The movie, “Free State of Jones,” was released Friday. It’s bound to be a lot bigger around here than in many neighborhoods, but it’s certainly worth making a trip to the cinema to see. It’s (1) a well written, acted and directed film; (2) a fascinating bit of Americana; and (3) a myth-buster about the Confederacy being a cozy, well-connected and monolithic family.
I doubt my essay below takes issue with anything in the movie, but my accent differs from that of the film, which concentrates on the unique black-white relations of Jones countians. Mine is about the Knight-McLemore feud, but both the film and I feature the unique conditions that made Knight into what he became.
For a story as tangled, and, yes too, steeped in legend as is the saga of Jones County, Mississippi, I believe that the “historical record” is a cross road of accuracy, legend and myth.
My extensive reading includes Jenkins & Stauffer’s “The State of Jones” which, aside from primary sources, I regard as THE go-to text about the Pine Belt, Newton Knight, Amos McLemore, et al. I have visited Ellisville and the house where the Major is said to have been shot by Knight (growing exasperated by the increasingly relentless pursuit of “deserters”). I have traveled the byways of the county and believe that I have a reasonable feel for “Knight Country.”
The “Jones County Saga” is very identifiable with, and important to the story of Mississippi. …………Joe Goodell
by Joe N Goodell
A few might recognize October 5th as the anniversary date of my birth. Significant to the culture and history of Mississippi, however, 2016 marks it as the 153rd year since the violent death of Amos McLemore.
Major Amos had opposed Secession as had most citizens of Jones County, Mississippi. He was a school teacher, pastor and successful merchant in the county seat, Ellisville, as rough a town as Tombstone was to become. His people, established in the South for nearly two hundred years, served honorably in the Revolution and in 1812, and with kin, founded Meridian in the 1830’s.
But after January 1861 when the Mississippi Legislature voted to secede, Amos raised a company of infantry, calling it “Old Rosin Heels,” with himself in command as Captain. They fought valiantly in Florida, and then with heavy losses in the fearsome engagements of Perryville and Murfreesboro as Company B, 27th Mississippi Infantry Regiment.
In the meantime another “force” was developing in Jones County. Quite different from the elitist gentry of McLemore, Deason, Welborn, Kilgore and Bayliss, these were the yeoman farmers of Knight, Collins, Sumrall, Bynum, Reddoch, Walters, Blackwell and Coleman, as tough and rugged as the tall pines which they lived among. Newton Knight was a spirit of independence, an embraced member of these families, who had not identified with the newly forming Confederacy and who claimed, or revived, the sobriquet, “Free State of Jones.” But to avoid conscription, he and several neighbors volunteered as a unit to serve. And they did, with distinction, around Corinth and later at Vicksburg.
By late 1862 the Confederate army needed more resources to resist the expanding Union momentum. Certain units of Rebel cavalry raided Jones County, conscripting nearly all of the remaining men and most of the food and livestock, a “tax in kind” arrangement, leaving many women and children destitute, sometimes starving. Stories about the plight of their families filtered through to Newton, Jasper Collins and others, aware also that many “propertied” soldiers could leave the army to tend their holdings.
Severely disillusioned, even embittered, a few, including Newton and Jasper, who may have coined the term “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” “walked off the job,” back to their Piney Woods, to personally support their own families. They used hide-outs like Devil’s Den along Leaf River, and successfully resisted the horse soldiers ill-suited to swamp country.
General Braxton Bragg yielded to the frustration of catching and returning these men to duty by force. In August 1863 he dispatched Amos, now Major McLemore, with a small detachment and authority to offer amnesty. Likely employing his teacher and pastor skills, he convinced, over just five weeks, 119 of them of the “error of their way,” and to return to their units.
Newton Knight was not among them. Known for his hard-won self-reliance, a devout man but a fierce combatant when riled, he was regarded by the McLemores et al as a no-account and now as an ignorant bushwhacker. Newton saw them, far removed socially and politically, to be arrogant barons imposing themselves as moral and civil arbiters.
The class feud became a personal one between Amos and Newton. Warnings and threats were exchanged and Newton was quoted with “… if meddlin’ is what you want, I can stop that.” He knew that the Major lodged at the Deason house in north Ellisville, a mansion with luxurious appointments, among the surrounding rude farm houses.
On the stormy night of October 5th, Amos, with a few fellow officers, had retired for dinner and rest. As the accepted story goes, Newton eased away from two accomplices and into the house, slammed open a sitting room door and fired a thunderous blast from his double-barreled shotgun. Amos McLemore died as he fell, a gaping hole left in his chest.
Bloodstains in the floor persist to this day, and it is said that the door swings open of its own accord at 11 pm. Although no clues to the murder were found, and no charges made, Newton never denied his involvement and was never caught.
Header image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to aroundmovies.com
Film image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to collider.com
Image of Newton Knight is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to mcbridenovels.blogspot.com