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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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A conversation with Victoria E. Bynum  

Author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies  

Published April 15, 2010  

$35.00 hardcover, ISBN 978-0-8078-3381-0  

The Long Shadow of the Civil War

  

Q. There seems no end to books about the American Civil War. What does The Long Shadow of the Civil War offer that is new?
A.
Although Civil War books about the home front are not new, this is a new sort of home front study that focuses on three communities from three different states. Rather than close with the war and Reconstruction, The Long Shadow of the Civil War follows individual Unionists and multiracial families into the New South era and, in some cases, into the twentieth century. This historical sweep allows the reader to understand the ongoing effects of the war at its most personal levels.
   

Q. What led you to combine three Civil War home fronts, all noted as areas of violent disorder, in one study? Why these three?
A.
Most basically, I combined them in order to provide in-depth comparisons of the communities within the same volume. But there’s more to it than that; the communities have important links to one another. The North Carolina Piedmont was the ancestral seedbed of migration into what became Jones County, Mississippi. Later, East Texas attracted many non-slaveholding Mississippi families seeking a less-developed piney woods region.  

All three regions exhibited fierce Unionist activity during the Civil War, with brothers fighting in separate deserter bands across state lines in two of the communities. So, combining them in one study provided a wonderful opportunity to identify common characteristics of Southern Unionism, while also showing how different geographic settings influenced the nature of the inner civil wars.
   

Q. What were the most important similarities among the three communities of dissent? The most important differences?  

A. All three communities were located outside the South’s plantation belt and all had large non-slaveholding majorities. Important differences were religious practices and length of settlement. The North Carolina Quaker Belt had a history of religious dissent that included Moravian, Mennonite and Dunker sects as well as Quakers.   

Beginning around 1848, Wesleyan Methodism, with its anti-slavery ideals, gained popularity in this region. The Quaker Belt was also a long-settled region of expansive, deeply entwined family networks that lent force and stability to anti-Confederate sentiments.

By contrast, neither Jones County, Mississippi, nor Hardin County, Texas, exhibited significant or organized religious dissent against slavery. As in North Carolina, family networks were important to anti-Confederate activity; however, in East Texas, more recent migration from states like Mississippi meant that family networks were less extensive there. Less cohesive and deeply rooted communities, coupled with politicians’ successful linking of Texas’s 1836 revolution to the Southern cause of secession, undermined organized anti-Confederate activity among non-slaveholders in East Texas.  

Q. Why did you return to the Free State of Jones County, Mississippi, and to the North Carolina Quaker Belt, two regions that you wrote about in previous books, for this study?
A.
Ever since I discovered that a splinter band of Unionist deserters, led by several brothers of members of the Jones County band, kept Confederate forces at bay in the Texas Big Thicket, and after discovering ancestral links between the North Carolina Piedmont and Jones County, Mississippi, I have wanted to combine the inner civil wars of these three regions in the same volume. Doing so also gave me the opportunity to analyze research materials that were not included in my earlier works: two examples are documents concerning the lives of freedpeople and poor whites in Orange County, North Carolina, and Newt Knight’s 1887-1900 Mississippi claim files.  

Q. You cite abolitionism as a motive for anti-Confederate sentiments in only one of your three communities: that of the Randolph County area of the North Carolina Quaker Belt. How and why did religion play such an important role in this region, but not in Jones County, Mississippi, or the Big Thicket of East Texas?
A.
The Randolph County area of North Carolina (including Montgomery and Moore Counties) was the “heart” of the state’s Quaker Belt. Quaker opposition to slavery had faded over time because of the state’s changing demographics, but it never entirely disappeared, making this region fertile ground for Wesleyan Methodists who gained a foothold in the 1850s. In Montgomery County, the Rev. Adam Crooks condemned slavery from the pulpit of the Lovejoy Methodist Church. In contrast, Jones County, Mississippi and Hardin County, Texas, were Baptist strongholds during the secession crisis. I have found no evidence that any Baptist church in either county publically opposed slavery or secession; indeed, the Leaf River Baptist Church of Jones County publically supported the Confederacy.
   

Q. Newt Knight, the controversial “captain” of the Knight Company, is a polarizing figure who even today evokes heated arguments among readers. Why is this so, and how did it affect your historical treatment of him?
A.
As long as we continue to debate the causes, meanings, and effects of the Civil War, Newt Knight’s motives and character will also be debated. We know that he defied Confederate authority during the war, supported Republican Reconstruction afterward, and openly crossed the color line to found a mixed-race community. To neo-Confederates, such facts make Newt a scoundrel and a traitor to his country and his race. To neo-abolitionists, he is a backwoods Mississippi hero who defended his nation and struggled to uplift the black race. My response to such powerful and emotional narratives is to examine critically not only the documentary evidence, but also the mountain of published opinions about Newt Knight that have too often functioned as “evidence” for both sides of the debate.  

Q. Newt Knight, his white wife Serena, and former family slave, Rachel, were the founding parents of a multiracial community. What sort of a community was it in terms of racial identity? How did members of the community identify themselves racially, as opposed to how the larger white society defined them?
A. As segregation took hold in New South Mississippi (1880-1900), the descendants of Newt, Serena, and Rachel were increasingly defined by white society as black, i.e. as “Negroes,” despite being of European, African, and Native American ancestry. Before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, however, few of these descendants identified themselves as “black.” Depending on their physical appearance, including skin shade and hair texture, descendants of Newt and Rachel variously defined themselves as white, Indian, or colored. Whereas white society applied a “one drop rule” that grouped together all people of African ancestry, these descendants self-identified in ways that reflected their multiracial heritage.  

There is no direct evidence of how Newt, Serena, or Rachel racially identified their multiracial descendants. Descendant Yvonne Bivins, the most thorough Knight researcher, was told by her elders that Newt Knight actively encouraged his descendants to identify as white. All that is certain—but nonetheless remarkable—is that they economically supported, nurtured, and lived openly among both white and multiracial kinfolk all their lives.  

Q. By crossing the color line, Newt Knight deviated from the norm by acknowledging and supporting his multiracial descendants. What may we deduce from those facts about his political views on race relations in the era of segregation?
A.
Since we don’t know that Newt Knight identified his multiracial descendants as “black,” we can’t deduce from his intimate relationships with them, or by his efforts to enroll them in a local school (one that he helped create) alongside his white descendants, that he supported equality for all people of African ancestry—that is, for people classed as “Negroes.” Only if we adhere to the “one drop rule”—and assume that Newt Knight did, too—can we conclude that Newt’s protection of his own kinfolk extended to all Americans of African ancestry.  

Newt’s efforts on behalf of freedpeople as a Republican appointee during Reconstruction do not necessarily make him an advocate of black equality, as some historians have argued. There were many Reconstruction Republicans who supported the same basic rights of marriage and military service that Newt upheld for freedpeople, while supporting segregation and opposing black voting rights. We simply don’t know Newt’s political position on these issues.  

Q. For thirty years, Newt Knight petitioned the federal government to compensate his ad hoc military band, the Knight Company, for its support of the Union during the Civil War. What do those petitions reveal about the claims process itself, as well as the Knight Band?
A.
The transcripts from Newt Knight’s extensive claims files suggest the federal government’s hostility toward claims of Southern Unionism, especially after 1887, as the nation sank into a deep economic depression. That year, Newt renewed efforts begun in 1870 to win compensation.  

Several depositions of Jones County men made a strong case for Unionism among the Knight Company. The passage of time, however, doomed Newt’s claim to failure. His Washington, DC lawyers were unfamiliar with the Jones County uprising, while witnesses’ memories of the war faded over time. Most damaging, crucial evidence presented in Knight’s 1870 petition was misplaced by the government and never presented after 1887. At the same time, an expanding literature that portrayed the white South as having been unified around secession made Northerners all the more suspicious of Southern claims of Unionism.  

Q. The Long Shadow of the Civil War is as much about the legacies of Civil War dissent as about the war itself. Why did you include both topics in a single volume?
A.
To truly understand the Civil War, we need to understand its long-term impact on the lives of those who endured it. Southerners who took a Unionist stance lived with that decision all their lives, as did their children and grandchildren. Some struggled to put the war behind them and never spoke of it again; others, like Newt Knight and Warren Collins, defended their actions all their lives, and went on to fight new political battles.  

Multiracial communities that grew out of war and emancipation grew larger and more complex in the late nineteenth century. Faced with racial violence and segregation, many of their members exited the South during these years. But among those who remained, we witness the birth of a multiracial Southern middle class.
   

Q. You locate a long tradition of political dissent among certain Jones County families that found expression in third party political movements after the Civil War. How does this New South agrarian radicalism shed light on Civil War Unionism and vice versa?
A.
In all three regions, I found examples of emerging class consciousness among non-slaveholding farmers as a result of the Civil War. Late in life, Newt Knight, for example, offered a class-based critique of Southern society. Two prominent Unionist brothers, Jasper J. Collins of Jones County, Mississippi, and Warren J. Collins of Hardin County, Texas, went even further, carving out political careers as populists and socialists in two separate states.  

A close study of individual lives reveals how the Civil War reshaped their perspectives. Of course, the majority of Southern Unionists did not join third-party political movements in the aftermath of war. It appears, however, that some ideologically committed Unionists, such as the Collinses of Mississippi and Texas, grew ever more militant in their political views as the years passed.  

Q. Your epilogue, “Fathers and Sons,” compares and contrasts three twentieth-century histories of individual guerrilla leaders written by their sons. What do these biographical sketches reveal about the impact of kinship and politics on the Civil War memories of Southern Unionist families?
A.
All three biographies were written after the deaths of their subjects, and reflect the need for sons to defend notorious fathers against charges of treason, lawlessness, or ignorance—especially in the wake of New South glorification of the Confederate cause. Further complicating Tom Knight’s biography of Newt Knight was his effort to present his father as a hero to the segregated, virulently white supremacist society of the 1930s. At the time of Newt’s death, Tom was estranged from him and the family’s interracial community. He knew little about his father’s early years (his narrative is studded with factual errors) and his “memories” of Newt Knight during the Civil War and Reconstruction were profoundly influenced by his need to valorize Newt and thereby restore respect for his family. Though very different in tone and accuracy, Vinson A. Collins’s and Loren Collins’s biographies of their fathers, Warren J. Collins of Texas and Jasper J. Collins of Mississippi, are presented not only with a sense of each son’s relationship with his father, but also in the context of the nation’s politicized memories of the Civil War.  

###
This interview may be reprinted in its entirety with the following credit: A conversation with Victoria E. Bynum, author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (University of North Carolina Press, Spring 2010). The text of this interview is available at http://www.ibiblio.org/uncp/media/bynum/.
                                                                                                                              PUBLISHING DETAILS
ISBN 978-0-8078-3381-0, $35.00 hardcover
Publication date: April 15, 2010
240 pp., 9 illus., 1 map, bibl., notes, bibl., index
For more information: http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-7790.html
The University of North Carolina Press, http://www.uncpress.unc.edu
116 South Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3808
919-966-3561 (office) 1-800-848-6224 (orders) 919-966-3829 (fax)  

CONTACTS
Publicity: Gina Mahalek, 919-962-0581; gina_mahalek@unc.edu
Sales: Michael Donatelli, 919-962-0475; michael_donatelli@unc.edu
Rights: Vicky Wells, 919-962-0369; vicky_wells@unc.edu

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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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