Deserter's Den Lake
Backstory and Context
Born in Jones County, Mississippi in 1829, Newton Knight lived in the Piney Woods region of the county. This small community that thrived here was a mix of wealthy slaveholders, small planters with few slaves and yeoman farmers. Although Knight owned no slaves, his grandfather was a wealthy slave owner. Knight’s first wife, Serena Turner also descended from a wealthy, slave holding family. Despite this, Jones County was decidedly anti secession in 1860 after Lincoln’s election. Despite the secession of Mississippi from the Union most families in the area felt that as small farmers who owned no slaves and planted no cotton, they had nothing to gain from fighting for the Confederacy.
In 1862 the Confederacy enacted the twenty negroes law. This allowed sons of families owning twenty or more slaves to return home from the war front. Men like Knight, mostly poor farmers were forced to stay on the front lines. Meanwhile the sons of wealthy planters were allowed to return home. This move made by the Confederate government proved to Knight and others in his unit that the civil war was a poor man's fight and a rich man's war.
Jasper Collins, a friend and neighbor of Knight, deserted the army in 182. Newt would soon follow after learning that the CSA had taken his family's horses. Knight and up to 125 other men formed the Knight Company. These men hid in the swamps and forest outside of Jones County to avoid being jailed for desertion. They also attempted to protect their communities resources from the draining commissary department of the Confederacy. The men would ambush supply trains headed to the front lines and take the provisions instead to the starving families in the county. Bolstered by a support network of family and community members, many Confederate officials like tax assessors and sheriffs found it impossible to put an end to the Night Company’s actions. Major Amos LeMore attempted to round up the growing number of Jones county men who refused to return to the front lines. He was soon found shot dead in the nearby town of Ellisville. Many believe that Knight was the man who pulled the trigger.
The Knight Company overtook the Ellisville courthouse and raised a Union flag in 1864. The Natchez Courier of Natchez, Mississippi reported that Jones County had seceded from the Confederacy. In 1864, Colonel Robert Lowry travelled to Jones County determined to make an example out of the men hiding in the swamps. Equipped with an army and bloodhounds, Lowry successfully drove men out of the swamps. Ten of Knight’s men were hanged and many deserters returned to the army. Knight however, evaded capture and remained hidden until the end of the war almost a year later. After the surrender of the Confederacy in April of 1865 Knight was commissioned by the US Army to distribute food to the starving citizens in his home county.
Bynum, Victoria E. The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Bynum, Victoria E. The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Huff, Ruby. “A Skirmish – Cavalry versus Deserters – Where in Newt Knight's men raid Lowrey’s Raiders”. The Renegade South. Victoria Bynum, March 8, 2011.