Mississippi Civil War deserter makes for captivating narrative

July 14, 2016 GMT

In the novel ‘Requiem for a Nun,’ Mississippi author William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Like many places in the South, Faulkner’s quote still applies in Jones County, Mississippi—especially when it comes to one particular man born there 179 years ago. That man was Davis Knight, who, in 1948, was charged with miscegenation—which involved the marriage of two people of different races, a crime in Mississippi at the time. The irony was that Knight appeared white, but state law classified him as black, since he was one-eighth African American. Later, the case was overturned by the state Supreme Court, with the notion that the original ruling would not be upheld by the federal Supreme Court. Davis Knight’s family history is interesting, as he was the great-grandson of Newton Knight, a Southerner who deserted the Confederacy, waging guerrilla warfare against the Confederate Army and declaring loyalty to the Union in Jones County. Newton, who opposed secession from the Union, enlisted in the Confederate Army, although the reasons for doing so are not definitive. Victoria Bynum, a leading scholar on the subject, believes that Newton, who joined in July 1861 without conscription, relished fighting, as indicated by Smithsonian writer Richard Grant. However, in the one interview in which he participated near the end of his life, Newton told New Orleans journalist Meigs Frost that he had joined with a group of local men in order to avoid conscription, and then they were split into separate companies. It was after the Battle of Corinth in October 1862 that Newton, along with a group of men from Piney Woods, deserted the Army. Their desertion stemmed from more than poor conditions, including limited rations and widespread carnage. They were more upset about the recent “Twenty Negro Law,” which exempted from fighting every white male who owned 20 slaves. The sentiment expressed by Jasper Collins, a Union sympathizer and Newton’s “right-hand man,” was that “this law...makes it a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Upon returning home, the men were aggravated even further by a system that allowed Confederate authorities to confiscate what they wanted—including pigs, chickens, corn, smokehouse meats, horses, and homespun cloth—from farmer who were already struggling to keep up their farms and feed their inhabitants. Ultimately, Newton and sympathizers for his cause organized themselves into a group called the Jones County Scouts, attempting to resist capture, avoid taxes, and defend each other’s families and farms. It was Lt. General Leonidas Polk that informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis of these guerrilla fighters in “open rebellion,” as they were proclaiming themselves “Southern Yankees.” Polk ordered two formidable regiments into southeast Mississippi, under the command of Piney Woods native Col. Robert Lowry, where they mangled several of Newton’s company with dogs and hanged at least ten men. Despite their best efforts, they never came across Newton or the primary members of the Jones County Scouts, who had subdued themselves in the swamps, where they were difficult to reach, supplied with information and sustenance by area sympathizers and slaves, one of whom was a woman named Rachel. Following the retreat of Lowry and company, Newton and his gang emerged, destroying bridges and railroads to cut off the Confederate Army. Their last battle occurred January 1865 at Sal’s Battery, as they fought off both cavalry and infantry, before the war ended in May. Newton ended up with 15 descendants, nine from his wife Serena and five with his common law wife Rachel, the slave woman who had aided in his survival while hiding out. He and Serena had separated but never divorced, and the two families lived close to each other on their 160-acre farm. The matter of his offspring, who he proudly claimed, whether black or white, still reverberates in the surrounding southeast Mississippi area. Filmmaker Gary Ross has brought the story to life in a new movie titled ‘The Free State of Jones,’ starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight. Jones County Junior College history professor Wyatt Moulds says that it’s “an idea whose time has come.” It’s definitely a worthy film, with a story that underscores Faulkner’s adage about the passage of time and contains a captivating story in which Faulkner himself might have taken interest. (Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and has served on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)