Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Defiant Knight Company

“We stood firm to the union when secession swept like an avalanche over the state. For this course alone we have been treated as savages instead of freemen by the rebel authorities.”
--Newton Knight (petition to Governor William Sharkey, July 15, 1865)

Soon after Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States in November of 1860, Mississippi, led by slave-owning planters, seceded from the Union in January of 1861. 

However, not everyone who lived in Mississippi agreed with this decision. In fact, some Mississippians’ viewed the rebellious Confederate government as the invading body. This is the story of Newton Knight and his opposition to the Civil War.

Newton Knight was born in Jones County, Mississippi in 1837 when the landscape was still dominated by virgin longleaf pines stood, and wolves and panthers still roamed the land. 

In 1858 he married Serena Turner and moved to Jasper County to set up a homestead where they grew corn and sweet potatoes, and raised hogs and cattle. Newt worked hard and tilled the land himself. According to his family, Newt was a loving father who never drank or cursed.

When Mississippi seceded from the union most of the people in Jones County, Mississippi were poor farmers who did not own slaves. They did not care about their states right to maintain the institution of slavery. In fact, Jones County had the smallest number of slaves in the state.

Mississippi swept up in war fever didn’t take kindly to any southerner who opposed the war. Those who did were labeled cowards and traitors. In fact, during this time anyone who refused to join the Confederate Army knew the penalty was death. So many Mississippians joined against their will. 

Newt Knight reluctantly enlisted in the Confederate Army in the fall of 1861 but soon after he was furloughed so he could return home to see his father, who was dying.

In May of 1862, Newt enlisted as a private with his friends and neighbors into Company F of the Seventh Battalion, Mississippi infantry in Jasper County. They joined together so they could avoid a draft that would have sent them to serve with strangers. Years later Newt stated he only agreed to serve as an orderly so he could care for the sick and wounded.

During this time the Confederate Congress passed the infamous “Twenty-Negro Law,” which exempted planters who owned twenty or more slaves from having to fight. This law basically made sure that a rich man’s war was to be fought by poor men. 

Newt hearing that the Confederate cavalry had taken his families’ horses went AWOL in November of 1862. He made the 200-mile journey back to Jones County—managing to avoid capture by the Confederate patrollers who searched the roads for deserters.

Once home, Newt was shocked to find most of the farms in ruin. The war had taken all the local men—so there was no one to tend the crops, etc. The women of Jones, Jasper, and Smith counties were all struggling to feed their children. 

Things were made worse by the “tax-in-kind” system the Confederates had put in place, which allowed tax collectors to take what they wanted for the Confederate armies. Most of the animals and food stores and even the cloth the women used to make clothes for their children had been claimed. This left all these families to suffer.

“If something is not done by the legislature to open the corn cribs that are now closed against the widow and orphan, and the soldier's destitute families I know that we are undone. Men cannot be expected to fight for the Government that permits their wives and children to starve.”
         --A neighboring planter in Smith County warned Governor John J. Pettus

In May of 1863, the Seventh Battalion rushed into the Battle of Vicksburg. When Newt refused to go back into the Confederate Army, he was arrested and imprisoned. The Confederates tortured him and destroyed everything he owned—leaving his family destitute. 

Vicksburg was a six-week siege, which trapped the Confederate soldiers in a nightmare. After the Confederate’s defeat at Vicksburg, in July of 1863, many soldiers deserted. One soldier who walked home to Jones County after this battle found his wife dead. She had given what little food there was to their children and starved to death.

In August of 1863, the Confederates sent Major Amos McLemore to round up the deserters. Newt organized a company of men, approximately 125, from Jones, Jasper, Covington, and Smith counties to defend themselves against the Confederates. 

This group became known as the Knight Company. Newt, a tall, powerful man, who was known for his imposing presence, was elected captain. He was an expert with his double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun, and he proved to be a skilled and resourceful guerrilla war captain.

To avoid capture, the Knight men would disappear into swamp hideouts, called “Devil’s Den” and “Panther Creek.” They communicated with each other by blowing signals into hollow cattle horns. Sympathetic locals both white and black aided the Knight Company.  One slave woman by the name of Rachel supplied Newt with food and useful information.

Major Amos McLemore was shot and killed in the home of Amos Deason in Ellisville, Mississippi. Most felt it was Newt Knight who pulled the trigger. 

A storm raged outside as McLemore collapsed, his blood seeped into the pine floor in front of the fireplace, and no matter how much scrubbing was done by Eleanor Deason it would reappear every time it rained, or the wind howled. 

After many years of seeing the blood, descendants of the Deason family finally covered the wooden floor with new flooring. This covered up the bloodstain, but it can still be seen under the house where the blood came through the floor onto the rafters.

Today, the Deason house is said to still be haunted. On the anniversary of the murder each year the front door of the house bursts open without cause. The house was given in 1991 to the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. 

They began restoring the house, so it could be opened to the public—several members of the DAR confessed that they were too uncomfortable to stay in the home alone, day or night.

As for the Knight Company men, their fate was not kind. 

The Confederate authorities embarrassed by the defiance of Knights’ men determined to stamp them out. Most were caught, some were mauled by Confederate hound dogs unleashed to flush them out, others were hung, their bodies left dangling from the trees as a warning to others. In the end, many were returned to their Confederate units. But the authorities never caught Newt Knight.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, Mississippi was occupied by Federal troops. They called Captain Newt Knight into service as commissioner in charge of distributing thousands of pounds of food to the sick and starving people in Jones County. Newt was also sent to rescue several black children who were still being held in slavery in Smith County.

In 1875 Newt returned to his farm in Jasper County, he brought with him his wartime ally, Rachel, now a former slave. His wife Serena left, and he married Rachel. She bore him several children. 

Newton died in 1890, at the age of 85. Under the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 whites and blacks could not be buried in the same cemetery. Defiant to the end Newt requested he be buried in a simple pine box on a high ridge, next to Rachel who had died in 1889, overlooking his old farmstead. 

The inscription on his tombstone reads, “He Lived for Others.”

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