These Pioneers Tried to Get the Confederate Flag Out of Mississippi 156 Years Ago
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Newton Knight's fight against the Confederacy is still going.
By Darryl Robertson
It was 1864 and the Civil War was raging — but that wasn’t the only thing Confederate President Jefferson Davis had to worry about. In March, he was informed that a tiny corner of Mississippi was in open rebellion: Supplies had been seized, officers killed and the U.S. flag proudly raised over the Jones County courthouse.
The Confederacy is one of history’s big losers, but it’s one thing to lose to the United States of America and another thing entirely to lose to a ragtag band of Mississippians who spent a lot of time hanging out in the swamp. But they hadn’t reckoned on Newton Knight.
Knight — a devout Baptist born in Jones County — never owned slaves and was a committed opponent of the practice. Still, he joined the Confederate Army shortly after secession, serving in the state’s 7th Battalion and caring for the wounded of Company F. Still, every man has his limits: In 1862, the country passed the Twenty Negro Law, meaning anyone who owned more than 20 slaves was exempt from army service — ostensibly so they could mind their plantations and prevent rebellions. Knight realized the law allowed rich men to stay home while poor men fought — so he deserted, only to find himself hog-tied, hauled to military jail and likely flogged.
Knight, a tall, imposing figure with penetrating blue eyes, was sent back into the army only to desert again, making his way home on foot. When he got there, the small farm where he’d planted corn and raised chickens was all but destroyed.
“It was awful cruel to have to stand out and see the cavalry come into their homes,” Tom Knight, Knight’s son, is quoted as saying in John Stauffer and Sally Jenkins’ The State of Jones. The community’s impoverished farmers found their goods seized in taxation and used to feed the army. Mississippi governor John Pettus received a letter from Smith County farmer R.C. Saffold, who warned Pettus that he should not expect poor farmers to fight for a government that allows their wives and children to starve.
Knight refused to go back into the Confederate Army to fight for a cause he didn’t believe in. He organized men from Jones, Jasper, Covington and Smith counties into a guerrilla band known as the Knight Company. Knight, an expert hunter, was their captain. The goal: defend themselves from the Confederate government.
To avoid capture and being sent back into battle, or killed, the company hid in swamps and created a system of long-distance communication, blowing signals into hollow cattle horns. When Jones County Confederates tried to steer a corn-filled wagon through the county en route to Mobile, Alabama, Newton and his fellow soldiers opened fire and took the wagon as spoils. A pack of nearly 100 dogs, owned by Jones County slave owner William McGilvery, were sent into the swamps in an effort to silence the company. McGilvery chased the renegades so aggressively that he followed his dogs into one of the company’s hideouts, where he was murdered.
Now wanted for several murders, men of the Knight Company couldn’t go home. So they created life in Jones County swamps. They knew how to lure dogs into swamps, where they were used as bait for alligators. They learned how to make a dry bed on marshland. Newton’s most reliable resource was Rachel, a Black woman who’d been owned by his grandfather and provided supplies and information to the group, teaching them how to poison dogs and infiltrating homes and slave cabins to bring back key intelligence.
In 1864, the company’s luck ran out: A team of Confederate soldiers chased them, killing several. But Knight himself escaped, and he and his remaining men burned bridges and attacked railroad tracks until the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.
“Newt Knight’s story, and those of internal uprisings against the Confederacy in general, provide some of our strongest evidence against the Lost Cause myth of a solid white South,” says Victoria Bynum, author of Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War. Some of Knight’s scouts were successful in joining the Union Army, while Knight helped to distribute captured Confederate supplies. After the war, he settled down with Rachel, in an interracial marriage that at the time was illegal in Mississippi. They had several children, and Rachel’s daughter from a previous relationship is thought to have married Knight’s grown son from his first marriage.
When Knight died at the age of 84, he had one last rebellion: Though it was then illegal for white and Black people to be buried in the same cemetery, he was interred next to Rachel on a nearby hill.
On Nov. 3, 2020, Mississippi voters approved a change, once and for all deleting the Confederate flag from the last state flag to include it on an official emblem. “The previous flag, founded in 1894, sanctioned the rewriting of Civil War history as a ‘noble cause’ divorced from slavery while approving of Jim Crow legislation, the lynching of thousands of African Americans and the persecution of white Unionists such as Newt Knight,” Bynum says. Days later, officials raised the new flag outside of Hattiesburg City Hall and on the campus of the University of Mississippi.
Correction: The original version of this story carried the wrong age of Newton Knight’s death. He died at 84, not 92.
- Darryl Robertson, OZY Author Contact Darryl Robertson