I recently watched a moving and surprising film called The Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey. It’s about Newton Knight and how he led three counties in Mississippi to break away from the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Think of that. On January 9, 1861, Mississippi declared it’s independence from the United States over the issue of slavery. They were the second state to do so. South Carolina was the first. On reflection, it makes sense these two states seceded first because they had the highest portion of the population as slaves. South Carolina’s population was 57% slave. Mississippi’s was 55%.
Mississippi’s declaration of independence from the Unites States starts with this paragraph.
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
The rest of the declaration simply elaborates on that theme. However, not everyone in Mississippi agreed. The folks in Jones County, way down in the southeastern part, were mostly non-slave holders and cattle herders and had little use for a war over a state’s right to maintain the institution of slavery.
Led by Knight, on October 13, 1863, with the war still raging, folks in Jones County and adjacent counties formed a separate government known as the “Free State of Jones”. They fought at least fourteen skirmishes with Confederate forces and went so far as to raise an American flag over the courthouse in Ellisville and send a letter to Union General William T. Sherman declaring Jones County’s independence from the Confederacy and asking for support.
This movie is based on those events and, importantly, some that occurred after the war ended.
The film is rated R for a scene with some Civil War battle injuries. And perhaps because of the use of the n-word. What it delivers is a powerful depiction of the issues of the time and the courage of one man who’d had enough. If you like history and action, I think you’ll enjoy this movie.