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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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I’m excited to announce that my new book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, has been released!  Click here to see its table of contents.

The Long Shadow of the Civil War

To purchase a copy directly from the University of North Carolina Press, click on the title, above. You may also order it from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

To learn more about The Long Shadow of the Civil War, watch for my next post on Renegade South, which will feature my recent Question & Answer interview with the University of North Carolina Press.

Vikki Bynum

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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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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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You may have noticed that there has not been an original post on Renegade South lately. The reason is that, for the past two weeks, I have been absorbed by the task of getting Southern Communities at War ready for the copyeditor at University of North Carolina Press. I hope to have that portion of its preparation for production finished by June 1. Immediately following that, I will turn to completing forms and questionnaires for the UNC marketing department.

I’m excited for the book to finally be at this stage–as many of you know, I have been working on it for several years. Most of the posts on this site relate to its essays, at least peripherally. But the book especially demands my attention between now and at least June 15, and so the blog will have to take second place for now.

Even while working on Southern Communities at War,  however, I check Renegade South at least once a day. I always find time to respond to comments! And I welcome, as ever, suggestions for future blogs and contributions of material or photos that you would like me to consider posting.

Thanks! Now it’s back to editing . . . .

NOTE, November 24, 2009: Southern Communities at War has been renamed The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. It is scheduled for release on Feb. 18, 2010.

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