I was in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City 9 years ago browsing through the county sections of each state my ancestors had lived. I know this isn’t the best way to do research, but even with more years of experience I still do this even after I have prepared for a library trip and searched the catalog and finding aids. I am tactile, I love to feel the books spines in my hands, look at their titles and yes, see if I get a vibe if there is something I might need to know in one of them.
I was going through Jones County, Mississippi where my Turner, Graves, and Simpson families lived in the 1800’s. It was here that I first saw the title, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by Victoria E. Bynum. I read through the introduction and index and found that the main character of the real events was Newton Knight who led a group of Confederate deserters and black slaves against the Confederate Army in the last half of the war. Newt was married to Selena Turner. My Turner family is beyond prolific and I suspected there might be a familial connection between Stokely Turner (my 3rd Great-Grandfather), his son Allen Garrison Turner (my 2nd Great-Grandfather) and Selena. But, that wasn’t the time to go off on a scavenger hunt and I knew I needed to find out more about my Turner family before I tried to determine linkages to these historical events. I noted the title and author in my research log for further investigation at a later time.
By now you are thinking you might have heard of the Free State of Jones? The movie is based on the scholarly book (that is not often done!) that came out last year with Mathew McConaughey playing the part of Newt Knight. Coincidently about this time, I was at a book event at our local library here in Knoxville. I talked to a woman who was related to the some of the other families who were part of Knight Company and she told me that they had filmed the movie where she grew up. These are the type of signs I listen to knowing that my ancestors are calling and they are ready to talk! It was time to start researching more about the Turner family and the possible connections to the Knights. The first step was to buy the book by Victoria Bynum which had been reprinted for the movie debut.
Victoria Bynum is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at the Texas State University. She is also a Bynum. She is directly related to one of the families who had members in the Knight Company and other family members who also fought against them. Her book took over ten years to research and has over 100 pages of resources, endnotes, and family trees. Best of all she spends a good portion of the book discussing the development of the Mississippi Territory, migration patterns, religious experiences, and social and political issues that influenced the region.
On the subject of slavery, Bynum argues that owning slaves wasn’t as pervasive in Jones County as it was in the rest of Mississippi. The topography of the Piney Woods is not conducive for cotton and therefore the need for slaves was not as high or as financially rewarding. In 1860, Jones County had the lowest slave population in the state. It was 12.2% of the total population compared to Smith County with the next lowest of 28.7%. The total number of slaves in Mississippi at the start of the Civil War was 55.2% of the population. The people of Jones County voted against secession, but when their representative went to Jackson he voted for it. All these things contributed to the defiance of a significant number of people in Jones County who were quickly frustrated with the Confederate government’s policies and the Civil War in general.
Newton Knight – Unknown Photographer (public domain)
So the quick summary of the story: Newton Knight (1837-1922) was born in Jones County, Mississippi. He married Selena Turner also of Jones County (1838-1923) in 1858. When the Civil War started he enlisted with the Confederates on July 29, 1861. He was discharged on January 2, 1862, most likely because of his father’s impending death. He was required to re-enlisted on May 13, 1862, due to the new conscription law for everyone to serve between the ages of 18 and 35. He served in Company F in the 7th Battalion of the Mississippi Infantry.
Newt deserted the army sometime after the 2nd Battle of Corinth in November of 1862. He was joined by many of the men of his company who were also from Jones County. Based on interviews, the reasons they deserted were 1) anger because of the law that allowed deferment for men who owned 20 or more slaves to go home to take care of their crops (many of the Jones County men owned no slaves or very few and were not allowed to go home to take care of their crops) 2) dissatisfaction with the Confederate government in general (pro-Union sentiments) and 3) poor conditions in the army. Some of the men returned to the Army voluntarily and others remained, only to be dragged back to the Army by the Provost Marshal. Newt was captured in January or February of 1863 and sent back to his unit, but he escaped in May 1863 before Vicksburg. Vicksburg (May 18 to July 4, 1863) was the final straw for many soldiers and more desertions took place after the long siege and surrender to General Grant.
The Confederate Army needed those soldiers back, so they sent Maj. Amos McLemore to retrieve all the deserters in Jones County. Someone shot Maj. McLemore while he was staying with a local resident and though most people thought it was Newt Knight, no one was ever charged. Newt later told a WPA interviewer, “We stayed out in the woods minding our own business until the Confederate Army began sending raiders after us with bloodhounds….Then we saw we had to fight.” And fight they did. Newt recorded 14 battles with the Confederates from October 13, 1863, and January 10, 1865. There were about 125 men in Knight Company with numerous other family members and community supporters, including slaves within the county supplying them food and supplies. Unfortunately, their numbers dwindled after Col. Robert Lowry (later Governor of Mississippi) found and executed many of the men in May 1864. He led the Confederate troops as they burned down homes and fields of the people of Jones, taking their horses, hogs, and chickens for food, and terrorizing the countryside with their 40+ bloodhounds looking for deserters. Many of Knight’s men that were not executed, escaped and rejoined the Confederates, though a few made it to Union lines and joined up with them. However, Newt and a small contingent of the Company were never captured and continued to harass the Confederates whenever they could until the end of the war.
What a great story! So what was my ancestor, Allen Garrison Turner (1840-1919) doing when all this was happening? More about that next time!