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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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