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. Available from

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide:

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

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.


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.

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.


Selected Awards:


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.


Gary Ross.


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.


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


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


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 a 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.


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.

Not all white Southerners were solidly for the Confederacy. Almost a hundred thousand whites from Southern 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.

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.

The Scorpion’s Sting – Why the South Seceded When Lincoln Was Elected

Important Facts:

Before 1860, many abolitionists had a plan for ending slavery without war. It included the following: respect the constitutional right of the slave states to determine for themselves whether to permit or prohibit slavery; prevent the expansion of slavery into any new territory, specifically, the new territories of the West; encircle the slave states with a cordon of free territory; repeal or water-down the fugitive slave law so that slaves who reached free territory could not be arrested and returned to slavery; make Washington, D.C. a free territory which would make it easier for slaves from the bordering slave states of Maryland and Virginia to reach free territory; and cooperate with Great Britain in suppressing the already illegal transatlantic slave trade. The hope and prediction of the abolitionists was that within a few decades of the application of their policies by the federal government, slavery would die out and the Southern states would abolish it of their own accord. Oakes pp. 1 — 50.

By 1860, there was a popular metaphor by which Americans, North and South, described this plan. The metaphor was based on the myth (or perhaps it’s true) that if a scorpion is completely surrounded by fire, it will eventually sting itself in its head and die. Ibid. p. 25. Thus, in the words of Sherrard Clemens, a pro-slavery Congressman from Virginia, the plan was “to encircle the slave States of this Union with free States as a cordon of fire, and that slavery, like a scorpion, would sting itself to death.” Congressional Globe, 36th Cong., 1st Sesess., p. 586 quoted by Oakes at pp. 23 & 24.

While there is no record of Lincoln himself mentioning the Scorpion’s Sting (so far as TWM as been able to determine), his positions in 1860, were close to the strategy of the Scorpion’ Sting and would have slowly degraded the institution of slavery. The election of 1860 saw the first time that the federal government was under the control of a political party whose policies aggressively, if peacefully, sought the end of slavery. The leaders of the Slave Power agreed with the abolitionists that the policies of the Scorpion’s Sting would sap slavery of at least some of its vitality. The Slave Power saw that with the policies of the Scorpion’s Sting in place, the North’s advantages in numbers and manufacturing power would only grow. So, 1861 was the best time to resist. And, due to the superior leadership of the Southern generals, such as Robert E. Lee, and the difficulty that the North had in finding generals who could match Southern military leadership, the Slave Power almost pulled it off.

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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.

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 economy.


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.



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.



(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 Film.


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:


Newton Knight and the Legend of the Free State of Jones lesson plan by Karla Smith from Mississippi History Now;



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.


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.


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.


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.)



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”.
  • Frost, Meigs, O., ‘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; and
  • Oaks, James, The Scorpion’s Sting — Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, W.W. Norton & Co., 2014.

This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and published on January 27, 2017 and last updated on June 21, 2022.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

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.

RANDALL KENNEDY, Professor, Harvard Law School on the two alternative traditions relating to racism in America:

“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.

I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexities of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.

So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much.   From Fahreed Zakaria, Global Public Square, CNN, December 26, 2021

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide: TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACISM IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy.

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