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.