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Additional Helpful Background:
      Notes on Historical Accuracy

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Other Sections:
      Bridges to Reading
      Links to the Internet
      CCSS Anchor Standards
      Selected Awards & Cast

Go to the Learning Guide for this movie.

Notes on Historical Accuracy

This film is reasonably accurate in the depiction of the major events following the desertion of Newton Knight from the Confederate army. As in most historical fiction, timelines have been changed, events put together in a different order than they occurred, and fictional events inserted to represent historical facts. However, on the whole, the movie presents a reasonable view of what occurred. TWM's notes on the historical accuracy of scenes are set out below.
  • There were class tensions in the Confederate Army between the aristocratic planters, many of whom were officers, and the poor whites, who were the soldiers. Jenkins p. 16 & 17. Newton Knight felt that he had more in common with the slaves that he met in the swamps than with the white slaveholders. Jenkins, pp. 137, 149. The 20 Negro Law and the Tax in Kind, which the Confederate tax collectors used as an excuse to ravage poor farmers, taking their livestock and their produce, caused much dissension. Jenkins, pp. 40 & 41, 93. A government cannot expect the loyalty of its populace if women and children are allowed to starve.

  • Newton Knight came from a family divided on slavery. His grandfather, John "Jackie" Knight, was a major slaveholder, but several of Jackie's children, Newton's father among them, refused to own slaves. Jenkins pp. 45 - 48.

  • Newton ("Newt") didn't want to fight the Union, but he was drafted into the Confederate army. "Then next thing we know they were conscripting us. The rebels passed a law conscripting everybody between 18 and 35. They just come around with a squad of soldiers 'n' took you./I didn't want to fight. I told 'em I'd help nurse sick soldiers if they wanted. They put me in the Seventh Mississippi Battalion as hospital orderly." Newt Knight quoted in Frost Interview. See also, Jenkins, pp. 14 & 16.

  • Newt was outraged by the 20 Negro Law that allowed the aristocracy an exemption from army service. Newt deserted shortly after he heard about the law. Frost Interview, Jenkins, p. 39 & 40. To Newt and thousands of other Southern soldiers, this was proof they were being asked to die in a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Also the Confederates had seized his best horse and mistreated his wife. Jenkins, p. 41 & 81; Bynum, Free State p. 100.

  • Newt wasn't a pacifist. People who met him viewed Newt as a man who could easily kill. Journalist Meigs Frost who interviewed Newt, then 91 years of age, reported that Newt's eyes were the "cold, clear grey-blue eye of the killer now vanishing from the West. They looked clear through you." In addition to the many battles and skirmishes in which Confederate soldiers may have been wounded and died, Newt was thought to have committed several killings during his life. One was a notorious Confederate officer charged with rounding up deserters who was also suspected of surveying the countryside for the tax-in-kind collectors. Newt shot him as he was relaxing in the home of a confederate sympathizer, not as shown in the movie, in a church after a battle. Jenkins pp. 133 - 136. Another was Newt's brother-in-law who was abusing members of the household when Newt was off at war. Newt obtained a leave and shortly after he came home, the man was shot to death while relaxing in a rocking chair. The killer was never The man's wife, Newt's sister, remarried and named her next son after Newton. Jenkins, p. 81 - 84.

  • After his first desertion, Newt was arrested by Confederate soldiers, hog-tied, and flogged. He was forced to choose between returning to the Confederate army or facing a firing squad. Newt agreed to go back to the army, only to desert again. Jenkins pp. 95 - 98. It is thought that this occurred shortly after the disastrous Southern tactical errors in the fall of Vicksburg.

  • The character of Jaspar Collins in the film was an historical figure who was Newt's good friend and a member of the Knight Company. Collins deserted when he heard about the 20 Negro Law. Frost Interview, Jenkins, p. 39. The Collins family was anti-slavery, and various members in addition to Jaspar joined the Knight Company. Other members of the Collins family moved to Texas and started a rebellion against the Confederacy in an area called the Big Thicket. Long Shadow p. 6, Bynum, Free State pp. 4, 192.

  • Slaves often gave assistance to deserters from the Confederate Army. Jenkins, p. 88.

  • The scene in the film of the capture of the wagon train recalls a real incident. This is how Newt described it, telling interviewer Meigs Frost that the Knight Company got its ammunition "Off the Johnny Rebs, mostly. . . . We got word once of a Confederate wagon train goin' through Jones County. There warn't many of us, but we scouted up on 'em and got 'em surrounded. The boys all had big drive-horns. [These were the horns used in rounding up stock, summoning the men to dinner from the fields, driving cattle, etc.] Well, there'd be a big blast up in the woods, to one side. Then another on the other side. Then another in front and one in back. These drivers must have thought we had an army in the woods. Then when we came a-shootin', they cut and run./We got a lot of powder that time, and some lead and a lot of sutler stuff." Also as shown in the movie, Knight and his men captured corn from a Confederate commissary and distributed some of it to the poor. Frost Interview.

  • The slave collar worn by Moses when Newt first met him was patterned after similar collars that slaves with a propensity to run away were put into by the slave masters.

  • Rachel is an historical character. She was a slave on the plantation of Newt's grandfather, John "Jackie" Knight. Jenkins, p. 65. (Newt didn't find her through the owner of a saloon. This scene was put in the movie to show the depth of local support for the Knight Company.) She reputedly had children by one of Newt's uncles. Jenkins, p. 69. She was said to be attractive and also a healer. Jenkins pp. 67, 147 et seq. and 296. There is no evidence that Rachel saved the life of one of Newt's children, but this scene represents the fragility of life in the rural South during the War, the lack of medical care, Rachel's skill as a healer, and Newt's refusal to join in the oppression of blacks (when he insists on paying her). Newt probably saw Rachel when he visited his slave-holding relatives. Ibid. p. 65. Rachel and Newt lived together as man and wife and had four or five children who Newton acknowledged and raised. Bynum, Free State p. 159.

  • Newt Knight did not drink alcohol or use tobacco. Jenkins, p. 60 & Frost Interview.

  • There were reports in the Mississippi press that Jones County had seceded from the Confederacy, but Newton and others in his band repeatedly denied it. "Fact is, Jones County never seceded from the Union into the Confederacy.... There was only about 400 folks in Jones County then. All but about seven of them voted to stay in the Union." Newton Knight quoted in Frost Interview; One Union supporter did raise a crude Union flag and was arrested for it (Jenkins pp. 192 - 194), but the scene in which Newt read a proclamation of secession from the South, raised a real Union flag, and occupied a town is not supported by the history. The Knight Company wanted to pledge loyalty to the Union (they were "Union soldiers from principle" Ibid. p. 140), but the Union officers sent to take the pledge along with the supplies they were bringing were intercepted by the Confederates. Several members of the Knight Company eventually made it through the Confederate lines and enlisted in the Union Army.

  • As shown in the film, dogs were used to hunt down deserters and would mangle them although there is no record of Newt having been caught by the dogs. Jenkins, p. 87. One of Newt's relatives reportedly killed three dogs with a knife before succumbing to the pack. He was later hung by the Confederates. However, as Newt put it, "Them dogs certain had a hard time of it. Some of 'em died of lead poisoning too. And then we'd scatter red pepper on the trails, and pole-cat musk and other things a hound dog loves." Frost Interview.

  • The Knight Company conducted approximately sixteen "sizeable fights" and many skirmishes against the Confederates. Frost Interview; Bynum, Long Shadow p 31. They terrorized Confederate sympathizers and drove them out of the county. Jenkins. pp. 164 - 166. While there is no record that the Knight Company actually took over a town as shown in the film, the Confederates certainly believed that they lost control of a town. The Sherriff was scared off by the Knight Company and, for a while, the Confederacy had no authority there.

  • Emissaries were sent to the Union army to see if they could get weapons and coordinate activities. The Union army sent arms and officers to enlist the Knight Company but the convoy was intercepted by Confederates. Frost Interview, Bynum, Long Shadow p. 87. Newt didn't report that any arms from the Union Army made it to his company. Frost Interview.

  • Rachel was a valuable aid to Newton. She brought food from the plantation kitchen to the men in the swamps. She taught them how to throw dogs off their scent with garlic and onion or to grind up red peppers and scatter it on the ground to foul the dogs' noses. She brought news of the outside world. Jenkins, 147 & 148.

  • After the war, Newt and Rachel lived together as husband and wife, and they had several children. Jenkins, p. 258 & 296. Since they were not legally married and Rachel could not inherit from him, Newt deeded 160 acres to Rachel in 1876. This placed Rachel in the elite of African-American women in the South. Fifteen years after the Civil War, only 7.3% of all African-Americans in the rural South owned land. Jenkins, pp. 281 & 282. Most likely, very few of those were unmarried women. Ibid. Rachel died in 1889.

  • Many white men in the South before the War and during Jim Crow fathered children by African-American women. Unlike Newton Knight, most of those men lacked the integrity to acknowledge those children and provide for them and their mothers. Bynum, Long Shadow p. 120.

  • After the war, Newt was active in Reconstruction organizations such as the Loyal League and the Union League. He served the occupation forces on assignments to distribute food to starving families. He was active in trying to help blacks vote. Jenkins, p. 253 & 254. He served the Reconstruction government as a marshal. Jenkins, p. 259.

  • One of the ways in which the Slave Power was coming back to prominence when Union troops were withdrawn from the South, was to falsely claim that there were no Republican tickets at polling booths. Jenkins, p. 72.

  • The scene of Newt rescuing the child that had been re-enslaved on an "apprenticeship contract" recalls the fact that Newt was employed by the military government to free these children. We have not seen a record that there was any court proceeding where he had to pay money as a result. The scene in the film shows the "apprenticeship contracts" and the white power structure retaking control.

  • Serena, Newt's white wife, could not find subsistence in Jones County during the war and left to live with relatives in Georgia. Jenkins, p. 155. Then she returned and lived with Newt until about 1880 and had several children by him. Newt essentially had two families during that period, and Newt was a bigamist in spirit if not legally (because his relationship with Rachel was not formalized). The families were close, and two of Serena's children with Newt (their son Mat and their daughter Martha Ann "Molly") married two of Rachel's children who were probably fathered by Newt's uncle when Rachel was a slave (Fannie and Jeffrey, respectively). Jenkins, p. 285 & 286. When Serena left Newt, it wasn't based on his association with black people. She lived out her days in the family of her son-in-law, Jeffrey, one of Rachel's children, and her mixed-race grandchildren. Bynum, Free State pp. 9, 144, 153.


Additional Discussion Questions

9.  Was Newton Knight just jealous of the richer men who were slave owners? Suggested Response: No. Knight followed his father who rejected slavery. Knight's Grandfather, Jackie Knight, owned a substantial plantation and a good number of slaves, including Rachel. Knight's father and several of Jackie's children refused to own slaves. Some of their brothers, however, followed Jackie's practice of owning slaves, and when Jackie died, his slaves were left to them. This shows that not everyone in the South bought into the slave economiy.

10.   Was Newton Knight a paragon of virtue? Explain your answer. Suggested Response: While Knight had amazing strengths of character, he was also a violent person and essentially, a bigamist because he maintained households for both Serena and Rachel and had children by both of them after the war. While these parts of his character can be partially explained by the circumstances in which Knight lived, they do not correspond with conventional morality.

11.   [This question is appropriate for students who are acquainted with Mark Twain's novel, Huckleberry Finn]. As shown in the film, Newt's development is reminiscent of a famous fictional character in a Mark Twain novel in his attitude toward African-American slaves. Who is that character? What were the similarities? Suggested Response: The character is Huckleberry Finn. The novel of the same name describes Huck's growing respect for the humanity of the slave named Jim that led him to eventually break with the social conventions of his slave-owning society. This also happened with Newton Knight.

See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


1.  Newton Knight rebelled against the Confederacy, which itself was a rebellion against the United States. What does the rebellion of Jones county tell us about the basic function of a government. Suggested Response: If a government does not protect its citizens but, instead, preys upon them, it looses its legitimacy and fosters rebellion. The thing that made Newt and the Knight Company more than just deserters, were the corrupt tax officials who abused the Tax in Kind law by taking the farm animals and the produce needed by the citizens to survive.

See Discussion Questions 4 and 5 in the Learning Guide for this film.


Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical


(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Get involved in community affairs; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment; Volunteer)

See also Discussion Questions 4 and 5 in the Learning Guide for this film.

See also Discussion Questions which Explore Ethical Issues Raised by Any Fim.

Additional Assignments

See also Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


Bridges to Reading:

  The State of Jones, The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, Random House, New York, 2009, is a very readable account of Newton Knight and the Jones County rebellion. (TWM does not recommend the books written by Victoria E. Bynum for students.)

Links to the Internet:

Common Core State Standards that can be Served by this Learning Guide
(Anchor Standards only)

Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.") CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 - 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 - 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards: None.

Featured Actors: Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight; Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel, Mahershala Ali as Moses, Keri Russell as Serena; Christopher Berry as Jasper Collins, and Sean Bridgers as Will Sumrall.

Director: Gary Ross.


In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Bynum, Victoria E., The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), referred to as "Free State".
  • Bynum, Victoria E., The Long Shadow of the Civil War, Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), referred to as "Long Shadow".
  • Jenkins 8*, The State of Jones*
  • 'Free State of Jones' leader Newt Knight in his own words believed at the time to have been the only time Knight spoke to the press about the Free State of Jones, by Meigs O. Frost, New Orleans Item; 3/20/1921 — Knight was 91 years old at the time of the interview;
  • Jenkins, Sally and Stauffer, John, The State of Jones, The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy, Random House, New York, 2009.

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