Free State of Jones (2016) 

 

 

Director:     Gary Ross.

Starring:     Matthew McConaughey (Newton Knight), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Rachel), Mahershala Ali (Moses), Keri Russell (Serena), Christopher Berry (Jasper Collins), Sean Bridgers (Will Sumrall), Jacob Lofland (Daniel), Thomas Francis Murphy (Elias Hood), Bill Tangradi (Lt. Barbour), Brian Lee Franklin (Davis Knight), Kerry Cahill (Mary / Yeoman Farmer), Joe Chrest (James Eakins), Jessica Collins (Annie), Donald Watkins (Wilson), Jill Jane Clements (Aunt Sally), Troy Hogan (George).

Southern deserter Newton Knight forms the Knight Company on October 13, 1863 to oppose the Confederates in Mississippi

 

 

Spoiler warning:

 

Based on actual events in Jones County, Mississippi -1862 to 1876.

October 1862.  Rebel forces march forward over dead bodies to strike at the northern troops.  As soon as they come over the rise, the lead soldier is shot through the head. The rebels are now hit by the northern cannon, and then by rifle fire. Newton Knight from Jones County, Mississippi works as a one-man stretcher bearer.  He brings his wounded man to the doctors and tells them that the enlisted man is a captain, which gives the wounded man better and quicker treatment. 

Newt gets a rest after the fighting stops.  A friend of his named Jasper tells Newt that a lot of the Charleston troops are going home.  It's due to the 20 negro law.  If you own 20 negroes, you get to go home.  It's a rich man's war that the poor have to fight. 

At night around the campfire, Newt let's it be known that he's disgusted by the new conscription laws.  He says he's tired of this war.  Newt goes to take a piss and he sees someone watching him.  He demands to know who is there and a young boy named Daniel calls out to Uncle Newt. Newt sees the boy is very distressed and asks what happened to him.  Daniel says:  "They took me and they took the mule and our hogs, and half the corn-crib . . ."  The boy breaks down and cries and Newt comforts him saying he can stay with him. 

The battle is on again the next morning.  Newt decides to have Daniel follow behind him as he runs to get to a rifle pit fifty yards ahead of them.  The two start running and don't stop until they jump into the rifle pit.  A wounded Yankee tries to shoot the rebels, but Newt shoots the man in the head before he can get off  a shot.  Newt wants to keep moving to the next safe place, but four rebel soldiers almost jump on top of the two fellows.  The sergeant wants to know who the two loners are with.  Newt says:  "Mississippi 5th, F Company.  We're all that's left."  The sergeant says the two soldiers are with them now and they are moving forward.  The sergeant gives the order to charge, but Newt tells Daniel to stay.  Daniel stands up in the confusion and gets hit by a bullet from a sharp-shooter.  The sergeant sees that the wound is a bad one and he takes off to join his men. 

Newt picks up Daniel and runs him back to the infirmary, but the doctors are all busy working on wounded men.  He puts Daniel in the grass under a huge tree.  Newt tells Daniel that he's not dying, but the boy quickly dies. 

Newt is going to take Daniel's body back to his mother.  Jasper warns him that they shoot deserters, but Newt will not be deterred.  A soldier named Will tells Newt that the boy died with honor.  Newt replies:  "No, Will, he just died." 

Newt makes the long walk to Jones County and delivers Daniel's body to his kin.  His mother cries over the boy's body covered by a tarp. 

Newt goes to see his wife.  She is worried because the soldiers are just hanging the deserters. 

A burial for Daniel is led by Newt reading from the Bible.  While he reads, he see a detail of Confederate soldiers heading out to take goods from one of his neighbors.  The targeted woman fights with the officer saying that instead of only taking 10% of their goods, they are taking everything.  She's worried about how they will make it through the winter, but the officer has a court order giving him permission to take goods from the farm. 

Newt meets with a group of women to see if they can stop the soldiers from taking everything they have.  The women gather their weapons from their houses.  Newt shows them a deer horn and tells them to blow on the horn if the Confederates return. 

Newt has a son with a high fever.  He tells his wife he is going to sneak over to Sally's road house to see if she can provide them with some assistance. 

Sally tells Newt that they don't have a doctor now.  The doctor they had left for Alabama.  She suggests that Newt make use of this Creole slave over at Eakins' plantation.  The girl is a healer. 

The healer comes to Newt's home and starts to work on the child.  In the morning, the slave says the child is all cool now.  Newt thanks her for what she did and gives her a small gold trinket, because he has no money. 

In the future.  A relative of Newt is being tried for violating the Mississippi anti-miscegenation laws (that is, laws against inter-racial mixture).  The great grandson of Newton Knight is trying to marry a white woman and the state maintains that the young man is 1/8th negro.  The great grandson looks completely white, but the state still wants to ban the marriage. 

Back to the past.  Newt comes riding up fast on horseback.  He is coming to the aide of a poor woman with three small girls.  Newt gives the girls a quick lesson in how to fire a shotgun. 

As the Confederates come to the farm, everyone  brandishes a weapon.  Newt prepares the girls to take their stands for a showdown.  The soldiers ride up and the officer starts laughing at the sight before him.  His name is Lt. Barbour.  He approaches Newt, but Newt tells him to stop.  The officer stops but still thinks the situation is a joke.  Newt comments that they have more guns trained on the soldiers.  Barbour look over at the barn where he sees a number of rifle barrels protruding out of the portals.  (He doesn't know that no one's behind the gun barrels.)  Barbour says he'll be back and leaves.

Trackers with dogs arrive at Newt's farm.  Newt has to start running for his live.  One of the dogs is let loose and he catches up with Newt.  Newt is getting badly bitten, so he has to take out his knife and kill the dog.  The deserter now starts limping away. 

Newt goes to Sally's place and she patches up his wound.  She then tells black George to take Newt out to the swamps where there are people who can help Newt. 

George rows a boat out into the deep swamps.  He places Newt on a small patch of ground and tells him to sit on a log and wait for "they" will come soon.  George leaves.

After a good wait, the black healer (Rachel) comes for Newt.  She says she is here to show Newt the way through the swamp.  As they prepare to go through the water, Rachel tells him to step where she steps because she will be going through the shallow part of the swamp. 

It's night before they reach their destination.  Around a campfire, Newt sees a group of blacks relaxing.  He tells Rachel that they are runaways.  She replies:  "Ain't you?" 

One of the slaves, named Moses, patches up Mr. Newt's leg. 

Back home, four soldiers keep a watch on Newt's house.  In town, Newt's wife sees a wanted poster for her husband.  She packs her stuff in a wagon to leave.

Newt receives a gift of shot guns for the runaways.  Moses has to wear a heavy collar put there as a punishment by his master.  Newt hammers on the collar pin and breaks it off to free Moses.  The banging draws the attentions of the dog hunters and the dog barking grows louder and louder as they near the hideout.  The runaways take their places for the arrival of the hunters.  When the hunters arrive all four of them are killed quickly.  For supper they eat one of the dogs. 

Rachel becomes very friendly with Newt.  He shows her how to shoot a shotgun. 

July 1863.  Vicksburg falls to Union Forces.  Confederate desertions increase.  One of the deserters is Newt's friend Jasper.  Newt brings Jasper and two other deserters to the hideout place.  When Jasper arrives, he's surprised to see his colleague Will already at the hideout. 

The deserters and runaways steal a wagon full of goodies taken from the farmers.  Lt. Barbour was the leader of the detail.  All the Confederates are allowed to leave, but without the wagon. 

Barbour has to explain what happed to his superior office.  The lieutenant says the men call themselves "The Free Men of Jones County".  The superior officer dismisses the renegade group as half a dozen scared deserters. 

At the hideout, Newt befriends a young man.  The fellow says he was at the second battle of Corinth, Mississippi and Newt says he was there too. 

Newt visits his deserted home.  He brings a reading book to Rachel.  She loves the book, and he even helps her in learning to read. 

Newt organizes a theft of the corn crop belonging to plantation owner Eakins.  With a hundred people, they harvest all the corn crop in one day.

Colonel Elias comes out to check on the missing corn.  What corn they do find is stolen back from Lt. Barbour by Newt and his people. 

Newt holds a big picnic out in the swamp.  Colonel Elias can easily see the smoke rising above the swamp.  He explains to a civilian that his cavalry can't get into the swamp. 

There's a really hardened racist white man named Ward that gives Moses a real hard time.  He calls Moses a nigger and tells him to stop taking the pork from the cooked pig.  Moses says that the white man is now a nigger too.  Newt intervenes and tells the redneck that Moses has a good point. 

Colonel Elias pays a visit to Miss Sally.  He wants her to tell Newt that if he will come out of the swamp and stop his shenanigans, the Confederacy will grant Newt a pardon and no one will be hanged. 

George takes Miss Sally's note to Newt in the swamp.  Newt's answer is to say:  "No thanks." 

The Colonel burns some of the homes of Newt's men and then puts up notices that if the swamp fighters will give up their arms and settle down, they will receive a pardon.  Some of the men are interested in the offer. 

Rachel got a beating from her master because this one time she refused to be raped.  Newt finds out and for revenge burns up all of Eakins' cotton bails.

The Colonel burns down more of the houses.  Newt learns that a full troop transport is headed out of Meridian with 50 soldiers.  He tells his men that they are going to blow up the railroad tracks.  Ward gives Newt a hard time saying it seems like Newt is fighting for the Yankees.  Furthermore, Newt is fighting to protect the slaves (meaning Newt's Rachel).  Newt tells Ward that he can leave the camp at anytime. 

At night, Ward convinces another man, the young corporal and his brother to come with him.  The next morning the four show up.  The Colonel is mad because it's only two men and two boys.  He tells Lt. Barbour to hang the four and he rides off. The sentences are carried out. 

Newt is very angry about the hangings.  He gives a talk to his men condemning the hangings. 

The Confederates wait at the church for the burial of the four hanged bodies.  Wagons with coffins are brought to the church.  The Colonel thinks Newt and his men will show up for the burials, and his soldiers will be ready for them. The women walk toward the graves, but they throw open their black capes and start killing the soldiers with revolvers.  Out from the coffins arise armed men and they start shooting soldiers.  Then from underneath the church, Newt's other men start killing more soldiers.  The Colonel tries to get away, but his horse is hit and down they both go.  Then the Colonel gets shot in the right shoulder.   Now he goes to hide inside the church. 

Newt follows after the Colonel.  He knows where the Colonel is because the wounded man left a blood trail.  Newt shoots the Colonel three times and then uses his belt to strangle the man.  He then drags the Colonel's body outside to shouts of approval from his people.  He then tells the men and women:  "Let's go!"

There is a fight with the soldiers in the town of Ellisville, Mississippi, March 1864.   [Ellisville is the first county seat of Jones County and is southwest of Meridian.]  With the help of a cannon, Newt's men route the Confederate soldiers.  They take over the town hall and then bring down the confederate flag and raise the flag of the United States.

Newt sends out a messenger to tell William T. Sherman that Newt's army needs all kinds of supplies to take care of the Confederates in their area. 

At night Newt takes Rachel with him to a hotel room. 

Confederate Headquarters, Demopolis, Alabama.  The body of Colonel Elias lays on a fancy table.  Men talk about Newt's army and how they control the land from Meridian (east of Jackson and near the state's eastern border with Alabama) to the Pascagoula River (Pascagoula is also a town near the Gulf of Mexico).  They hold all of Jones, Jasper, Perry and half of Smith counties.

Colonel Lowry marches on Ellisville with over 1,000 men.  Meanwhile, supplies arrive from Sherman.  He only sends them 100 rifles.  Sherman says the area is not a strategic one.  This rankles Newt, and he says it's back in the swamps for them.  A lot of the men, however, don't want to fight Lowry and his men. Quite a few of the men leave Ellisville. 

Newt declares a new state, called the Free State of Jones.  Newt returns to the swamps.

April 1865.  The Civil War ends.

June 1865.  The war over, freedmen cultivate their own plots of land for the first time. 

Newt has to tell the former slavea that the new President, Andrew Johnson, has reneged on the promise of 40 acres and a mule.  The rich plantation owner, Eakins, will get all his land back.  Moses comments:  "We're free, but we ain't free."

Rachel convinces Newt to sell his property and buy an area called Soso.  Soso becomes a black community of farmers.  Rachel becomes a teacher in the Freedman's School (established by the Federal Government in 1865).  

Serena comes to Soso with her little boy because she has no where else to go.  She lives with Newt and Rachel, but in a separate shack across the field. 

Moses' wife comes running up to Newt saying that Eakins' men just stole their boy away from them and Moses has gone after the men with a shotgun in his hands.  Newt gets his wagon and goes after Moses.  He catches up with Moses who is determined to get his son.  Newt tells him that they will both go get Moses' son, but he also warns Moses many times that:  "They will arrest me, but they will kill you."

They drive by the fields where the blacks are working in Mr. Eakins fields just like they did one year ago.  Yes, the situation is about the same one year after "emancipation".  They are slaves by other words than slaves.  Newt goes into the field and grabs Isaac.  They both run to the wagon.  Newt is stopped by two men with shotguns, who say they have papers on Isaac. 

Newt is tried in court.  The judge says that Isaac was apprenticed to Eakins.  Newt really gets angry and settles the case when he gives Eakins $70 dollars to buy the boy's freedom. 

In response to local laws like apprenticeship, Congress puts the South under martial law  Additional troops are sent and former Confederates are stripped of their power.  Freedmen are granted political participation for the first time.  This begins the period known as Military Reconstruction. 

The local blacks hold a Union League Demonstration in Ellisville, Mississippi.  

Moses leads a meeting of the Soso and Jones County Union League.  He reads the new amendment issued by Congress of Article 15, Section 1.  "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."  The audiences bursts into applause.  And here comes the KKK in their white uniforms.  They burn down a black church.

Newt is mad as hell about the burning of the church.  Newt plans to fight on and tells the people of his community to fight on.

Rachel has a son.  Newt enters the event in the Knight family Bible. 

In the future, at the trial of Newt's great grandson for violating the Mississippi anti-miscegenation laws, the Knight family Bible is presented as evidence by the prosecution team. 

Back to the past.  Serena helps Rachel take care of her newborn baby.

Moses goes around getting blacks to register to vote.  White men find out about what Moses has been doing and they intend to send a message to the blacks.  Moses starts running with the whites in hot pursuit.

The wife of Moses finds Moses' papers strewn around their farm.  Newt finds Moses' body mutilated by castration and hanging from a tree branch.  Newt gives a moving statement about Moses at the funeral.

Two months later.  Election Day.  Newt is determined to get his people to vote.  Now that won't be easy because there is small army of armed men outside the voting place who are determined not to let blacks vote.  There are more armed men inside the election place. 

Newt and his voters go into the voting place.  Newt requests Republican Tickets, but the clerks say:  "We ain't got those yet."  The whites laugh.  They only have Democrat Tickets.  Newt says they will wait.  Newt implies the use of violence so one of the clerks says he will go look for some Republican tickets. He "finds" some. 

Official Election Returns.  Jones County, Mississippi 1875.  Democrats: 419.  Republican 2. 

In the year that follows, federal troops are steadily removed from the South, despite a sharp rise in Klan activity.  Thousands of African Americans are murdered leading up to the Presidential Election of 1876.

Rachel begs Newt to move the family to the North.

In the future.  The prosecution offers Newt's great grandson a deal.  If he will annul the marriage, then the prosecution will drop all charges against him.  The great grandson doesn't like the idea.

The court expects the great grandson to change his plea to guilty, but when it's time to plead guilty, he refuses to admit that he's guilty.  So the judge rescinds the defendant's bail and throws him in jail.

David Knight was convicted of violating Mississippi's segregation laws and was sentenced to five years in state prison.

Hoping to avoid a federal challenge to its racial codes, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned his conviction on appeal

Back to the past.  Unable to legally marry, Newt deeded Rachel 160 acres, making her one of the few black women to own land in the South.  They lived on the same farm for the rest of their lives. 

 

 

Good movie based on a true story of a man in Mississippi who organized a small army to fight for the North in the Civil War while living in southeast Mississippi.  Newton (Newt) Knight was a natural leader of men and he took control of three and a half Mississippi counties in the very heart of the Deep South.  Knight fought to protect the blacks from harm by the whites.  It's a moving story because Mississippi whites fought alongside Mississippi blacks.   Matthew McConaughey (as Newton Knight) was just great.  It's encouraging that there were whites in the South who fought against the wicked institution of slavery. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historical Background (from Wikipedia):

 

1837  --  Newton Knight was born near the Leaf River in Jones County, southeast Mississippi.  Jones County lies about halfway between Jackson, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama.  Newt's immediate family had no slaves, but his grandfather was one of Jones County's largest slaveholders before the Civil war.  Newt wrote that he was morally opposed to the institution due to his Primitive Baptist beliefs.

1858  --  Newt married Serena Turner and they established a small farm just across the county line in southwest Jasper County, Mississippi.

January, 1861  --  Jones County elected John H. Powell, the "cooperation" (anti-secession) candidate, to represent them at Mississippi's secession convention, but he eventually vote for the secession of Mississippi from the United States.  Many people were deeply disappointed in Powell. 

July 1861  --  Newt enlisted in the Confederate Army

May 1862  -- Newt, along with a number of friends and neighbors, enlisted in Company F of the 7th Battalion of Jasper County. They preferred to serve together in the same company, rather than with strangers.

October 1862  --  Newt deserted in the retreat following the defeat at Corinth.

early 1863  -- Newt was arrested and jailed for desertion.  He may have been tortured. They burned his homestead and farm as an example to others, leaving his family destitute.

July 3, 1863  --  following the Union victory at Vicksburg, Confederate authorities began receiving reports that deserters in the Jones County area were looting and burning houses.  It was reported that the deserters had taken over Jones County. General Braxton Bragg dispatched Major Amos McLemore to Jones County to take care of the situation.

October 5, 1863  --  it is believed that Newt killed McLemore, who was shot and killed in the Ellisville home of Amos Deason.  Newt found refuge in the swamps of the Leaf River.  There he met many others trying to hide from the Confederates. 

October 13, 1863  --  Newt and other organized the Knight Company.  The group was a band of guerrillas from Jones, Jasper, Covington, Perry and Smith Counties, who intended to protect the families and farms from Confederate authorities, including high takings of goods for taxes. Women blew cattlehorns to signal the approach of Confederate authorities to their farms.

From late 1863 to early 1865  --   the Knight Company allegedly fought fourteen skirmishes with Confederate forces.

early 1864  --  numerous killings of tax collectors, conscript officers, and other officials. 

July 1864  --  the Natchez Courier reported that Jones County had seceded from the Confederacy.

Using bloodhounds to track down guerillas in the swamps, Colonel Robert Lowry rounded up and executed ten members of the Knight Company, including Newton's cousins, Benjamin Franklin Knight and Sil Coleman.

1865   --  after the end of the war, the Union Army tasked Knight with distributing food to struggling families in the Jones County area.

1872  -- Newt was appointed as deputy US Marshal for the Southern District.

1875  --  Newt was made colonel of the First Infantry Regiment of Jasper County, an all-black regiment defending residents against insurgent activity.

mid-1870s  --  Newt separated from his wife, Serena. He married Rachel, a freedwoman formerly held as a slave by his grandfather.

1877--  Reconstruction ended officially and Newt withdrew from politics.

1889  --  Rachel Knight died.  She had several children with Newt. 

February 16, 1922  -- Newt died at the age of 84.

 

 

 

 

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