want to preserve the Union but he also knew for the Union to declare victory and, therefore, keep the Union together, slavery had to end.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Jones County, Mississippi. World Atlas.

15. At First, Not All Of Mississippi’s Counties Agreed With Secession And Newton Knight Sympathized After They Changed Their Mind

In order to officially secede from the Union, all the Confederate States had to write a Secession Ordinance. However, in order to complete this, the majority of the counties in the state had to agree to secession. Furthermore, the elected officials for each county had to sign the ordinance in agreement. In 1861, Jones County elected a politician who did not agree with secession, John H. Powell. Many residents of Jones County, including some of Newton’s family and friends but not Newton because he lived in the neighboring county, believed Powell would help so Mississippi did not secede from the Union. However, due to pressure after voting against secession in the first ballot, Powell changed his vote for the second ballot.

Because of Powell changing his vote to secession in the second ballot, many residents of Jones County were angry. However, interestingly, it was Newton who sympathized with Powell. Even though Newton was against the institution of slavery and secession, he was quick to support Powell in an interview several years after the Civil War ended. In the interview, Newton stated that people did not realize all the pressure Powell was under to change his vote. Unlike many others, Newton understood the pressures that Powell and other elected county representatives faced. Moreover, for Newton, this pressure was just another reason to secede from the Confederate Army.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Actor Matthew McConaughey as Newton in the movie Free State of Jones. historyvshollywood.

14. Newton Knight Is Portrayed In Popular Media

While Newton Knight is not the most famous Confederate Soldier to come out of the American Civil War, what he did during the Civil War should not be lost in history, and there are a few people who are trying to make sure of this. One of these people is Gary Ross, who is a director of the film. He developed a movie titled Free State Of Jones which was released in 2016. The movie starred actor Matthew McConaughey and is said to have followed Newton’s life pretty closely.

The movie follows Newton through the Civil War, where he goes home for a bit to see his nephew killed, his growing dislike for the Confederate Army, and befriends an enslaved woman named Rachel who has secretly learned how to read. The movie then follows Newton as he secedes from the Confederate Army and begins to fight for the inequality the African Americans face, including how he continues to do this after the Civil War ends.

There is also a novel turned into a film which was inspired by the actions of Newton Knight. James H. Street in 1942 wrote this novel titled Tap Roots. A few years later, in 1948, the book was turned into a movie with the same name. The film was directed by George Marshall and starred Van Heflin, Boris Karloff, and Susan Hayward. This movie basically follows Newton’s action on how he tried to protect African Americans through seceding from the Confederate States of America.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
A scene in the film Free State of Jones. Chicago Reader.

13. Newton’s Own Family Sees Him In Two Different Ways

One of the first people to write an account of Newton Knight’s life was his son, Thomas Jefferson “Tom” Knight. Tom, who wrote a memoir titled The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight in 1935, makes Newton out to be a great war hero who makes him proud. While the biography does leave out certain areas in Newton’s life, such as his common-law marriage to Rachel Knight, which happened after the Civil War, it is clear that Tom sees Newton as a prominent historical figure who should never be forgotten in history.

While Tom wrote considerably about his father’s heroism and fighting for equality among African Americans during a time where this was dangerous, other members of Newton’s family does not feel the same. In fact, Newton’s own great-niece, Ethel Knight, wrote a book titled Echo of the Black Horn: An Authentic Tale of ‘The Governor’ of the ‘Free State of Jones.’ in 1951 where she calls Newton a traitor to the Confederate States of America. Furthermore, she wrote about the subject Tom failed to mention, Newton’s secret relationship with a freedwoman named Rachel.

Ethel even took this a step further to state the Knight Company which her uncle had founded to try to help the injustices of the African American community during the Civil War was unjust. She said that Newton manipulated others to join his cause. Ethel also stated that he was a cruel man who was ignorant and a murder. She stated she wrote the book to try to bring out the truth to who her uncle was and believes that he should not be held in such high standards or given a legacy.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
A group of freed slaves. lithub.

12. Newton’s Grandfather Was A Slave Owner, And Newton Might Have Tried To Hide This Later In Life

According to some sources, Newton Knight was born on November 10, 1829, near the Leaf River in Jones County, Mississippi. These sources come from his niece, Ethel Knight, and his gravestone. His son, Tom Knight, wrote that his father was born in 1830. However, other sources give a different year for Newton’s born date. Also, the time is eight years different from 1829. In a 1900 census, where Newton himself would have given the census taker information, it gives his birth year as 1837. On top of this, there are other census records which provide the year 1837 instead of 1829.

While no one knows for sure why Newton has three birth years, with one being nearly a decade after the first, there are a couple of guesses. First, 1830 is only a year off from 1829 so many people believe this is merely a mistake of Newton’s son, Tom, in the biography. However, the same cannot be stated for Newton consistently giving the census taker the year of 1837. For this, many people believe the Newton was trying to hide who he was. Not because of his past or work in the Civil War but because his grandfather, John “Jackie” Knight had been one of the biggest slave owners in Jones County, Mississippi.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Richmond, MO, New Hope Primitive Baptist Church. Wikimedia.

11. Newton Despised Slavery Because Of His Religious Beliefs And Education, According To His Son Tom

While Newton’s grandfather, John Knight (1773-1861) was one of the largest slave owners during his life, Newton’s dad did not inherit slaves from him. Not only did Newton’s father, Albert Knight (1799-1862) not inherit slaves from his father but he never owned slaves himself. However, we are unsure if this had to do with Albert’s beliefs or the fact that he was a poor farmer who passed away shortly after his father’s death, so he never had a chance to inherit slaves. No one has stated Albert’s thoughts on slavery. People have only said Newton’s opinions on slavery, but some believe that his father’s views were similar to his.

According to Newton’s son, Tom, who wrote a biography on his father, Newton did not like the institution of slavery for moral reasons. In the memoir, Tom states that his father was a Primitive Baptist. In fact, Newton’s beliefs were so strong that he did a lot of things his father and grandfather did not do, including rejecting alcohol. Tom further explains that it was Newton’s beliefs and education about the Primitive Baptist teachings that made him oppose the institution of slavery. In 1858, Newton married Serena Turner. Instead of staying close to his family farm, the couple moved to the next county and established their own small farm without slavery.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Confederate Army soldiers. Civil War Desertion.

10. Newton Knight Enrolled In The Confederate Army To Escape The Confederate Draft

Like a few of the wars the United States got involved in after the Civil War, there was a draft for both the Union and Confederate forces. The Civil War is known to be one of the bloodiest battles in American history where thousands of soldiers perished. There were many times when the Confederate and Union forces were desperate for soldiers. Therefore, the talk of establishing a draft commenced nearly immediately for both sides. For the Confederate states, the draft became official in 1862, and for the Union states, the draft became official the following year.

The Confederate Congress passed what became known as the first American draft on April 16, 1862, about a year after the start to the Civil War. This draft stated that all healthy Confederate men ages 18 to 35 were liable to serve a three-year term. Newton himself enrolled in the Confederate Army in July of 1861, right around the time where knowledge of this draft was out but before it became official. When the draft became official, Newton was still fighting in the Confederate Army. While he knew the draft was coming when he enrolled, the selection irritated Newton.

However, Newton would become further angered by the amended draft which was to come that following fall. On October 11, 1862, the Confederate Congress amended the draft law to what became known as the Twenty-Slave Law. This law changed the original draft to state that slave owners who had twenty or more slaves could not be drafted to the Confederate Army. Newton, like many other Confederate Soldiers, became enraged about this new law. Newton, who was a poor farmer, started to believe that he was not fighting the rich white man’s war. For Newton, the Twenty-Slave Law was just another nail in the coffin on why he would secede from the Confederate Army.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Slaves in the cotton fields. Lightfoot/Getty/The Daily Beast.

9. Newton Knight And The Confederacy Never Got Along

By now, it is well known that Newton Knight was not supportive of the institution of slavery. Newton never owned slaves and never believed in slavery. However, once he became a part of the Confederate Army, it was very obvious to Newton that he was fighting to try to keep slavery alive for the slaveholding states. While Newton fought for the Confederate Army for a good year before he finally decided to leave, Newton never believed in what the Confederacy was fighting for from the beginning.

However, the goal of the Confederacy, to keep the institution of slavery, was very clear from the beginning. Therefore, it is clear that Newton Knight and the Confederacy were never on the same page from the start. However, then why did Newton enroll as a member of the Confederacy? No one knows this answer; nevertheless, some people believe Newton felt he had no choice, especially with talk of a draft coming. Newton lived in Mississippi, and he could not uproot his family because of the Civil War so they could live in a Union state.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Map of the Confederate States of Hazzard. Nation States.

8. The Many Reasons Newton Knight Finally Decided To Secede From The Confederate Army

No one never really fully understands why Newton Knight joined the Confederate Army when he was against their ideas. However, we do know that several reasons played into Newton’s departure from the Confederate Army. One of these reasons was the Newton could not play into something he did not believe in anymore. He could no longer fight for slavery, something Newton morally did not believe was right. There was also a lack of supplies for the Confederate Army. Another reason was Newton was not in agreement with the decisions the Confederacy was making, including the first drafting of soldiers.

However, it was the decision to Confederacy made when they enacted that twenty-slave law that pushed Newton over the edge. Newton, who was a small farmer, was irate when the Twenty-Slave Law, which amended the first Confederate Draft, came into effect. Not only did this law make Newton feel that they were fighting the rich man’s war, but he finally realized that he could no longer stand up for something he did not believe. This notion was reinforced when the people who wanted to keep the institution of slavery were excluded from having to fight in the Civil War.

As Jasper Collins, one of Newton’s comrades, stated, “This law… makes it a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Collins was actually one of the first Confederate soldiers to desert the Confederate Army. He left as soon as he received word of the Twenty-Slave Law. So, Newton Knight was not far behind him. In fact, there were many more than Newton and Collins who deserted the Confederate Army to create something they could fight for instead.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
The Confederate Flag. MGN Onling/13wham.

7. Newton Never Liked How The Confederacy Treated Their Own People

It was not just the institution of slavery that Newton and the Confederacy did not agree. There were many things that Newton did not like when it came to the Confederacy. However, the biggest thing was how the Confederacy treated their people, especially women and children. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army struggle more than the Union Army. Because the Union Army was part of the United States government, they would get support from the United States government and army during the Civil war. However, the Confederacy was not part of the United States and, therefore, did not receive support from the United States army and government.

Because the Confederacy did not have, technically, any money to support the Confederate Army they had to find means elsewhere. While many Confederate people would happily lend a hand to help the Confederate Army, many other residents of the Confederate states did not. When it came to the people who refused, the Confederacy forced what they called an in-kind tax. This tax made it so the Confederacy could take what they needed from the homes to support the soldiers, whether it was food, clothing, horses or other things. This in-kind tax did not sit well with Newton; in fact, it was another reason that Newton wanted nothing to do with the Confederacy.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Soldiers of the Civil War. NPS.

6. Once Newton Knight And Other Deserters Of The Confederate Army Left, They Formed A Group Called The Knight Company

When Newton Knight and others who were a part of the Confederate Army left in 1862 after the Twenty-Slave Law went into effect, they formed a group known as the Knight Company. Of course, Newton Knight was the leader and, basically, founder of this little military company. The mission of the Knight Company was simple, yet very different from the Confederacy. The purpose of the Knight Company was utterly opposite from much of the mission of the Confederacy.

The Knight Company was created to not only protect black people, free and slaves, who were living in the Confederate States but it was also established to try to take down the Confederacy. Newton and many other ex-Confederate soldiers had become so irate over the steps the Confederacy had taken not only against African Americans but women and children that the Knight Company wanted to overthrow the Confederacy themselves. The Knight Company created their own Declaration of Independence and started to converse with the Union side. The Knight Company also made it clear to the Confederate leaders that they are “Southern Yankees.”

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Marysville Civil War Days Reenactment of the Civil War. Crazy Crow.

5. After Leaving the Confederate Army, Newton Was Caught By The Confederate Army But Never Regretted His Decision

Of course, leaving the Confederate Army was frowned upon by the Confederacy. Therefore, once Newton went, they were on the hunt for him and all the others who had left the Confederate Army after the Twenty-Slave Law announcement. While it took the Confederacy a few months to find Newton, he was found in May of 1863 at his home. However, instead of arresting him right away for leaving the Confederate Army, he was given a chance to go back into the Confederate Army. Newton refused this request and, therefore, he was arrested.

Upon Newton’s arrest, he was sent to the prison and, in a sense, became a prisoner of war on the same side he once fought for months prior. While it is not certain, some reports said the Confederacy tortured Newton while he was in prison. It is certain that the Confederacy did leave Newton and his family with nothing. They destroyed everything that Newton Knight had worked for, including his homestead, his mule, horses, and any other possessions Newton had. However, this only further enraged Newton against the Confederacy. Later in his life, Newton said this of his decision to desert the Confederate Army, “if they had a right to conscript me when I didn’t want to fight the Union, I had a right to quit when I got ready.”

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Major Amos McLemore as Portrayed by Thomas Francis Murphy. Blogspot.

4. The Confederacy Tried To Take Down The Knight Company By Sending A Confederate Major

Not only was Newton Knight arrested for refusing to go back to the Confederate Army after they released he had gone AWOL, but the Confederacy also tried to take down the Knight Company on multiple occasions. It was after the loss at Vicksburg that Newton Knight and many other deserters who joined the Knight Company left the Confederate Army. Many of them walked back to Jones County, where one went home to learn that his wife had starved to death because the Confederate Army took most of the food they had, and she gave the rest to her children.

It was the anger of these men that created the Knight Company, and after making the Confederacy aware that they were going to do everything in their power to take down the Confederacy, the Confederate leaders quickly acted. One of their actions included sending Confederate Major Amos McLemore, who was from Jones County and knew of the swampy areas the Knight Company would hide. During his mission, McLemore had managed to capture about 100 of the deserters before he was shot dead on October 5, 1863. While there are no valid documents to state which Knight Company member shot McLemore, most people feel it was Newton.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Bloodhound Dog. American Bloodhound Club.

3. The Confederacy Sent Bloodhounds To Try To End The Knight Company

When Newton Knight murdered Confederate Major Amos McLemore, the Confederacy tried to think of other ways to take down the Knight Company. Therefore, in the spring of 1864 the Confederacy, who was thoroughly embarrassed about the Knight Company by this point, decided to send bloodhounds to try to end the Knight Company. While this mission worked to kill some of the Knight Company members, at least ten were hung, it did not stop Newton Knight and the Knight Company. The company came back with a vengeance.

At first, the leaders of the Confederacy believed that they had officially ended their embarrassment known as the Knight Company. By releasing all the bloodhounds into the swamps of Jones County, Mississippi, where they Knight Company was known to hide, they believed they had killed the company’s leader, Newton Knight. However, they soon learned that they were very wrong to make this assumption. Shortly after the attack of the bloodhounds was over, the remaining members of the Knight Company, including Newton, came back. In response, the company not only stole food and supplies from the Confederate Army but they also burned bridges and destroyed the railroad.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
A swamp. Wonderopolis.

2. The Knight Company Hide In The Swamps Of Jones County, Mississippi, And Received Much Support From Locals

The Confederacy had a considerable problem with members of the Confederate Army deserting their post. Therefore, it became a big offense in the eyes of the Confederacy and captured deserters were often thrown in jail, beaten, tortured, or even killed. Of course, the danger for the deserters who created the Knight Company increased. However, the Knight Company had one significant advantage most of the Confederacy; they had members who knew the swamps of Jones County, Mississippi well. Therefore, they would often hideout in the marshes when danger was approaching. Because of the wetlands, the Knight Company was challenging to reach.

Not only did the Knight Company have an advantage with the swamps but they also had a lead through the people of Jones County. Before the start of the Civil War, Jones County was not supportive of secession from the Union. Only around 10% of the population of Jones County were slaves, and the members of the Knight Company felt they related to the 10% of the community more than the wealthy society. Furthermore, the residents of Jones County thought they could connect to the members of the Knight Company more than they could relate to the Confederacy.

Therefore, most of the residents of Jones County jumped at the chance to help the members of the Knight Company, who were hiding out in the swamps. The residents, including the slaves of Jones County, would bring food and supplies to the Knight Company out in the swamps. There were a few members of Jones County who were considered to be spies for the Knight Company and would inform Newton of any news that they needed to know, whether it was there were members of the Confederate Army coming after them or that the Civil War had ended and the Confederacy had lost.

This Confederate Soldier Fought to Free Slaves
Reconstruction of the south, the Richmond ruins. Emerging Civil War.

1. Newton Knight’s Fight To Protect Black People Did Not End With The Civil War

Newton Knight’s passion for helping and protecting black people did not end when the Civil War ended. In fact, he only grew more passionate to do what he could to help the community. Newton quickly went to work to get involved in the Reconstruction when he joined the Federal Army and started to hand out food and supplies to the residents of Jones County. He took his role a step further when he found out there were African American children who were still being treated as slaves. Newton quickly acted to free these children from the farmer.

As a Deputy United States Marshal of his area, Newton took it upon himself to commission an all-black regiment in 1875. He also became a common law husband to an ex-slave named Rachel, and together they began to raise a family. Unfortunately, it did not take long for the south become full of a group known as the Ku Klux Klan, and soon the black community and people like Newton Knight were fearing for their lives. To keep his family safe, Newton officially moved into the 160-acre home he had given to Rachel. Of course, opening living with Rachel highly dangerous for Newton. Of this action, Newton said, “There’s a lots of ways I’d ruther die than be scared to death.”


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Twenty-Slave Law.” Susanna Michele Lee, Encyclopedia Virginia. March 2009.

“Confederate Draft During the Civil War.” WTV Zone.

“Why You Probably Hadn’t Heard the Real Free State of Jones Story Before.” Lily Rothman, Time. June 2016

“The Bizarre Tale Of The Confederates Who Seceded From The Confederacy To Protect Black People.” Genevieve Carlton, Ranker.

“Newton Knight” Wikipedia.

“Five Myths About Why the South Seceded.” James W. Loewen, The Washington Post. February 2011.

“Meet Newton Knight —The Southerner Who Terrorized The Confederacy.” Katie Serena, All that interesting. February 2016.

“The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones'” Richard Grant, Smithsonian Mag. March 2016.

“Newton Knight- abolitionist guerrilla leader in Mississippi.” Paul Wilcox, Workers World. July 2015.