With two rat terriers trotting at his heels, and a long wooden staff in his hand, J.R. Gavin leads me through the woods to one of the old swamp hide-outs. A tall white man with a deep Southern drawl, Gavin has a stern presence, gracious manners and intense brooding eyes. At first I mistook him for a preacher, but he’s a retired electronic engineer who writes self-published novels about the rapture and apocalypse. One of them is titled Sal Batree, after the place he wants to show me.
I’m here in Jones County, Mississippi, to breathe in the historical vapors left by Newton Knight, a poor white farmer who led an extraordinary rebellion during the Civil War. With a company of like-minded white men in southeast Mississippi, he did what many Southerners now regard as unthinkable. He waged guerrilla war against the Confederacy and declared loyalty to the Union.
In the spring of 1864, the Knight Company overthrew the Confederate authorities in Jones County and raised the United States flag over the county courthouse in Ellisville. The county was known as the Free State of Jones, and some say it actually seceded from the Confederacy. This little-known, counterintuitive episode in American history has now been brought to the screen in Free State of Jones, directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) and starring a grimy, scruffed-up Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight.
Knight and his men, says Gavin, hooking away an enormous spider web with his staff and warning me to be careful of snakes, “had a number of different hide-outs. The old folks call this one Sal Batree. Sal was the name of Newt’s shotgun, and originally it was Sal’s Battery, but it got corrupted over the years.”
We make our way around the lakeshore, passing beaver-gnawed tree stumps and snaky-looking thickets. Reaching higher ground, Gavin points across the swamp to various local landmarks. Then he plants his staff on the ground and turns to face me directly.
“Now I’m going to say something that might offend you,” he begins, and proceeds to do just that, by referring in racist terms to “Newt’s descendants” in nearby Soso, saying some of them are so light-skinned “you look at them and you just don’t know.”
I stand there writing it down and thinking about William Faulkner, whose novels are strewn with characters who look white but are deemed black by Mississippi’s fanatical obsession with the one-drop rule. And not for the first time in Jones County, where arguments still rage about a man born 179 years ago, I recall Faulkner’s famous axiom about history: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
After the Civil War, Knight took up with his grandfather’s former slave Rachel; they had five children together. Knight also fathered nine children with his white wife, Serena, and the two families lived in different houses on the same 160-acre farm. After he and Serena separated—they never divorced—Newt Knight caused a scandal that still reverberates by entering a common-law marriage with Rachel and proudly claiming their mixed-race children.
The Knight Negroes, as these children were known, were shunned by whites and blacks alike. Unable to find marriage partners in the community, they started marrying their white cousins instead, with Newt’s encouragement. (Newt’s son Mat, for instance, married one of Rachel’s daughters by another man, and Newt’s daughter Molly married one of Rachel’s sons by another man.) An interracial community began to form near the small town of Soso, and continued to marry within itself.
At the end of the war, the Union Army tasked Knight with distributing food to struggling families in the Jones County area. He also led a raid that liberated several children who were still being held in slavery in a nearby county. Like many Southern Unionists, he supported the Republican Party, namely the Reconstruction administration of Governor Adelbert Ames. As conflict mounted between white neo-Confederate resistance (the Ku Klux Klan) and the Republican Reconstructiongovernment, Ames appointed Knight Colonel of the First Infantry Regiment of Jasper County, an otherwise all black regiment defending against Klan activity. After southern Democrats regained control of the state government, he withdrew from politics.
In 1870, Knight petitioned the federal government for compensation for several members of the Knight Company, including the ten who had been executed by Lowry in 1864. He provided sworn statements from several individuals attesting to his loyalty to the Union, including a local judge and a state senate candidate.
By the mid-1870s, Knight had separated from his wife, Serena, and married Rachel, a woman formerly enslaved by his grandfather. During the same period, Knight’s son, Mat, married Rachel’s daughter, Fannie, and Knight’s daughter, Molly, married Rachel’s son, Jeff.:2 Newton and Rachel Knight had several children before her death in 1889. Newton Knight died on February 16, 1922 at the age of 84. In spite of a Mississippi law that barred the interment of whites and blacks in the same cemetery, he was buried next to Rachel on a hill overlooking their farm. Newton’s engraved epitaph stated “He lived for others.”[21
From 1863 to 1865, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson both took moderate positions designed to bring the South back to normal as quickly as possible, while the Radical Republicans used Congress to block any moderate approaches, impose harsh terms, and upgrade the rights of the freedmen. Johnson followed a lenient policy toward ex-Confederates much like Lincoln’s. Lincoln’s last speeches show that he was leaning toward supporting theenfranchisement of all freedmen, whereas Johnson was opposed to this.
The Forty-Eighters were Europeans who participated in or supported the socialist revolutions of 1848 that swept Europe. In Germany, the Forty-Eighters favored unification of the German people, a more democratic government, and guarantees of human rights. Disappointed at the failure of the revolution to bring about the reform of the system of government in Germany or the Austrian Empire and sometimes on the government’s wanted list because of their involvement in the revolution, they gave up their old lives to try again abroad. Many emigrated to the United States, England, and Australia after the revolutions failed. They included Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, and others. Many were respected, wealthy, and well-educated; as such, they were not typical migrants. A large number went on to be very successful in their new countries.