Weekly Read: The State of Jones

With the movie Free State of Jones opening this weekend, I thought it was a good chance to highlight this review of one of the books on which it’s based, from my old blog.

A title is a promise, at least for a work of nonfiction. It’s what draws you in, after all, and convinces you to give a book more attention. The full title of this book by Washington Post reporter Sally Jenkins and Harvard professor John Stauffer is The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded From the Confederacy. It’s a case that Jenkins and Stauffer don’t make.

Which is a shame, because the story they have to tell is fairly fascinating in its own right and something that a lot of Americans don’t know about. Revolving around a backwoods Mississippi “dirt farmer” named Newton Knight, it’s a tale of racial and class divisions before, during, and after the Civil War. Poor farmers from areas of Mississippi like Jones County had little interest in defending the ability of wealthy elites elsewhere to own slaves. Faced with the horrors of war in places like Corinth and Vicksburg and with families starving back at home due to shitty wartime economics, Knight and a group of others deserted from the Confederate army and headed back home.

Back in the Mississippi countryside, Knight and company organized an armed group that basically made life impossible for the Confederacy in Jones and surrounding counties. In addition to skirmishing with soldiers dispatched to arrest them for desertion, Knight’s group raided Confederate supply lines and tax collectors. It’s fair to say, based on the evidence presented in the book, that Jones County was effectively outside the sphere of Confederate power well before the end of the war.

But that’s not the same as secession. Maybe it’s because I’m a West Virginian and familiar with our unique history when it comes to the birth of the state and kind of sensitive about it, but secession is a formal, political act, not the de facto result of guerrilla military activity. Jenkins and Stauffer never provide evidence of such an act and, in fact, don’t really show whether Knight and his company were more pro-Union insurgents or simply a group of outlaws who gathered together to protect themselves and, as a side effect, cleared the Confederates from Jones.

It’s an important distinction because there was a hot debate when The State of Jones came out about its quality as work of history. Detractors argued that Jenkins and Stauffer massaged the historical record (and filled in gaps with imaginative extrapolations) to make Knight more of a modern progressive figure than he actually was (see, e.g., here and here). As for the question of secession itself, in part two of her three part review, professor Victoria Bynum (author of another book on Jones County) writes:

The old tale that Newt Knight and his band of renegades drew up a Constitution during the Civil War that declared Jones County, Mississippi, to have seceded from the Confederacy has been a favorite of journalists, folklorists, and even a few historians, since the late nineteenth century. Until historians finally shattered this myth, its effect was to paint the men of the Knight Company as hyper-secessionists rather than Unionists; i.e. as good old Southern white boys on a tear against any and all authority—rebels against the Rebellion, if you will.Stauffer’s defense is, in my opinion, weak:

From Newton Knight’s perspective, neither he nor his fellow Unionists seceded from the Union, which means they were never part of the Confederacy. Knight insisted that since Jones County had voted against secession, it ‘never seceded from the Union into the Confederacy.’

But from the perspective of the Confederacy, Knight and his fellow Unionists did secede. Confederate officers wrote that Jones County was in ‘rebellion’ against the Confederacy, and they referred to Knight and his men as ‘traitors.’ These were the same terms Republicans used to describe Confederates.It simply doesn’t work that way. Whatever irregularities existed with Jones County’s delegate to the Mississippi secession convention (the book alleges that he switched his position and voted for secession, even though the county had voted overwhelmingly against it), the convention voted to secede and the state as a whole was along for the ride. As was Virginia, of course, except for the counties west of the Alleghenies that stood up, said “bullshit to this,” and created, eventually, the state of West Virginia. Statewide votes are binding on the entire state. Individual disaffected voters don’t get to ignore results they don’t like.

Aside from the whole secession issue, The State of Jones has some other flaws that keep it from being easily recommended. For one thing, it’s focus shifts without any good reason from the more personal story of Knight and his family to broad depictions of several major engagements during the war (one of which, Bynum argues, Knight wasn’t present for). Those get tedious, mostly because they drive home the same point each time – war is hell, the Confederate foot soldier’s life was one of near constant starvation and disease, and it’s easy to see why anyone would want to escape it. Once we’ve gotten that point, do we really need it made over and over again?

Another problem with the book is, as noted above, its use of speculation and conjecture to fill in the blanks of Knight’s life and the lives of those around him. To be completely fair, Jenkins and Stauffer don’t hide it when they do it. To the contrary, many times they discuss a particular event, then transition into something along the lines of “we don’t know what Knight thought about this, but it might have been . . ..” Nonetheless, it’s frustrating to have the actual history whither down such dead ends.

I’m glad I read The State of Jones, if only because I knew nothing about this particular part of the Civil War before. But, after reading it and much of the discussion about it around the Web, I wouldn’t recommend it. There are other, more scholarly (if drier, perhaps), accounts out there. But The State of Jones is the one most likely to be encountered by the general public. That’s OK, if it serves as a jumping off point, rather than a comprehensive education.

Originally published March 15, 2013.

The New York Times had an interesting article on the movie and the director’s engagement with the issue of historical accuracy.

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