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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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