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FREE STATE OF JONES — Rethinking the Southern Home Front in the Civil War

SUBJECTS — U.S. 1860 - 1991, The African/American Experience and
       the Civil Rights Movement, and Mississippi;

Age: 14+; MPAA Rating R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images; Drama; 2016, 2 hours 19 minutes. Color. The DVD also has an 18-minute documentary on the history of Jones County, Mississippi. The DVD is available from Amazon.com.

Description: This is the story of one of the several rebellions against the Confederacy by groups of poor whites and runaway slaves. Newton Knight, was a poor white yeoman farmer, making a subsistence living in Rural Jones county, Mississippi. Like most other white men in the South, he owned no slaves. He did not support secession but was drafted by the Confederate army. To avoid killing Union soldiers, he asked to be assigned as a hospital orderly. Knight deserted after the Confederate Congress passed the 20 Negro Law which effectively exempted the Southern aristocracy from compulsory military service. Another reason for Knight's desertion was the Confederate government's Tax in Kind law that allowed the army to seize food and livestock from family farms. Newton Knight's crops and his best horse had been taken by Confederate tax collectors making it difficult for his wife, left alone with their children, to survive. This was a common problem for poor whites in many parts of the South. (About a hundred thousand soldiers deserted from the Confederate army during the Civil War for various reasons.)

A band of deserters and escaped slaves elected Knight as their captain. They fought the Confederates to avoid punishment or re-conscription and to stop the tax collectors from ravaging the countryside. "The Knight Company" or the "Jones County Scouts," as they have been called, pledged their loyalty to the Union and tried unsuccessfully to coordinate their efforts with those of the Union Army.

During Reconstruction, Knight worked for the occupation authorities to support voting rights for black men, distribute food to the destitute, and to free black children who were being forced to work in slave-like conditions under "apprenticeship" contracts, one of the many ways that the resurgent Southern aristocracy sought to recreate the conditions of slavery. (Sharecropping that required former slaves to work the land on large plantations in return for a portion of what they raised and which didn't allow African Americas to achieve economic independence, was the foremost among these.) In addition, during the War Newt Knight developed a romantic relationship with Rachel, a slave who supported the Knight Company by bringing food and information to their camps in the swamp. After the war, Knight lived with Rachel in a common law marriage, establishing a biracial community whose members came from both his first marriage to a white woman and his later common-law marriage to Rachel. Knight and Rachel lived together until her death in 1889. Knight continued to live among his mixed-race relations until he died in 1922.

As one current resident of Jones County, Mississippi, said in an interview that appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine:

When you grow up in the South, you hear all the time about your 'heritage,' like it's the greatest thing there is. When I hear that word, I think of grits and sweet tea, but mostly I think about slavery and racism, and it pains me. Newt Knight gives me something in my heritage, as a white Southerner, that I can feel proud about. We didn't all go along with it.
Quoted in The True Story of the 'Free State of Jones' by Richard Grant, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2016.

Rationale for Using the Movie: Free State of Jones is reasonably accurate historical fiction telling an important story in American history. It provides students with lasting visual and story-based memories that will enhance other curriculum materials.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will be exposed to some of the class division in the South during the 19th century, the anti-miscegenation laws that continued into the first six decades of the 20th century, and the fact that some Southerners didn't go along with slavery, racism, and disunion.

Possible Problems: The movie contains episodes of violence. Unfortunately, it is not as violent as many films watched by children.

Newton Knight



Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points

Using the Movie in Class:
      Introduction to the Movie
      Discussion Questions


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

MOVIE WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students' minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class.

See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.

Other areas of the South that resisted the Confederacy included Winston County, Alabama, North Carolina's Quaker Belt, and the Big Thicket in Texas.


Introduction to the Movie

There were objections to the Civil War as a "rich man's war, poor man's fight" in both the North and the South. While many in the Confederacy claimed that secession was to preserve government as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, protect states rights, or to resist Northern aggression, preservation of slavery was the key reason for secession. See The Scorpion's Sting – Why the South Seceded When Lincoln Was Elected. However, not all the slave states were solidly for the Confederacy. Almost one hundred thousand whites from those states joined the U.S. Army to fight against the Confederacy. (This included more than 200 men from the Jones County region). The "solid South" never existed. Bynum, Long Shadow p. 5, Bynum Free State, p. 192.

During the Civil War desertion was a serious problem for both armies. It is estimated that one in three Confederate soldiers deserted and that one in five Union soldiers deserted. Southern deserters left the Confederate army for a variety of reasons. Some, like Newton Knight, refused to fight for the rich slave owners. Some, and this also played a role in Knight's decision to go home, left the Army to protect their families from the oppressive and corrupt practices of Confederate tax collectors. Still others went home to harvest the crops so that their families wouldn't starve. Many Confederate soldiers deserted out of exasperation with incompetent generals and battlefield losses. Jenkins, pp. 115, 124, 205 - 207.

It is important to note that the major contributions of Southerners to the Union war effort came in the form of escaped slaves who, along with free blacks, enlisted in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. About 198,000 men of color fought for the Union. This amounted to 10% of the U.S. military. See, e.g., Learning Guide to Glory.


Discussion Questions

After watching the film, engage the class in a discussion about the movie. Suggested discussion questions are set out below:

1.   How does this film change your view of the Southern side of the Civil War? Suggested Response: The response, of course, will depend upon what students already know about the Civil War. Strong responses might mention that romantic notions of the Confederacy, such as "the lost cause" myth, are untrue. Others might echo the Jones County resident quoted by the Smithsonian Magazine.

2.    Before and during the Civil War, political and religious leaders in the South claimed that slavery was necessary for civilization and that it was sanctioned by the Christian God. How do you explain this? Suggested Response: This was an extreme case of the psychological mechanism called "motivated blindness." See TWM's student handout entitled Motivated Blindness and the Normalcy Bias: A Brief Introduction. While slavery had been traditional in many societies, by 1860 it had already been outlawed by most of the Western world. There was no excuse for slavery except for the slave owners' financial self-interest.

3.   Everyone is at risk of falling prey to motivated blindness. There are many examples of this in modern history and in society today. Give an example of motivated blindness in your own life. Suggested Response: People in every day life who ignore the health implications of a convenience food diet, Learning Guide to Super Size Me; people who refuse to heed the warnings about floods or hurricanes and don't evacuate when a flood or a hurricane is imminent; people who ignore the horrific environmental consequences of animal agriculture and continue to eat meat and dairy on a daily basis, Learning Guide to Cowspiracy; and religious leaders who turned a blind eye to a pattern of sexual abuse of parishioners by clergy, see Learning Guide to Spotlight. For more examples, see TWM's student handout on Motivated Blindness and the Normalcy Bias: A Brief Introduction.

4.   Newton Knight was faced with a dilemma when the 20 Negro Law and the Tax in Kind Laws were passed. As a member of the Confederate Army and a citizen of the Confederacy (although he was both of these only reluctantly), he had duties of loyalty to his army and his country. However, the Confederacy was asking him to fight for slavery, which he knew to be wrong, and for an aristocratic class that he opposed. Knight chose to desert. Did he do the right thing? In your answer, discuss what will trump loyalty to your country. Do not include in your consideration, the fact that the tax in kind collectors had taken Newt's best horse and were depriving his family of food. Suggested Response: There is no one correct response. Loyalty to one's country is important. For most things, in a democratic country in which the majority or their representatives make policy decisions, good citizenship requires that once the decision is made everyone should go along with it. However, there are limits, and each person must decide for himself. Most people would contend that slavery is intolerable in a civilized country and no citizen has a duty to support a country that supports slavery.

5.   Add to the preceding question the fact that the Confederate tax in kind collectors had taken his best horse and were depriving his family of food. How does that change your response. Suggested Response: This really seals the deal because no government which preys upon its citizens and deprives their family of the means of making a livelihood deserves their loyalty.

6.   [This is a question for students who self-identify as white people of Southern heritage.] A current resident of Jones County told an interviewer from the Smithsonian Magazine,
When you grow up in the South, you hear all the time about your 'heritage,' like it's the greatest thing there is. When I hear that word, I think of grits and sweet tea, but mostly I think about slavery and racism, and it pains me. Newt Knight gives me something in my heritage, as a white Southerner, that I can feel proud about. We didn't all go along with it." The True Story of the 'Free State of Jones' by Richard Grant, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2016.
What do you think of this statement? Explain your reasons. Suggested Response: There is no one correct response. Students who compare Newt Knight to Robert E. Lee, often thought of as a Southern "patriot," should be reminded that while General Lee was brilliant on the field of battle, his statesmanship is open to serious criticism. Before he joined the rebellion, General Lee was an officer in the U.S. Army, having taken an oath to defend the Constitution. Shortly before the Civil War he had been offered command of the Union armies. General Lee disliked slavery and joined the rebellion claiming loyalty to his seceded home state of Virginia. One view is that Lee betrayed his oath to support the U.S. Constitution for what turned out to be an outmoded theory of states rights and to defend a criminal enterprise, slavery. Had General Lee contributed his considerable talents to fighting for the Union, the Civil War would probably have been over in a very short period of time. Thus, General Lee can be said to bear some responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, North and South. Newton Knight, on the other hand, fought to protect his family and friends from a government that endorsed the criminal enterprise of slavery and which seized the crops and farm animals of poor people, leaving unprotected wives and children in desperate circumstances.

Questions About Race Suggested by this Film

7.   Instances of Southern white men having sexual relations with black women were not unusual both before the Civil War and after. What was different about the way that Newton Knight treated Rachel and their children compared to the way that most white men in the South treated black women with whom they had sexual relations and the children that came after? Suggested Response: He showed respect for Rachel, took her as his common-law wife, and had the integrity to acknowledge his children and take care of them.

8.   It was commonly believed in the South during the 17th - 20th centuries that a person with even one drop of black blood, that is one small bit of black ancestry, was classified as black and unfit to participate in white society. This was called the "one-drop rule." What does the "one-drop rule" tell us about racism against African Americas? Suggested Response: A good discussion of this question will involve the following: the "one-drop rule" exemplifies the absurdity of racism and the guilt that whites had about how they treated black people. Can it logically be contended that one drop of black blood should dictate the social group to which a person belongs? But it's not only the racists of the old South who applied illogical criteria in determining someone's race. For example, in the U.S. today, many people with one black grandparent out of four will often be identified as black. Is this logical? Then again, someone can have two black grandparents and, if they "look white," they can reject their roots in the black community and "pass" for white. In the discussion teachers should lead students to the realization that the concept of race as a descriptive factor in society "is a social invention and a cultural identification, rather than a biological reality." Bynum, The Free State of Jones pg. 193.

For additional discussion questions, click here.


HISTORICAL RESEARCH ASSIGNMENT -- America's Bargain with the Devil and Its Effects on Some Important Presidential Elections -- In 1860, the Southern slave-holders believed that the United States under President Lincoln, would break an agreement, hammered out by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, relating to slavery. From at least four resources (other than those merely setting out election results), prepare a research paper describing the lawsuit in England that motivated the South to insist on the protection of slavery in the Constitution, describe the provisions in the Constitution that protected slavery, and discuss the anti-democratic results of those provisions on U.S. Presidential elections, including those of 1860, 1912, 1992, 2000, and 2016. Strong Essays will Include the Following Points: In 1772, four years before the American Revolution, the Chief Justice of the King's Bench, Lord Mansfield, ruled in the Somerset case that slavery was not supported by the common law. This effectively outlawed slavery in England because there was no statute or royal decree permitting slavery. While the Somerset case technically applied only to England and Wales, leaving slavery undisturbed in the colonies, the Southern plantation owners saw that eventually slavery would be outlawed throughout the British Empire. Their price for joining the Northern colonies in rebelling against Britain was an agreement protecting slavery through various constitutional provisions including the Senate and the Electoral College which gave small states greater power than was justified by their population, the requirement that 3/4s of the states must agree before the Constitution can be amended, and the rule that counted a slave as 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of determining apportionment in the House of Representatives. Some of these provisions have affected U.S. politics in important ways. For example, while the U.S. claims to be a democracy, the Senate is an anti-democratic institution because voters in small states are allowed to elect the same number of Senators as voters in states with larger populations. Thus, for example, in 2016 a voter in Vermont has 30 times more voting power in the Senate than a voter in the adjacent state of New York, and a voter in Wyoming has 66 times the Senate voting power of a voter in California. As for the electoral college, each state has the total number of electors as it has members of Congress (i.e., Senators plus members of the House of Representatives). This builds into Presidential elections the distortions of the Senate. Thus, in the elections of 2000 and 2016, candidates who received fewer popular votes for President than their opponent prevailed in the Electoral College (George W. Bush and Donald Trump). In other important Presidential elections, for example, those of 1860 and 1912 (Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson) while the victor received more votes than any other candidate, substantially more people voted for those other candidates than voted for the man selected by the Electoral College: Lincoln received only 39.9% of the popular vote and Wilson received only 42%). The same thing occurred in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. He received only 43% of the vote.

Other Assignments Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1.   Prepare a report on the "inner war" of the Confederacy for any state that joined the Confederacy during the Civil War.

2.   Write two obituaries for Rachel Knight, one written in 1889 for a newspaper that supported the "Redemption" and another a retrospective of her life written this year for a modern non-racist newspaper.

3.   Write two obituaries for Newton Knight, one written in 1922 for a newspaper that supported the "Redemption" and another, a retrospective of Rachel's life, written this year for a modern non-racist newspaper.

4.   Research and write a short history of the Collins family of Jones County and the Big Thicket of Hardin County, Texas.

5.   Research and write a report on other centers of white resistance to the Confederacy. [Examples include Winston County, Alabama, North Carolina's Quaker Belt, the Big Thicket jay hawkers in Texas, and Jones county Mississippi.] 6.   Research and write a report on the role of African-Americans in the Union army during the Civil War and their role in the eventual victory over the rebels. 7.  Victoria E. Bynum, a respected historian who studied the life of Newton Knight and his ancestors wrote that "Race . . . is a social invention and a cultural identification, rather than a biological reality." See Bynum, Free State pg. 193. See generally Ibid pp. 149 - 197. Using at least three sources, describe how groups like the Knight family in Mississippi provide examples of this concept. 8.  Many biologists dispute the validity of the scientific concept of race. Find the latest research on this and write a paper reporting your findings.

See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

Other Lesson Plans with Interesting Assignments:


Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Parenting Points: Watch the film with your child and discuss how this changes views of the Confederacy.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!



This Learning Guide written by James Frieden and published on January 27, 2017.

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