Mississippi

Part One: Review of Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, The State of Jones

By Victoria E. Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones (University of North Carolina Press, 2001)

This is the first installment of a three-part review. For part two, click here; for part three, click here.

The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer (Doubleday, 2009), aims to please, delivering a stirring narrative, lively and passionate prose, and richly-detailed Civil War battle scenes. For many readers, particularly those drawn to Civil War battlefields, this book will make the past come alive. Others, particularly students of the “Free State of Jones,” will find problematical the authors’ stretching of the evidence to support highly exaggerated claims that Newt Knight “fought for racial equality during the war and after,” and “forged bonds of alliance with blacks that were unmatched even by Northern abolitionists” (pp. 3-4).

The history that Jenkins and Stauffer re-tell is well-known to Mississippians and familiar to many southerners and Civil War historians. It is certainly well-known to regular readers of this blog, for whom Newt Knight needs no introduction. As we all know, from October 1863 until war’s end, Newt was the leader—the captain—of the Knight Company, a band of deserters and draft evaders who led an armed insurrection against the Confederacy.

In this version of an old story, readers are treated to vivid depictions of Corinth, Vicksburg, and Kennesaw Mountain, all battles in which the 7th battalion Mississippi Infantry (in which the majority of Knight Company members served) fought. The final two chapters of the book recount the tragic history of Mississippi Reconstruction, an era riddled with violence and marked by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist campaigns that brought an unrepentant slaveholding class back to power. The authors give special attention to carpetbag governor Adelbert Ames, from whom Newt Knight received several important political appointments, and redeemer governor Robert Lowry, the same Col. Lowry whom Newt battled during the war in the Leaf River swamps.

Stauffer and Jenkins also re-tell one of the most fascinating, if long-known, elements of Newt Knight’s history: his long and intimate relationship with Rachel, the former slave of his grandfather. After the war, Newt lived openly with Rachel and their numerous children, bestowing property and affection on white and multiracial kinfolk alike.

As I began writing this review of State of Jones, I quickly realized it would have to be written in installments, as I could never critique the book in one post. This then is the first installment of what will be an ongoing series of reviews and discussions of the book’s various themes, topics, and arguments. I hope the reviews will become interactive, with readers joining in to discuss what they like or don’t like about the book.

The obvious place to begin is by assessing the startling assertions by Jenkins and Stauffer  that Newt Knight rivaled northern abolitionists in his views about slavery and that he forged “alliances” with slaves during the war. Due to a maddening endnote style, however, it is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to determine the source for a particular conclusion. Add to this the authors’ use of “parallel stories” to take fanciful journeys into what “might” have happened, or what Newt “likely” would have thought or done, and you have a narrative that allows readers to easily glide past what is documented history and what is pure conjecture (reminiscent of Ethel Knight’s Echo of the Black Horn, minus the racism).

Take, for example, the authors’ argument that Newt was likely raised a Primitive Baptist whose religious devotion led him to condemn slavery. Such conjecture is based on a single statement by Newt’s son, Tom Knight, who published a biography of his father in 1946. But Tom never stated that his father was raised a Primitive Baptist, only that he joined the Zora Primitive Baptist Church around 1885-86 (p. 14). Newt Knight may well have hated slavery, but the only definitive statement to that effect appears in Anna Knight’s 1952 autobiography, Mississippi Girl.

A problem that runs throughout this book is the authors’ uncritical use of Tom Knight’s biography whenever it suits their purposes. If there’s one thing that past historians of the Free State of Jones have agreed upon (including myself, Rudy Leverett, and Kenneth Welch), it’s that Tom’s words must be used with great care. Quite simply, The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight is shot through with errors. Tom’s determination to present his father as a devout Christian (like Tom himself), a loving father, and a sincere defender of the United States government led him to take great liberties with his father’s life story.

Yet Tom’s biography of Newt is the only source cited for many of the authors’ narratives about the activities of Newt Knight, particularly for the era of Reconstruction, for which archival records (with the exception of Newt’s multiple petitions for compensation as a wartime defender of the Union) provide only tantalizing glimpses of Newt’s political  activities after the war.

Heavy reliance on Tom’s uncorroborated stories creates a problem for the authors that they are loath to admit.That is, if you’re going to use one Tom Knight story, why not another? Tom Knight certainly never presented his father as any sort of abolitionist, religious or otherwise. He also shared the common racist views of his generation and was deeply ashamed of Newt’s interracial relationships. As I have argued elsewhere, Tom’s shame may have motivated his claim that his father killed a slave while still a boy, or, even more shockingly, that Newt was responsible during Reconstruction for the disappearance (suggestive of a lynching) of a “young negro man” who was “slipping around the white women’s houses after dark,” (p. 37). For obvious reasons, the authors ignore this story. Their careless use of this deeply-flawed source is a luxury they cannot afford in a book that claims to be “Civil War history at its finest.”

To support their assertion that Newt formed “alliances” with slaves during the war, Stauffer and Jenkins leap far beyond his collaborative relationship with Rachel Knight. The authors provide an imaginative tale of Newt’s likely alliance with slaves while on the run from Corinth without a shred of concrete evidence to back them up. Appearing in the space of five paragraphs, the phrases “a fugitive slave who might well have stopped Newton as he groped his way,” (p. 146); or, “Newton would have come across men like Octave Johnson,” (p. 146); or, “Johnson could have shown Newton how to lure the dogs,” (p. 147); and “Newton would have learned how to hunt in the swamps,” (p. 147) are purely conjectural, drawn from published memoirs such as Rev. John Hill Aughey’s 1888 Tupelo (Aughey was a documented southern abolitionist), and Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, neither of which have any direct connection with Newt Knight. One can only hope that readers will turn occasionally to the vaguely-written endnotes at the back of the book to see that no primary sources are used to support what amounts to a subtle attempt to impose a northern abolitionist persona on Newt Knight.

Coming up in future reviews of State of Jones: Was Newt Knight at Vicksburg? What was the nature of Newt’s relationships with Serena and Rachel? And more–stay tuned!

20 replies »

  1. If Jenkins & Stauffer accept uncritically certain portions of the information that comes to us from Tom Knight and Ethel Knight, it would seem they owe it to their readers to explore stories in these same works that do not mesh with their depiction of Newt Knight as an exemplar of racial enlightenment. Two small examples:

    1) Tom Knight recounted an incident of white women being troubled by a peeping tom who was black. Tom described his father as a man who people turned to in such situations. After Newt heard the complaints, the alleged miscreant ‘went fishing and never came back.’ The implication being that Newt murdered the man. The supposed incident does not make Newt a racist, but either Tom concocted the story (casting doubts on his credibility) or at the very least it indicates Newt was a far more complex individual than portrayed in “State of Jones.”

    2) Ethel Knight, who worked from materials Tom Knight provided her, claimed that Sallie (Collins) Parker’s support for the Knight band grew out of a sense of obligation she felt towards Newt because he had gone to the slave market in Enterprise, MS to obtain the slaves she had purchased and brought them back to Jones County. If true, this would not be in keeping with what one expects of an ardent abolitionist.

    Both of these stories could be fabrications. But, if so, they serve to cast doubt on those stories selected by Jenkins & Stauffer designed to show Knight in the most progressive light possible. You can’t have it both ways if you aim to write a balanced historical account–only if you are writing a polemic or a novelization of a screenplay with footnotes.

  2. I certainly enjoyed your posting more than I did reading the “historical novel” State of Jones (sarcasm added, mine). And I learned more.

    I think Newt Knight, as experienced by Stauffer and Jenkins (as well as by Ethel, Tom, Street, before them), can be a kind of Rorschach. There is the temptation to look into the sparse facts and see reflected your own prejudices and ideologies. His story, as well as Rachel’s, has served for over a century to promote, deter, blame, inspire, include, or censure whatever personal bias we want to project onto him. If he never lived, we would have to invent him. He has done duty as an abolitionist, a rapist, coward and hero, a heretic, saint, an anarchist, a racist, a race-traitor and a liberator. Whatever your demon or god, you can find enough “facts” to name him “Newt.”

    Again, that’s why I am so grateful for historians who go to the sources, openly test their reliability and validity, and when historical accuracy dictates, have the integrity and trust in the reader, to challenge us with unanswered, but insightful questions rather than convenient answers.

    I look forward to reading more of your analysis. I’m now getting my $20.00 worth from my recent purchase of SOJ.

  3. The problem I see with Jenkins’ and Stauffer’s dependence on the questionable sources of Tom Knight and Ethel Knight is how it relates to the 7th Btln. MS Infantry and your point that most of the Knight Company men fought in this unit. I see The State of Jones being used by Neo-Confederates something like this:

    “These guys fought for the Confederacy and they didn’t like slavery. This just proves our point that not all Southerners fought to defend slavery.”

    This totally ignores the fact that even if these guys did not like or defend slavery, they were influenced by the racial and social mores of Southern society in the late 19th century, which included racially-based discrimination and abuse.

    What is accurate is the men of the Knight Company resisted secession and conscription into the Confederate army. This cannot be confused with being an abolitionist. This lack of distinction is what I find faulty in the work by Jenkins and Stauffer.

  4. Hi Vikki,

    Two points stand out in this initial review for me:

    One:

    “Take, for example, the authors’ argument that Newt was likely raised a Primitive Baptist whose religious devotion led him to condemn slavery.”

    Two:

    “……Newt ‘fought for racial equality during the war and after,’ and ‘forged bonds of alliance with blacks that were unmatched even by Northern abolitionists'”. (pp. 3-4).

    Unless the beliefs concerning race and slavery were totally different in Primitive Baptist congregations during the Civil War than they were in subsequent years, my knowledge of the beliefs of that particular denomination would not support the above claim at all. On the contrary, just the opposite would be true. Those who opposed the entrenched denominations in the south were generally the men and women who led the fight against racism.

    On the second point:

    Whatever Newt did or did not do concerning helping or not helping the black men and women in his area, I would suggest that his actions were uniquely southern in nature and had nothing to do with the abolitionist movement, even as a point of comparison. It is one thing to denounce slavery, racism, and all of the concomitant evils associated with both from the safety of distance. It is quite another to fight the institution of slavery, its defenders, and racism face to face. Also, the role of the abolitionist has been greatly romanticized, in my opinion. Outside of the truly progressive and heroic efforts of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, and men and women like them, the modern equation of a nineteenth century abolitionist with one enlightened about race seems to me to be patently false, as most scholars seem to agree. A particularly egregious example of this would be John Chivington, who was staunchly anti slavery, yet who ordered the brutal massacre of innocent Cheyenne men, women and children at Sand Creek. Would Chivington be included in the group of abolitionists that Newt Knight was supposedly emulating? (I do not know if Chivington was technically an abolitionist. He was a vocal opponent of the institution of slavery, however.)

    In contemplating the past, we seem to continue to over simplify the truly complex nineteenth century views on race and slavery (and the opposition to, or support of) and to confuse those views with either reactionary views, or modern progressive views. Just because an abolitionist called for the end of slavery, it does not mean that he or she was not racist. On a similar note, just because Newt Knight did not support the Confederacy, it does not mean that he was not a racist, either. Newt could have conceivably rebelled against the Confederacy for any number of reasons–personal and political–as you have indicated. Human history–and human beings–are infinitely complex, and neither lends itself, or themselves, to simplistic interpretations. Thanks, Vikki. Sherree

  5. Sherree:

    I agree with your comment, “It is one thing to denounce slavery, racism, and all of the concomitant evils associated with both from the safety of distance. It is quite another to fight the institution of slavery, its defenders, and racism face to face.” I am currently doing some research into Henry Ware, a Texas slaveowner and businessman who radically changed his views of the Confederate cause before the war even ended. He was an early Texas advocate to enfranchise newly-freed black men. Based on the few sources I have located, it ruined him politically in Texas and he eventually moved to Louisiana, why is still uncertain at this point, but Ware’s story does provide something of a glimpse into being Southern and fighting the established norm in the latter half of the 19th century. Even what I have uncovered thus far has not led me to believe he was progressive about race as much as he came to the realization that the vote for black males was to be an outcome of defeat and was trying to prepare everyone in Texas (including himself) for that eventuality. The few secondary sources I have found right now attempt to paint the progressive picture of Ware, but I’m just not sure it’s accurate.

  6. Thanks to you all–Ed, Jon, Greg, and Sherree–for such insightful comments. This is exactly what I hoped for: an interactive discussion of the new book.

    Ed, your inclusion of examples from Tom Knight and Ethel Knight’s books that don’t fit the authors’ arguments further demonstrates just how selective their use of evidence is. It’s fine for an author to use Ethel and Tom’s words–in fact, I think an author must use them–but they also must be analyzed, not simply cited as though these Knights were writing from firsthand experience or without personal agendas.

    Jon, your remark that how one views Newt Knight is a Rorschach test of their own hopes, fears, and dreams is a brilliant demonstration of why historians must use memoirs so carefully. Newt Knight–the ultimate Everyman!

    Greg, your point that exaggerated claims about Newt will likely only increase people’s skepticism that a band of Unionists actually held the Confederates at bay in Jones County–which they most assuredly did–is so true! Of course, it’s also true that many southern soldiers were not fighting to save slavery per se, but because they thought the North was the aggressor. But for sure, the slaveholders, who ramroded secession through many state legislatures, were fighting to defend slavery. Good luck on your Henry Ware research; I love it that you are trying to probe beneath the surface and create a more nuanced portrait of him.

    Sherree, I am so glad that you made that point about Primitive Baptists not providing a segueway into antislavery beliefs–certainly not by 1860! What’s interesting, and I argue this in my book, is that a number of the Welborns who joined Newt’s band do seem to have been Primitive Baptists, and that does seem to have contributed to their being opposed to secession–but that’s a long way from being an abolitionist. You’re right, we have to remember that these people’s views are grounded in their own southern culture.

    By beginning their book with a quote from radical northern abolitionist John Brown, Jenkins and Stauffer seem to be suggesting that Brown “might” be the model for Newt Knight’s brand of antislavery views. Naturally, they prefer a more aggressive, rough-hewn model for someone like Newt–it certainly wouldn’t work to put him in a category with the bourgeois New England followers of William Lloyd Garrison!

    For the record, I, too, would love to know what Newt and the rest of the Knight Company thought of John Brown.

    Vikki

  7. The problem I have with the Jenkins/Stauffer work is that it appears to have been written with the intent of using the Jones County rebellion and Newt Knight as a salvo against the so-called “Neo-confederates.” They clasp upon anything that casts the confederates in a negative light and portray Knight as a 19th century Robin Hood. Often they use the term “traitors” to describe confederates. Every Confederate official is incompetent. When supplies are short it is always the result of corruption rather than a shortage of rolling stock.
    The Jenkins/Stauffer book reminds me of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” in which Scorsese transformed the Irish gangs into apostles of brotherhood and tolerance when history shows them to have been otherwise.
    I am sorry to say the Jenkins/Stauffer has all the elements of a Hollywood drama packaged as history. When the two meet history is usually the loser.

    • I agree, Phil. The book is very present-minded, written as a morality tale rather than a carefully balanced consideration of the evidence. There’s nothing wrong with speculation; most historians do a fair amount of that. But speculation should reflect a plausible consideration of what the evidence indicates, not simply what might have been because we can’t prove otherwise.

      You’re right; State of Jones does indeed use loaded language to make sure readers know which side is the “right” side. There is an immaturity about it, as if the reader can’t think for him or herself. It reminds me of the romantic nineteenth-century histories, written to uplift the citizenry by creating the appropriate heroes and heroines. Nothing wrong with uplift and heroes, but if we want history that is grounded in facts, truth, or just plain likelihood, we have to study the past on its own terms, not our own. Otherwise, we’ll just have propaganda.

      Thanks,
      Vikki

  8. I live in the heart of where Newt Knight roamed. I’ve heard and read about him all my life. I study history and have been involved in the field of education for nearly forty years. My ancestors in Jones County are the Bynums[great grandmother],the Collins[great grandfather],the Moss'[related to Newt Knight’s superior before he deserted,the Holifield’s,and the Bush,s. Thus one can see my keen interest in the Newt Knight topic. I,deep down inside me, can’t see how he can be made out to be a hero. Nor can I see how he played any major role in the wbts except as a community organizer. He had no choice to live like he lived. He only existed the best way he knew how. If he had any measurable influence he would have been assassinated. I think he was a minor character in the war.But he was a major character in how his offspring has spread. This morning I took a drive in my vehicle to where his youngest relatives now live. One other thing that bothers me is why many southerners fought for the confederacy. The U.S. was less than a hundred years old when twbts was fought. The country was young. The southerners were independent thinking. They loved their families, their homes, and their land. The union was formed primarily for defensive purposes. I’m sure that some southerners fought for slavery but they were in the minority. Am I way off base about Newt Knight? I feel that the carpetbaggers are to this day are still trying to plunder the south via books such as The State of Jones and local scallawags are assisting them. Thanks for your work.

  9. lavahnmoss,

    Thanks for providing an insider’s perspective on Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones. Like you, I see Newt Knight as very much a product of his environment, one comprised mostly of nonslaveholding farmers who had everything to lose, in addition to their lives, in a long, protracted war. I too can understand why a good many Jones Countians opposed secession, or had turned against the Confederacy by late 1863, when the Knight Company was formed.

    I do believe that the war changed Newt, turning him into a far stronger supporter of the Union than he likely was in 1861. I also think it’s likely that his relationship with Rachel, a product of wartime stress, changed his views about race. The fact that he and his parents did not own slaves indicates that they did not believe in slavery; it does not mean they believed in racial equality. Even the fact that Newt openly embraced his mixed-race descendants and provided property to them and their mothers (Rachel and her daughter, George Ann) does not mean that he embraced racial equality for all. We know that his views on race were not typical of white southerners, but we don’t know exactly what those views were.

    For example, Newt tried to send his mixed-race descendants to a “white” school. He allegedly burned that school down when his descendants were turned away. Does that mean that he supported public school integration of all black and white children? Not according to a number of his descendants, such as Yvonne Bivins, who believes that Newt did not consider his descendants to be “black.” Racial identity is anything but monolithic among multiracial people.

    Newt did work to protect the lives of blacks on behalf of the Adelbert Ames Administration after the war, indicating his commitment to the new order; one in which slavery was dead and black citizens were to enjoy certain civil rights. But the nation–North as well as South–was still far from agreeing that blacks would be equal. In fact, Southern Democrats could not have turned back Reconstruction without the acquiesence of powerful Northern leaders.

    Newt Knight was caught up in this struggle; he served on the side of Adelbert Ames, who clearly fought for black rights. I credit Newt for taking his stand with the party of the Union after the war, but I think it would be a mistake to think that we know what he thought about racial equality.

    Thank you for visiting Renegade South!

    Vikki

  10. My ancesters are from Jones and Perry Counties, Mississippi. William Tyrus McGilvery is my gggg Grandfather. He is the man that either Newt Knight, or a member of his gang, shot and killed when McGilvery’s dogs were chasing Newt Knight and some of Knights followers, somewhere around Boga Homa creek in Jones County during the civil war. William Tyrus McGilvery’s wife was Sarah Smith McGilvery. His daughter was married to Samuel Caper Trest, first Sheriff of Jones county and a Mississippi state representative after the civil war. McGilver’s parents were from Scotland. His Father was Alexander McGilvery and his Mother was Mary “Polly” McLeod. Alexander and Polly’s old gravestones are still at the grave sites in McGilvery cemetary, near Lancaster cemetary, at Ovett, where Samuel Caper Trest and Eleanor “Jenny” McGilvery Trest are buried. My ancesters in Jones County are McGilvery, Smith, Trest, Ferguson, McSwain, Buchannan, McGill, Mixon, Rushton, Windham, Walters, Blackledge, McLeod, Stuart. Most of these surenames were on the same immigrant ship from Scholand.Some of my ancesters were members of Knight’s gang and were hung by the confederacy. So I have ancesters that were staunch Confederates and also Unionists. I have a lot of information about some of these ancestors, but my Mother and I would really like to know what happened to William T. McGilvery’s body and also his wife, Sarah Smith. We know that he died at a house near where he was shot. We are looking for his grave and have been looking for some time with no luck. Do you or anyone reading this have any information about where Wm. McGilvery is buried? I would really appreciate any information that anyone may have. Regards, Teresa Guthrie

    • Teresa,

      I am a ggg grandson of William T. McGilvery, I would like to have any information you have on him and his family.

      Joe.McDavid

      • Hi Joe,

        I am in Texas until mid-March, but will check my files on the McGilverys when I return home to Missouri. I don’t believe I have any more, however, than the following, which I documented in Free State of Jones, ch. five, footnote #66: 1860 census records show William McGilvery of Jones Co., MS, as 42 years old and the owner of six slaves. His personal estate was valued at $18,910; his real estate at $5,480.

        I also concluded in my book that William, and not Angus McGilvery as claimed by Ethel Knight and Tom Knight, was killed by deserters (probably the Knight band) because of what I found in the censuses and in the 1868 bankruptcy papers of Amos Deason. Those papers show that Deason administered the estate of William McGilvery, who died in 1864. Censuses show that this William had a son named Angus, who, along with a second Angus McGilvery was still alive in 1870.

        Hope this is helpful alongside whatever light Teresa Guthrie can shed on his life.

        Vikki

      • Joe I am a GGGG Grandson of Daniel Smith Sr whose daughter Sarah married Eilliam T. McGilvrey. I would love to share info

  11. Teresa,

    I appreciate your commentary, which provides more information on the murder of William T. McGilvery than I have seen printed anywhere. I wish I had heard from you while I was writing The Free State of Jones! Your family is also typical in having members who supported opposite sides of the Civil War. (My own ancestors were similarly divided.)

    Unless their graves were marked, tt is often impossible to determine where people from this era of history are buried. Sometimes oral histories are passed down, but I have never seen or heard any story about where Mr. McGilvery and his wife might be buried, Perhaps one of Renegade South’s readers might be able to help.

    Good luck,
    Vikki Bynum

  12. iv been sitting with my great aunt who was born in hot coffee in 1920. iv been talking to her alot about her childhood. she doesnt understand alot of things now and didnt really seem like she cared about the history of the local area. iv been prying it out of her slowley. i was googleing a random question about hot coffee and came across newt nights name. i asked her if she knew the name newt night and this 92 year old woman sat straight up and her eyes got big. i had just realized by saying his name i had brought back long forgoten memories of fear. iv grown up with her all my life and her reaction to that mans name almost distured me. her exact words were ” that was bad meeeaaaan man”.the look and the tone made me realize she was upset. i wanted to get more info from her but i almost felt like i shouldnt bring her back to a bad place in her life. what little she did say about him was angry ranting about him and his men doing whatever they pleased like pirates in hot coffee. but what i cant make out is that she was born in 1920 and he died in 1922 or24 i believe. how could she remember his name so well. know that she is not and has never been interested in history or the what was going on in world really because she lived in shell compared to what information we have access to now. my question is did his son possible take up what his dad started and she could possibly be getting the two men confused or maybe his death date that is listed is not correct. if she was 2 to 4 years old she could not have that much of a reaction to his name. she didnt even know about the free state of jones county existed until i started explaining it to her. but she knew ole newt. i think only god knows what really happened or else she just wont say.

    • This is fascinating, Erich; thanks for taking the time to share it with Renegade South. Given that your great aunt was born only two years before Newt Knight died, this is stark testimony to how vibrant the legend of the Free State of Jones was long after the Civil War and Reconstruction had passed.

      After conducting years of research on the actual events of Civil War Jones County and the legend that followed, I would speculate that your great aunt was descended from a family that was on the receiving end of the Knight Band’s anti-Confederate depredations and the inner civil war that erupted in Jones County. Stories from that time were surely passed on to her, with Newt Knight becoming ever larger than life as the symbol of all that was frightening to folks on the home front.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      Vikki

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