This was originally published at Travellinbaen.com back in 2009. I’m republishing it now because the movie version starring Matthew McConaughey is currently being filmed and because of a Facebook conversation on Mac’s page. Probably shoulda cleaned it up a bit before posting, but rewriting is, like, hard and stuff. I hope both of you who read, enjoy, and *spoiler alert* the South loses in the end.
“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.” –General William Tecumseh Sherman, USA
TB, like most Mississippians has long known of “the Free State of Jones.” Also like most Mississippians, I didn’t know much. But I’ve always heard about how Jones County was “different” and part of that was because the county seceded from the state of Mississippi during the Civil War. In the version I heard most, they didn’t secede to rejoin the USA, they just seceded to be on their own. So when I saw the book, “The State of Jones” by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer sitting in my local bookstore I had to pick it up. After reading the first few pages I was hooked. I learned while standing there in the store that the story of the Free State had been well documented. In fact the primary source for the book was an interview with the partisan leader Newton Knight conducted by a newspaper reporter in 1921, just before Knight’s death. As I read through the book I continued to be impressed with the first hand sources unearthed by the authors and their documentation of them in the endnotes. I also learned that the Free State’s so-called secession from the Confederacy was absolutely true in fact, though the men who led the revolt probably never considered using such a word for their deeds, and certainly issued nothing so frivolous as a proclamation.
The story told by Jenkins and Stauffer is fascinating to a Civil War aficionado, illuminating the experience from the foot soldier’s perspective and from that of the families left behind on the farm. It indirectly tells more of the slave experience during the war than anything I’ve ever read. But its scope encompasses bigger themes of Mississippi, Southern and even National political divisions that remain to this day, and that I’m not completely certain the authors even recognized. One thing they did recognize and develop was the idea that the men who led the South to war and who survived the war–some in spite of great peril at numerous battles and some because of the Twenty Negro Law that exempted large slaveholders and their sons from service–essentially “won” their cause. Using the example of Newton Knight, the authors traced the political domination of Jones County in a direct line from the men who ran the place in 1860 to the men who ran it in 1865, with the tacit blessing of their recent Union Army vanquishers. And they showed how the causes of the planter class of continuing free labor and social control of both the black race and poor whites were won.
Knight was of the yeoman farmer class who typically owned no slaves and who opposed the war in large numbers from its outset. I was surprised to learn that Jones County voted to send its delegate to Mississippi’s Secession Convention with instructions to vote “no” to secession. Upon his arrival in Jackson, the delegate was by turns wined and dined, then threatened of his life in order to change his vote to “yes.” He did, and he was given a plum job in the new government. The dirt farmers of Jones County and their neighboring south Mississippi counties were initially livid with the act of their delegate and the convention as a whole.
However, most of their opinions changed at the onset of hostilities and many from Jones and thereabouts signed up to fight for the South. The rest were drafted, save the few Jones families with large slaveholdings. Knight was drafted along with most everyone he knew and resigned himself to service in the Confederate Army. In the Civil War, men from communities typically served together and Knight was in a company of Jones and Jaspar County men he knew well. They suffered mightily in battles around Corinth and eventually down to Vicksburg where they endured the entire siege of the western bastion and suffered all of the privations brought on by General Grant. Knight and his friends were eventually taken prisoner, then paroled to go home and fight no more, which suited the company just fine. It did not, however, suit the Confederate government who needed men.
After arriving home Knight found his home country in a desolate state. Without its men, the area farms had been insufficiently tended by the women and children left home alone. Worse, the Confederates were constantly imposing levies on crops and stock and even when the levies ended, corrupt local politicians, the men exempt from the front line suffering, continued to take. Between the hunger, the insults inflicted on his home and family and before long the attempt by authorities to impress him back into military service, Knight, along with hundreds of his neighbors rebelled. The authors speculated there were thousands of similarly situated ex-soldiers taking the same course of action throughout southeast Mississippi and along the coast–the part of the state without a plantation culture. Along with the entire state of West Virginia, much of east Tennessee and several other enclaves around the south, not only Jones but most of south and east Mississippi were in open rebellion by 1864 against the Confederacy.
While it clearly wasn’t the original impetus, as Knight and his men caused more trouble for the Confederacy and drew more troops into their pursuit, he eventually came around to the point of view he held less emphatically before the war–that he was a Union man and opposed to slavery. As his band swelled with deserters and parolees, they began to undertake missions of sabotage to the Confederate war effort. Most of these acts served the dual purpose of hurting the Confederacy and feeding the local populace, white and black. Knight’s gang relied heavily upon the “invisible” black population of the area to hide them from pursuing cavalry, to warn them of troop movements and to feed them in the swamps where they hid. Before long, Knight had fallen in love with a former slave and taken her on as a second wife. Quickly thereafter came children. As his relationships with the former slave class increased, his dedication to the espoused Union principles of freedom and equality likewise grew. And it was this idealism, grown of suffering and fear, that set up what was to me the central point of the entire tale.
When the war ended Knight expected to be rewarded by the Union and to see changes to the antebellum social and political order. He had been commended to higher political authority by several of the Union officers he’d assisted during the war. The Confederate armies had been soundly defeated in the field and he had contributed to the result. To his astonishment and disappointment, within months of the war’s end he was a forgotten pawn. Forgotten to the Union at least–the planter class remembered him well. Knight was driven by the ex-Rebels to the backwoods compound of his dual family farm. The black equality he’d thought he had helped earn was wiped out by the Black Codes, precursors to Jim Crow. The old Confederate Generals and Colonels were back in charge of the government. Even the school he’d built for his white and black children to attend, under the teacher whose salary he paid, was burned to the ground. Still formidable as a fighting man, even feared, he was able to maintain a redoubt on his family land, but it is unlikely that Knight slept soundly even once between 1866-1921, and the reason had nothing to do with his maintenance of two wives.
It all made me wonder, what was the Union fighting for? It wasn’t to free the slaves. That was but a slogan. The men behind the bayonets may have believed that was their cause, but did Lincoln? We’ll never know as a consequence of his assassination. What we do know is that former slaves gained little or nothing from the outcome for a hundred years out from Appomattox. Beyond that, the slaveholding class was allowed to take back political power in the South without Yankee opposition in the decade following the cessation of hostilities. Was it money? Lincoln was a railroad man after all, and it was via the transport of southern agricultural produce in large part that the railroad men became tycoons. Anyone who studies history knows that in almost all wars from the beginning of recorded history, you must determine where the money leads in order to understand the conflict. I’m sure the issue has been addressed among the innumerable texts about the Civil War, but I’ve not seen it. Maybe the Federals thought they could simply impose their will through military might but found, like modern armies and nations do, that no amount of military strength was enough to change hearts and minds. For me its an open question, but at least now I know the story of The Free State of Jones, of Newton Knight, and of his unfulfilled idealism. As someone who considers himself a student of history and particularly of Mississippi history, the telling filled a gaping hole in my understanding of how my home state has come to be the place it is today.
If anybody made it through all that, which is of great interest to me but perhaps not to one who reads a blog for a moment of mild amusement or escape from the daily grind, there are a couple of more notes I would’ve like to have worked in to my essay.
First, it is natural I believe, that southerners engage in mental gymnastics to justify our ancestors’ actions with regard to secession. After all, nobody believes in slavery any more, and it is difficult to imagine folks with near identical DNA as ours supporting it. It is a tenet of southern popular history that the war was fought over love of the Constitution and states rights. But deep down, most of us know that’s a lie. I’ll admit to ascribing to that orally taught history for many years and even still wanting to believe there was some just cause for which the South fought. I had never heard of the Declaration of Secession until I read this book. I’m not going to link it but if you google the term you will find it easy enough. It destroys the myth that the South fought for anything but slavery. It is likewise broadly accepted that the North fought for the noble purpose to preserve the Union and to stamp out slavery. Considering their post-war actions, there must’ve been some other motives too.
Finally, it was but a side note in the narrative but one I found interesting. Many of the partisans who fought under the command of Knight and alongside him against the Union developed selective memories in the years following the war and particularly after the restoration of the old boy network. Whether from racism, personal preservation or psychosis, they almost all came to embrace the mythology of the “Lost Cause” and their roles in furthering the interests of the Confederacy. Knight had kept detailed records of his men and their activities so we know who fought with him. But in their public dealings and their oral family traditions many completely rejected their role in the “Free State” in favor of their imagined role as heroic men in Gray. I’d be interested to know how their descendants view the facts illuminated by Jenkins and Stauffer. Many of the names from this book, both patrician and yeoman, are still well known in that part of the state.