Dominic Green Dominic Green

Knight’s tale

A window on a little known world – Southern Unionism

In The Cousins’ War (1999), the Republican political strategist Kevin Phillips argued that three ‘civil wars’ had defined politics in the English-speaking world: the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the American Civil War. The ideological battle lines of 1641 recurred in 1776 and 1865, and not just because the Sons of Liberty and the Yankee industrialists were frequently descended from English Puritans. Broadly, all three revolts pitted Protestants against Catholics, reform against tradition, and yeomen against landowners.

Civil war cuts across geography as well as families: Phillips compared pre-revolutionary America to the Balkans. In The Free State of Jones, Victoria Bynum describes the ‘inner civil war’ of Jones County,
Mississippi, where a renegade farmer named Newton Knight led a ‘yeoman uprising’ of Mississippi Unionists. First, though, Knight joined the Confederate army, twice. A tall, strong man who was handy with a shotgun, Knight volunteered in the summer of 1861. In October 1862, he and many other Jones County soldiers deserted, disillusioned by defeat and the ‘Twenty Negro Law’, which allowed white slaveholders one military exemption for every 20 slaves.

In early 1863, Confederate soldiers killed Knight’s horses and mules, burnt his farm, then ‘tyed him and drove him to prison’. He may have served at the Siege of Vicksburg; that summer, after the fall of Vicksburg, he deserted again. This time, he and as many as 200 fellow renegades retreated to the swamps of Piney Woods. The Confederate army sent Major Amos McLemore in pursuit with trackers and bloodhounds, but Knight’s men were helped by the local people, slaves included.

One night in October 1863, Major McLemore was sitting in a house in Ellisville, the county town, when someone — probably Knight — burst in and shot him to death.

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