Newton Knight (November 1837 – February 16, 1922) was an American farmer, soldier and Southern Unionist, best known as the leader of the Knight Company, a band of Confederate Army deserters that turned against the Confederacy during the Civil War. Local legends state that Knight and his men attempted to form the “Free State of Jones” in the area around Jones County, Mississippi, at the height of the war.
After the war, Knight aided Mississippi’s Reconstruction government. Knight has long been a controversial figure. Historians and descendants disagree over his motives and actions, with some arguing he was a noble and pious individual who refused to fight for a cause in which he did not believe, while others have portrayed him as a manipulative outlaw. This controversy was fueled in part by Knight’s common-law marriage to a former slave, which effectively established a small mixed-race community in southeastern Mississippi. The marriage would have been considered illegal as Mississippi banned interracial marriages except from 1870–1880 during Reconstruction.
The 1942 James H. Street novel, Tap Roots, was inspired by Knight’s actions in the Civil War. The novel was the basis for the 1948 film of the same name, which was directed by George Marshall. The film ignored the interracial aspect, instead casting the tension as one of class.
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