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By Vikki Bynum

Ed Payne’s current series on Mississippi Piney Woods Civil War Unionists, “Crossing the Rubicon of Loyalties,” provides a timely context for a closer look at Oquin C. Martin, a former Confederate soldier and Piney Woods neighbor to the infamous Newt Knight. Although Martin joined neither Newt Knight’s band of deserters nor the Union army, his 1895 deposition,* gathered during Newt Knight’s federal claims hearing, indicates that were he forced to live the war all over again, Martin might not have remained loyal to the Confederacy.  When asked whether he had been a “Union man or a secessionist,” he answered, “I was a right smart of a secessionist until I was converted.”

There was no follow-up question to Martin’s intriguing statement that he had been “converted.” Clearly, the government was far more interested in what Martin had to say about Newt Knight’s loyalty than his own, particularly since he and Newt had served together in the 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry of the Confederate Army. When asked how long Newt served, Martin replied that Newt had deserted at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi—before the 7th battalion moved on to Vicksburg–and, to his knowledge, “never returned” to service. More on that later.

We now know that Newt Knight was not unique among Piney Woods soldiers in his decision to bolt the Confederate Army. As Ed Payne’s research demonstrates, the disheartening course of the Civil War contributed to a growing number of Mississippi men who not only deserted the Confederacy but also joined the Union Army. These were in addition to a good many southerners who opposed secession in the first place, and remained devoted to Union.

Like so many soldiers, O.C. Martin left behind a wife and family when he went off to war. While not among the 200-plus Piney Woods soldiers who fled to the Union Army’s 1st and 2nd New Orleans Infantry, he was reported AWOL following his parole from Vicksburg. Most likely, concerns for his family, which included a wife, two children, and three stepchildren, as well as war-weariness after the ordeal of Vicksburg contributed to his decision to take an unauthorized leave.

Assuming Martin returned to his Piney Woods home while AWOL, he would have found plenty of other soldiers there who had done the same thing. A number of these men joined the Knight band, organized in October 1863; many more joined the Union Army. Martin, however, eventually rejoined the 7th Battalion. When asked by the government when he finally returned home for good, he replied that his battalion was “captured at Blakeley, Ala. and taken thence to Vicksburg as prisoners at which place we were released and disbanded and returned to our homes, the war being over.”  His military records bear him out, reporting the date of his capture as April 9, 1865, and that of his transfer to Vicksburg as May 1, 1865.

O.C. Martin was called by the U.S. government to testify against Newt Knight’s claim, probably because of his wartime loyalty to the Confederacy at a time when many of his neighbors turned to guerrilla warfare or Union service. But unlike those defense witnesses who painted Newt Knight as an outlaw with no known Union affiliations, upon cross-examination Martin portrayed Newt and his band as having “fought our cavalry and certainly against the South”—hardly what the government was hoping he’d say! Furthermore, when asked by Newt’s lawyer whether it was not a “notorious fact” that Newt Knight had “raised a company of Infantry in opposition to the Confederacy and in favor of the Union,” Martin replied, “that was my understanding; heard it often and believed it.”

Lending credence to Martin’s statements was the obvious care he took to answer questions accurately. He had known Newt since boyhood, he said, but “never knew his political sentiments.” And, since he and Newt belonged to different companies of the same battalion, he declined to identify Newt’s military rank, or to comment on whether or not he had “evaded all duty and refused to go into any battles against Union troops.”

An important component of Newt’s case was an 1870 affidavit claiming he had been sorely abused by Confederate authorities because of his Unionist beliefs. Martin claimed to have no knowledge of such abuse, or the related claim that Newt’s “dwelling house and its contents” had been burned down by his enemies. Still, Martin said, he did remember a time when “the captain threatened to have him shot.”

The careful, precise, and confident nature of O.C. Martin’s responses to questions administered under oath lends credence to his remark that Newt Knight’s final desertion from the Confederate Army occurred at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi, the 7th battalion’s last place of engagement before Vicksburg.  Martin’s recollection is particularly important because Newt’s own military record is blank between February and June 1863, thus omitting the time period when the 7th battalion was pinned down at Vicksburg.

Really, none of this should matter, since Newt himself never claimed to have served at Vicksburg; nor did any of his contemporaries report him there. The reason it does matter is because that gap in his military record allowed Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, in their 2009 book, State of Jonesto feature fifteen pages detailing Newt’s allegedly grueling experiences at—yes, Vicksburg.

O.C. Martin’s deposition is a reminder that federal and state records, many gathered years after the Civil War, often yield information about the lives of soldiers and their families that might otherwise never come to light. Only because Martin was asked point blank about his political views do we learn that this Confederate veteran, once a “right smart” secessionist, had at some point been “converted.” And only because the U.S. government was intent on learning whether or not Newt Knight was a true Unionist do we learn, inadvertently, that Newt Knight deserted the Confederacy at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi–and not at Vicksburg.

*O. C. Martin deposition, March 6, 1895, Newt Knight claim file, Records of the U.S. Court of Claims, 1835-1966, Record Group 123, Committee on War Claims, Claims of Newton Knight and Others, #8013 and 8464, National Archives, Wash. D.C.

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Professor Stauffer is angry at me; I mean really angry. He’s furious that I don’t think more highly of his and Sally Jenkins’s book, State of Jones, but especially that I have the temerity to publicly say so. To get it all off his chest, he just let off more steam on page 2 of the December 10th issue of the Jones County ReView.

Why, he even called me a gadfly–again. His definition: one who “builds her reputation by constantly annoying, irritating, or slandering others.” Well, I prefer Socrates’ description of the gadfly’s role:  “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” Under those terms, I plead guilty, having criticized the sloppiness of his research and the distortions of his arguments. That’s what reviewers (and gadflies) are expected to do, when warranted, in our profession.

Professor Stauffer claims that he and Sally Jenkins have in turn treated my work with respect. Go back and listen to you and your co-author’s remarks about me in your interviews last May and June with Mike Noirot of This Mighty Scourge, and on NPR’s Diane Rehm show. Who are you kidding?

Aside from gadfly, what I really am is a history professor who has taught at the same university (in that “small Texas town” he sneeringly mentions) for almost 24 years; a historian who has written three books published by the University of North Carolina Press, a premier academic press.

I could say more about my credentials, but then I’d begin to sound like Stauffer, who ritualistically trots his out. So let’s get to the point. Mr. Stauffer says that I have slandered him. As he kindly explains for us, that means “saying something false or malicious that damages somebody’s reputation.”  He then proceeds to attribute words to me that I have never uttered (how’s that for slander?)! Such as that I “dismissed” him and Ms Jenkins as “Yankees and carpetbaggers.” Mr. Stauffer is not only confused, he repeats himself a lot. You can read my response to these and other phony charges by clicking here.

There is a new charge against me. Stauffer now accuses me of having launched a “blitzkreig” against his and Jenkins’s work on the Internet. Gee, all I did was review their book. They were the ones who asked Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory to let them post a response to that 3-part review, and Kevin graciously did just that. An internet debate followed in which the authors and I, and anyone else who cared to, participated.

So, what’s all this talk about me refusing to debate? Seems to me we’ve already had that debate. Virtually every charge that Stauffer raises anew in his ReView column I have answered either on Renegade South or Civil War Memory. In any case, Mr. Stauffer has never extended an invitation, as he claims, to debate me face-to-face. Now, Mark Thornton, the editor of the Jones County ReView, did once extend such an invitation–Oh, my, has Mr. Stauffer appropriated Mr. Thornton’s idea as his own? Tsk, tsk, imagine that.

Having misrepresented not just the history of Jones County, but also the history of the present debate, Stauffer goes on to confidently proclaim my book, Free State of Jones, a failure. Most remarkable are his standards for that judgment: sales figures and fame. You see, my university press book hasn’t sold nearly the copies that his mass-produced, media-hyped Doubleday version has.  

Here I was, thinking it was great that people from around the United States continue to contact me eight years after Free State of Jones was published. But, no, Stauffer assures us that my book was “virtually unknown outside of Jones County, the Texas town where she teaches, and a community of some 50 scholars who write on Southern Unionists.” Why, he says, I was just a poor little nobody who had never even had my name in the New York Times (just imagine!) before he and Ms. Jenkins opened the door to fame and fortune for me. Silly me for thinking that fame and fortune have about as much to do with high-quality scholarship and history as pop stardom does with perfect pitch. Mr. Stauffer can explain that, too: he says I simply don’t understand his book’s “genre.”

Despite Professor Stauffer’s tactics, which represent the worst in academic class snobbery, one might expect that he, an academic himself, would understand that the vast majority of historians don’t spend years in graduate school because they hope to write bestsellers that will entertain the masses.

Which reminds me. Years ago, when I was in the final years of my Ph D work at the University of California, San Diego, I proudly wore a shirt sold at conferences by Radical History Review.  The logo on the front featured Karl Marx holding a copy of the Review and the words “Earn Big Money; Become a Historian.” My fellow graduate students and I loved that shirt–it epitomized the passion we felt for the research and writing of history. No, we were not in it for the money.

Vikki Bynum, wearing her Radical History T-shirt in 1986.

(To see a copy of the t-shirt logo, visit Radical History Review and scroll to the bottom of their page. You might even want to order one for yourself!)

The same, evidently, can’t be said for all history professors. For some, it is, rather, all about the money.

It all comes down to this: John Stauffer and I have very different approaches to the profession of history, and I have a very different personal story from his, one that he apparently can’t fathom from his lofty Harvard perch. You see, I earned a PhD the hard way–as a divorced mother of two children and the daughter of parents who, through no fault of their own, never graduated from high school. It may surprise Mr. Stauffer to learn that I never aspired to be either an Ivy League professor or a bestselling author; that my hard-won goals were to write honest, deeply-researched histories about ordinary people of the past who acted in extraordinary ways, and to teach students from backgrounds similar to mine that intellectuals are not confined to elite institutions.

Mr. Stauffer, in contrast, evidently loves to write about poor, downtrodden folks from the past, yet exhibits contempt for present-day renegades who have beat the odds, achieved success on their own terms, and have the gall to proclaim a flawed book just that–no matter who wrote it.

Why, Mr. Stauffer, you’re all lit up like a Christmas tree, and all because of the words of this little old Texas gadfly.

With the sting of truth,

Vikki Bynum

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At a  recent two-day booksigning in Jones County, Mississippi, State of Jones co-author, John Stauffer, hurled some serious charges at your Renegade South moderator that must be addressed.  According to the November 13, 2009, online edition of the Laurel Leader Call,  Professor Stauffer attributed several comments to me that I have never made, and others that are gross exaggerations of what I have said in my critiques of their book (to see my 3-part critique of State of Jones, begin here). Perhaps Mr. Stauffer was simply confused; much as been written about his and Sally Jenkins’s book since its June 23, 2009 release. Let me, then, set the record straight.

First, Mr. Stauffer accuses me of refusing to debate him. The truth is, I have never received any personal communications from Mr. Stauffer–ever–much less an invitation to debate him.

He goes on to accuse me of having labeled him and Ms. Jenkins “Yankees and Carpetbaggers.” I have never made any such remark about them.

Nor have I ever said or written, as Stauffer claims, that Newt Knight was “no friend of blacks.” 

I have also never said or written that the writing in State of Jones is “inferior to that of high school students.” As a teacher of college students, however, I did agree with one of my blog commenters that if a student turned in a research paper that was as poorly documented as much of State of Jones is, I would insist that the student rewrite it.

Finally, according to Stauffer, I accused the authors of writing fiction rather than history.  Well, not quite. But I have commented several times in various sections of Renegade South on the manner in which Jenkins and Stauffer play fast and loose with the facts in State of Jones. I gather here those remarks, which I stand by:

1. In regard to State of Jones, there’s nothing wrong with history that reads like a novel, but the research and use of evidence must be done responsibly unless it is categorized as fiction.

 2. All of us love to read exciting stories, but the historian must always be careful not to privilege the excitement of a good story over factual accuracy. It’s fine to speculate, but you must tell the reader when you are doing so. The authors’ weaving in of other people’s histories with Newt Knight’s to suggest what he “might” have thought or done was not done carefully enough to separate fact from conjecture in my view.

3. Yes, I agree that it would be more accurate to define Jenkins and Stauffer’s work as “historical fiction.” But the authors themselves claim that their book is historical scholarship at its finest.

4. If writers are going to mix fact and fiction to build a more exciting story, they need to make that clear to their readers. If what Ms. Jenkins and Professor Stauffer wrote were to be transferred to a TV special, for example, it would have to be termed a “docudrama” to avoid charges of poor research and incorrect suppositions.

In the future, let’s hope that Professor Stauffer sticks to the facts in defending the contents of State of Jones, and that he resists engaging in ad hominem attacks on his critics. 

Vikki Bynum

NOTE: For my response to Professor Stauffer’s subsequent published remarks in the ReView of Jones County, see Confessions of a Texas Gadfly.

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 I received the following email message on Sunday from Ingrid Leverett, the daughter of historian Rudy Leverett, author of The Legend of the Free State of Jones (University of Mississippi Press, 1984). Rudy’s book demolished once and for all the myth that Jones County seceded from the Confederacy. While he and I differed in our opinion of whether or not Newt Knight was an outlaw or a Unionist, we engaged in a mutually-respectful dialogue in which we shared materials and ideas.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

Dr. Bynum,

Thank you very much for your defense of serious and careful scholarship in connection with the history of Jones County, Mississippi.  As a daughter of Rudy Leverett, I was dismayed to read of the distorted and ahistorical treatment of the subject by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer and of the publicity their work seems to be receiving.  My father would have endorsed your superb rebuttal of their unsubstantiated claims for Newt Knight which, as you explained, make for colorful drama but poor history.  Indeed, the purpose of my father’s book, Legend of the Free State of Jones — ten years or more in the researching and writing — was precisely to lay to rest, once and for all, perpetuation of the myths about Jones County and Newt Knight advanced by Jenkins and Stauffer.
Best regards,
Ingrid Leverett

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[Jonathan Odell has written extensively about his native state of Mississippi and is the author of the novel, The View From Delphi.  This post was adapted from comments Jon made on Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory blog.]

 

After interviewing many of the “Black Knight” descendants, one thing I’ve learned that concerns them is how easily whites are convinced to idealize the “romantic” relationship between Newt Knight and the ex-slave Rachel. I don’t think they would agree with a commenter who, as quoted on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog, wrote that “it’s less problematic” that Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, authors of State of Jones,  “sexed up a romantic relationship for the sake of a film” then if they generally misread the meaning of Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones.

Black women in the days following the Civil War were at the bottom of the heap power-wise. Whether Knight’s assumed romantic feelings for Rachel were reciprocated is missing the point. We will never know, because in the context of that era, it was irrelevant. Good for her if she did, but for black mothers in those days, romantic love was not the driving motivation. Who they loved was immaterial to surviving. She had to find the least worst choice that would keep her and her children alive. Sexing up the relationship for a more satisfying (and modern) ending, further obscures the wrenching sacrifices made and amazing courage displayed by black women of that era.

Just another thought. I was raised in Jones County and have been fascinated to find that the Knights were not the only family line that diverged down two paths after the Civil War. Several former slave owners sired black offspring, and in this part of the country, many thought that even your black children were to be cared for. Many acres of land are still owned by descendants of slaves who were bequeathed the parcel by a white father. But in none of these incidents do the direct black descendants assume that anything like romantic love played a part. According to them black women after the War were as much sexual slaves to white men as they were before the war. And interestingly enough, neither do they call it rape. “Taking somebody to the barn,” as they commonly refer to the occurrence, was just the nature of things. I guess that’s why context is everything. Projecting 21st century notions of romantic love onto 19th century southern interracial relations, as Jenkins and Stauffer have done, won’t take us far toward understanding the lives of black, multiracial, or for that matter white women.

Jonathan Odell

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Earlier today, Yvonne Bivins sent the following comment to Renegade South. Given her extensive research and her personal connections to the Jones County Knights, I have, with her permission, converted her comment to a post. 

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

A Critique of The State of Jones

As a librarian and someone knowledgeable about my family history after researching for more than ten years, I found it took me almost two weeks to actually read the Jenkins/Stauffer book. I finally came to the same conclusion about this book as I did Echo of the Black Horn [by Ethel Knight]; it is fiction, historical fiction. I cannot believe and am quite disappointed that a Harvard Professor would produce such a poorly documented work. It sickens me. I stopped to tag all the pages that had words like “apparently” and phrases like “it is possible that” to describe incidents. The authors lead readers to believe that Newt was the only white man with such families of mixed race children living near their white families and that he was the only one to deed land to his mixed-race offspring. When I began my research, I stopped to read many books on the subject of slavery, miscegenation, slave mistresses and their relationship to slave concubines, etc. in order to gain a better understanding of the character of their relationships. I am tempted to write Doubleday to complain about this book.

Yvonne Bivins

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The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy (Doubleday, 2009)

Those of you who have read my three-part review of State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, might want to visit Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory, where he allowed the authors to respond to my reviews. Ms. Jenkins and Professor Stauffer open by accusing me of attacking their work in order to promote my own, and end by accusing me of launching a “turf war.” In between, in a long, long, dissertation on sources, they seriously misrepresent my work, suggesting that I have willfully distorted the history of the Free State of Jones in my own book and thus failed to produce “good scholarship.” Be sure and read the many comments that follow their post, which include remarks by readers, moderator Kevin Levin, the authors, and myself.

I stand by my three-part review of their book, and hope to get back to blogging here about the Civil War histories of North Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas very soon. I’m excited that my new book continues to move toward production, and I will be announcing its new title very soon.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator, Renegade South

RELATED ARTICLES AND POSTS:

1. John Stauffer responds (again) to my review of State of Jones on Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory, August 24, 2009:  http://cwmemory.com/2009/08/24/john-stauffer-responds/#comment-10678

2. Prof. David S. Reynolds Reviews State of Jones  for The New York Times, August 16, 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/books/review/Reynolds-t.html

3. Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory:  “A Statement about the State of Jones Dispute ” http://cwmemory.com/2009/07/30/a-statement-about-the-state-of-jones-dispute/

4. “Civil War Fires Up Literary Shoot-out,” by Michael Cieply, New York Times, July 30, 2009, on The State of Jones vs The Free State of Jones controversy: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/30/movies/30jones.html?_r=2&hpw

5. Vikki Bynum,  “Confessions of a Small-Town Texas Gadfly.” Renegade South

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by Victoria E. Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

The following is the third and final installment of my review of State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer. To read part one, click here; for part two, click here.

In chapter seven of The State of Jones, Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer recount Newt Knight’s important role in the battle for power between the Republican Administration of Adelbert Ames and the reactionary forces of Confederate politicians and their Klan henchmen. They provide a moving account of Reconstruction in Mississippi, a violent and tragic episode in which basic human rights and the nation’s Constitution were trampled upon.

In so doing, the authors add to our current understanding of Newt Knight’s role in the post-war battle for Mississippi’s political future. Their discovery of part of a note from A. K. Davis, Governor Ames’s black lieutenant governor, counseling Newt to “appoint good men,” advances our sense of Newt’s political importance in a state beleaguered by white supremacist violence and political schemes that ultimately defeated Reconstruction and ended Newt’s political career in the process.

The authors’ inclusion of material from the depositions of Newt Knight’s federal claim files, 1887-1900, enriches our understanding that he was indeed a Union man and a determined foe of segregationist Democrats after the war—indeed, for the rest of his long life. But it is not the case that Stauffer and Jenkins “discovered” these depositions (p. 385). That distinction belongs to independent researcher Kenneth Welch, who first mentioned Newt’s federal claims in a 1985 Knight family genealogy (Knights and Related Families). The depositions from those claims are not discussed in my book, Free State of Jones, but not because I did not know about them. Based on Ken Welch’s references, I requested the files during a visit to the National Archives in Washington, DC, but was provided only the 1870 file folder by an archivist who, after an exhaustive search, could not locate claims 8013 and 8464. I reluctantly concluded that the documentary evidence for those claims was no longer extant. In early 2001, I learned otherwise from Ken Welch, who graciously copied the files for me from his own research collection. By then, my book was already in press, but I devote a chapter to analysis of the claims in my new book forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.  No doubt the files would have enriched my discussion of Newt Knight’s post-war political activities in The Free State of Jones, as they do in Jenkins and Stauffer’s State of Jones, but there is nothing in them that would have changed my argument.

Chapter eight of State of Jones revisits the history of the multiracial community founded by Newt, Serena, Rachel, and George Ann Knight. Jenkins and Stauffer’s addition of interviews with heretofore unheard from Knight descendants amplifies the story of this community. In particular, Barbara Blackledge’s description of her feelings of alienation as a multiracial child growing up in Jim Crow Mississippi provides poignant testimony to the stark racial boundaries that dictated a person must be either “black” or “white.”

It is the intimate relationship of Newt Knight and former slave Rachel Knight (Newt’s wartime collaborator) that most captures the authors’ attention. Newt, they conclude, “came to belong more to Rachel than to his own wife, Serena.” Fair enough. In their zeal, however, to portray Rachel as the great love of Newt’s life, they come close to blaming Newt’s extra-marital affairs on Serena. With no evidence other than their observation about “the constant concerns and drudgery of farming,” they decide that Newt and Serena’s marriage “does not seem to have been a love affair,” and that “Newt’s life with Serena would be difficult” (p. 60). They also claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that Serena temporarily fled Mississippi during the war, leaving Newt to succumb to the charms of Rachel.

By once again taking liberties with their evidence, Stauffer and Jenkins encourage readers to believe that Newt’s philandering ways—and there is good evidence that he fathered upwards of four children by Rachel’s daughter George Ann as well as children by Serena and Rachel—were the result of an unhappy marriage to Serena, a “prematurely weary” and dispirited woman, broken by hard work and the Civil War (and perhaps by life with Newt?). In rendering Serena so pitiable a figure, the authors deliver the unkindest cut of all: they describe her as a “grim-faced” woman with a “thin face, downturned mouth,” and “jug ears” (p. 61).

The authors’ depiction of a homely, sour-faced Serena is based on a photograph taken of her and Newt together late in life. But since the photo does not appear in State of Jones (it does appear in Free State of Jones, p. 154), readers cannot know that it was snapped when the couple was well past their prime.  In the case of Rachel, however, the authors present photographs of two much younger and lovelier women. In contrast to Serena, Rachel is described as having “lustrous” hair, “blaze eyes,” and a bewitching manner. It’s worth noting that there is no reliably documented photo of Rachel Knight. To this day discussion of which of the photos reproduced in State of Jones is truly of Rachel evokes intense debate among her descendants.More important, it’s hard to believe that seasoned scholars would reduce a discussion of Newt’s sexual affairs to a debate over whether his wife or his lover was more attractive.

Far more interesting would be an exploration of the relationship between Serena and Rachel, whose children intermarried with one another. Because of the intermarriages between their children (Mat and Fannie, Mollie and Jeffrey), the two women were grandparents to many of the same children. Until Mollie’s death around 1917, Serena lived in her daughter and Jeffrey’s multiracial household. Like Newt, her living arrangements did not conform to Jim Crow standards.

This concludes my review of State of Jones. To summarize, in my opinion Jenkins and Stauffer have produced a lively and engaging but deeply flawed work of history. Too often they rely uncritically on suspect sources (for example, Ethel Knight and Tom Knight), stretch their evidence, and create scenes and conversations without any direct evidence at all. One wishes that the authors’ enthusiasm and passion for their subject had been accompanied by greater respect for the historical record.  With a story so riveting, I suspect that we have not yet heard the last word on “Mississippi’s Longest Civil War.”

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

This second installment of my review of Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer’s State of Jones (Doubleday, 2009), focuses on the book’s Civil War chapters.  To view the first installment, click here. To view the third installment, click here

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.

The subtitle of State of Jones: “The Small Southern County that Seceded From the Confederacy,” revives this myth for a modern audience, but one searches in vain for any description of the alleged imperium in imperio inside the book.  Instead, Jenkins and Stauffer forsake the promise of their subtitle and maintain that members of the Knight Company were staunch Unionists who in late 1863 declared their allegiance to the United States government before a county official. So why the false advertising? Why do the authors restore a distorted and thoroughly discredited image of this important Civil War uprising if they don’t believe it themselves?

Not only do the authors resurrect the old myth of secession-within-secession in their subtitle, but they also eagerly offer a new myth: that Newt Knight served at Vicksburg. Jenkins and Stauffer offer no evidence for this assertion; in fact, they dismiss evidence that disputes it. In 1870, five men of the community swore before a court official that Newt Knight had deserted the army once and for all by May 1863. If their sworn letter was true, Newt could not have been at Vicksburg. Furthermore, Newt himself never claimed to have been at Vicksburg, nor do his military records place him there. In fact, no one before Jenkins and Stauffer ever suggested such a thing. The authors concede that “a case can be made” that Newt was not at Vicksburg, but press their claim anyway, arguing that Newt was “purposely vague on the subject of his Confederate experiences” because it was “in his best interest to minimize his rebel service as he pursued a federal pension as a Union soldier.” Likewise, they postulate, his friends “may have wanted to aid him [in winning federal compensation] by understating his time in rebel uniform” (note 99, p. 344). In other words, the authors suggest, Newt and his friends lied about his military service.

This unfounded, surprising claim presumes a conspiracy of silence among a multitude of men who testified on behalf of Newt Knight before the federal Court of Claims over a thirty-year period. For the authors, though, it serves a purpose: to justify their stirring fifteen-page foray into the battle of Vicksburg. Their narrative of Vicksburg is only one example of their continual efforts to provide a context for the Jones County insurrection which instead takes the reader far afield. Perhaps if the authors had written their history more as a community uprising, as their title suggests, rather than the saga of one Great Man, they would have found it unnecessary to distort Newt Knight’s military record. After all, many future members of the Knight Company indeed WERE at Vicksburg. These men, however, appear only fleetingly as bit-players in this paean to the book’s leading man.

Several factual errors suggest that State of Jones was written in haste. For example, Jenkins and Stauffer give the wrong figures for Jones County’s secession vote. Relying on Tom Knight’s error-ridden biography of his father rather than official returns available at the Mississippi State Archives, they claim that there were 374 votes for the anti-secession candidate and 24 for the pro-secession candidate (p. 73). The official numbers are, respectively, 166 and 89.

Their erroneous statement that Stacy Collins, who died in 1853, “had spoken out vehemently against secession” (p. 15), reflects a careless misreading of their cited sources, Bynum, Free State of Jones p. 59, and Tom Knight, Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight, p. 60.

The list goes on. On pp. 50 and 195, the authors misidentify James Reddoch as William Reddoch. On p. 155, they inexplicably claim that Newt’s wife, Serena, fled the state during the war, erroneously citing Bynum, Free State of Jones, p. 100, as their source (I did not argue this, and I’ve never before encountered this story). On p. 198, they mistakenly claim that Newt’s brother, Franklin, was executed by Col Lowry’s troops. On p. 249, while quoting from Ethel Knight’s Echo of the Black Horn, they mistakenly refer to her as a descendant of Newt Knight.  On p. 307, they state that Newt’s son Mat helped to bury him, when in fact, Mat predeceased his father (here, the authors uncritically used the statement of a Knight descendant; on Mat’s death, see Bynum, Free State of Jones, p. 168).

Finally, the authors claim that on October 13, 1863, “the men chose a name for their unit: they would be the ‘Jones County Scouts’” (p. 138). They cite no primary source for this assertion. My own research indicates that this name was first applied to Newt’s band of guerrillas in 1887, when lawyers representing Newt’s federal claim case inserted it in place of the “Knight Company.” Apparently, the lawyers thought the new name had a more authentic Unionist ring to it. When Newt Knight’s case was closed in 1900, the name “Jones County Scouts” seems to have disappeared, too—until now.

State of Jones was clearly written to appease the insatiable public appetite for Civil War history. Serious students of that war, however, will be disappointed in a book that decidedly is not the “investigative account” promised on the book’s dust jacket.

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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!

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