By Bill Minor
JACKSON – No character who has tread the landscape of this state in its 194-year history has stirred more legend for historians than Jones County’s Newton Knight. The pro-Union, dead-eyed backwoodsman in 1862 walked off in disgust from his Confederate army unit, coming home to form a band of renegades that, like swamp-foxes, defied capture.
Somehow, however, his story has always been elusive as to what is hard fact and what is myth.
At the center of the controversy is whether or not the war was fought over slavery. He was anti-slavery, and sired many progeny by a black wife (and ex-slave) as well as a white wife. In death, he preferred to be interred next to Rachel, his black wife.
Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post reporter and John Stauffer, a Harvard historian, have weighed in with “The State of Jones” as the latest tome to recreate the life and times of Mississippi’s most noted Civil War dissenter.
Not only does Newt Knight in the Jenkins-Stauffer account show that slavery was the war’s dominant cause, but also underscores the back story: that it was rich slaveholders’ war largely fought by small farmers who owned no slaves. Knight says the breaking point that caused him to desert after the prolonged, bloody battle of Corinth in October, 1862 was enactment of the “20 Negro Law,” that exempted men who owned 20 or more slaves from Confederate military duty.
(I rarely mention that my paternal grandfather, Alexander F. Minor, was an infantry private in the 34th Mississippi Regiment of the Confederate Army. A native of Virginia, he had settled outside Sardis to farm after his first wife died. I never met him before he died in a Confederate soldier’s home. He owned no slaves.)
Jenkins and Stauffer seem to rely heavily on a rare personal interview with Knight in 1921 (a year before his death) at his rustic backwoods farm written by Meigs O. Frost, a colorful reporter and author for the old New Orleans Item.
Frost’s best recollections of his interview with Knight were how he and his fellow outliers managed to elude Confederate raiders who tried to hunt them down with bloodhounds. “We organized this company and they elected me captain,” Knight had told Frost. But the Rebs could never find them in the cane breaks and swamps.
Because Knight remained a strong Unionist, it followed that in post-Civil War Mississippi he was considered a staunch Republican. He even managed to get a visit with Adelbert Ames, the respected Union Army general who first was sent as military governor of Mississippi immediately after the war, then elected the state’s governor in 1873. Knight had gone to urge Ames to request U.S. troops to protect black voters in 1875 state elections because numerous episodes of intimidation and murders of black freedmen by “White Liners,” – ex-Confederate soldiers – had broken out around the state. Ames’ request for troops was turned down by President Ulysses Grant.
The November, 1876 state elections, known by white Mississippians as the “redemption” election, swept virtually all black Republicans from the Legislature and handed the Democrats a commanding majority in both houses. Under threat of being impeached in February, 1876, Ames resigned as governor and moved back north.
In 2011, who are Republicans and who are Democrats in Mississippi? As they say, times do change.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.