The Free State of Jones

Part Three: Review of Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, State of Jones

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, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, 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.”

23 replies »

  1. I certainly hate that this has turned rather unpleasant.

    You do commend them for what they have added to our knowledge, but they disparage your work without taking into account what might have been available at the time of your research or what might have been made available a second time (after apparently being lost). To me they have become guilty of the charges they have leveled at you. Note to readers: Greg Rowe is referring in this paragraph to remarks made by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer about my reviews of their book over on Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory (

    In addition, their failure to acknowledge the work of Kenneth Welch, an independent researcher, is deeply disturbing to someone like myself who takes a serious approach to his own teaching and limited writing. Am I going to have my work exploited by those who are “professional” historians simply because I am not?


  2. Thank you for such a thoughtful response, Greg. I agree, the authors’ failure to credit Ken Welch with the true “discovery” of Newt Knight’s claim files is an example of what all too often happens in our profession.



  3. The authors of the State of Jones also have Newt and his men singing John Brown’s Body, try to compare Newt to John Brown, and attempt to make foot washing baptists into anti-slavery activists. I know the breed; the antagonism toward the slave owners was probably only equaled by antagonism towards the slaves themselves. The authors too readily forgive Newt’s lust. They also put the Pearl River on the western border of Covington County, and create a county that never existed in Mississippi. Plus, they treat mississippi as being either one big swamp or pine ridges.


    • Thanks for your post, Rob. The authors’ claim that Newt Knight and his men sat around singing “John Brown’s body,” and also that they had connections with the abolitionist Unionist, Rev. John H. Aughey, comes straight from Ethel Knight’s book (pp. 146, 161). Although Ethel denied that Newt Knight was a Unionist (which would have granted him political principles), she was eager to portray him and his men as abolitionists. And why not? An avid segregationist (evident from her preface), Ethel wrote her book in 1951, as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. Portraying the Knight Company as John Brown-type abolitionists linked them to Brown’s radical quest to end slavery, and also made Newt a precursor to the Civil Rights workers of the 1950s that she so deplored. It was the perfect way for Ethel to present Newt as a man who threatened all that was sacred to white southern society. This is why I criticize the authors of State of Jones for taking too many things written by Ethel Knight and Tom Knight at face value.

      In regard to yeoman farmers who hated slaveholders and slaves alike, you make an important point. Class resentment–even hatred of slaveholders, did not make most yeoman farmers advocates of black freedom. Having said that, I do think there is evidence suggesting that Newt Knight’s parents may have opposed slavery and passed their antislavery views on to Newt. Many have pointed out that Albert Knight was the only child of Jackie Knight who was not willed slaves; we also have Anna Knight’s statement in 1952 that Newt opposed slavery.

      Again, however, caution is needed. Opposing slavery is not the same as working to abolition it, and I have seen no evidence that Newt ever actively worked to end slavery, as an abolitionist necessarily would have done (unless, of course, we propose to read Newt’s mind).



  4. I am at a loss for words for a number of reasons, not least among them that I just finished reading, at Civil War Memory, the response to your review and the comments that followed. In one of the comments the authors (with Ms. Jenkins speaking, I believe) stated that “If Knight were here, he’d tell you Jones didn’t have to secede, because it never left the Union in the first place.” The author then goes on to say the following: “He’d (Knight) argue such a formality would have given the Confederacy a legitimacy it didn’t deserve.” What astonishes me is the language used: “If Knight were here, he’d tell you…..He’d argue…” The author does not say, “Knight might argue”, or, “it is reasonable to assume based on the available evidence that Knight would argue”. Instead, the author categorically states with absolute authority that she (or he) knows what Newt Knight would say and do. That is a remarkable statement, and one that I don’t believe that the author thought through. No one can state with absolute certainty that he or she knows what another person would say or do, especially not another person in another century. That one statement requires a willing suspension of disbelief that should be, and is, the province of fiction, but not of history. I will give the author the benefit of the doubt, and assume that this comment was just a casual comment made on a blog and that it does not indicate the author’s overall attitude toward her subject.

    Even though you most certainly have not waged a “turf war”, as you were falsely accused of doing, perhaps there is a war of “turf” involved, and one that should be waged. The writing of an historical narrative is quite different from the writing of any other type of narrative. In fact, despite the great narrative histories that have been written by past historians, it would seem to me that given the history of the writing of history itself and the knowledge that how history is written helps to shape the present and the future, historians today have what amounts to an obligation to take extreme care with their narratives. The more agile writer may not necessarily be the better historian. Also, literary themes belong in literary works, in my opinion, unless the author expressly states that his or her narrative is “based” upon fact, and not that it is fact. I don’t even know what to say about the analysis of the appearance of both Rachel and Serena, except that such an analysis reveals nothing about the subject being studied, but reflects, instead, a modern sensibility that, itself, calls for analysis, since it includes classic assumptions about women that have historically divided women, and that have been used to demean women as well–assumptions about race, age, and class.

    The story of Newt Knight does need to be told to a wider audience, since it is a story of the south that is not that unusual, after all, and if told, may help to begin to dislodge the myths of both the south and the north concerning the south. As we have all argued on different blogs for quite some time now: the south was not monolithic in its response to the Civil War, and all attendant issues involved–neither the south of black southerners nor the south of white southerners, nor that other south in which the color line was crossed–and it is time for this final myth to be shattered. One myth cannot be shattered by replacing it with another myth, however. There was resistance to slavery, to secession, and to racism from within the south from the beginning, but, as I stated in another comment, this resistance was uniquely southern. To cast it (or an instance of it) in a neo abolitionist light and narrative is to do a disservice to everyone involved, including the actual abolitionists. The color line was crossed all of the time in the south, not in theory, but in actual practice, and it was typically violently crossed, due to the inherently violent nature of the institution of slavery. Some white southerners who crossed that line discovered that they were, indeed, interacting with human beings, however, and not with the abstraction known as “slaves”, and Newt Knight was apparently one of those white southerners. That is quite a different history–and a different legacy–than that of northern abolitionists.

    Each generation interprets the past through the lens of the present. I agree, Vikki, with your final statement on your fellow blogger’s site: “Scholars will continue to research and write the history of the free state of Jones long after the present generation is gone”. Yes, they certainly will. And my hope is that, in this generation, we will build a foundational understanding of the past that is so solid, so true, and so strong that that foundation will support, and support well, the generations that will follow us and that will create the history of a new century. Maybe we can start with the free state of Jones. Thank you, Vikki. (My apologies for the length of this comment.) Sherree


  5. Sherree, I especially appreciate your remark that:

    “The more agile writer may not necessarily be the better historian. Also, literary themes belong in literary works, in my opinion, unless the author expressly states that his or her narrative is “based” upon fact, and not that it is fact.”

    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.

    I’m also not big on historians’ making up conversations that they have no record of, or telling us what people who died long ago were thinking even though they left no record of their thoughts.

    One caveat: Sally Jenkins is on safe ground when she says that “If Knight were here, he’d tell you Jones didn’t have to secede, because it never left the Union in the first place.” That’s because Newt Knight DID say that, in 1921, to journalist Meigs Frost. But that’s also why I can’t figure out why Jenkins and Stauffer subtitled their book “The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy”! It doesn’t fit the very evidence that they cite in the book.


  6. Vikki,

    Thanks for the clarification. Also, I see your point about the subtitle.

    I am still mystified about the claim by the authors concerning the views of Primitive Baptists on slavery. The denomination must have varied greatly from region to region.

    I can remember heated discussions about race and the teaching of evolution in public schools when I was a child. Generally, in my area, the members of Primitive Baptist congregations were not what could be called progressive in their views, to put it mildly. It was the renegades (along with “back sliding” Baptists, who were, themselves, renegades) who led the way and held enlightened views.

    Your comments about Ethel Knight and her portrayal of Newt Knight as an abolitionist in order to present him as a man that many white southerners of the civil rights era would despise were also very helpful. It is curious how the portrayal of history and of the men and women who are participants in history in a stereotypical fashion can turn on a dime, so to speak, and the same history can be used for diametrically opposed reasons, and to reach diametrically opposed conclusions. That is the nature of a stereotype, however. It is a hollow form onto which we project what we need to project when we need to project it, as one of your readers suggested in a comment on an earlier review. Sherree


    • Sherree,

      I agree that Jenkins and Stauffer’s insistence that there was an anti-slavery Primitive Baptist Church in Jones county is troubling. They cite Randy Sparks, the eminent historian of Mississippi Baptists, as their source, but Sparks says nothing of the sort in anything I’ve read by him (I cited his work extensively in my Free State of Jones). What Sparks and other historians of Baptists consistently say is that after the 1830s, Southern Baptist denominations that had anti-slavery beliefs or tendencies were forced by the increasing rise of slavery to drop them. Here is an online article by Sparks that makes this point:


  7. Vikki,

    Poet, novelist and essayist Wendell Berry, in his book The Hidden Wound, notes that Kentuckians were avid supporters of separation of church and state, political power being denied to the clergy by the state’s constitution of 1792 and 1799. The primary reason for this, according to Berry and the source he cites, was that the clergy persisted in attacking slavery. I have read other works that claim that the Baptists and Methodists churches were consistent in their condemnation of slavery, while tha Anglican or Episcopal church ignored or endorsed it; but that as slavery increased, the Baptists changed their stance.


    • Rob,
      Thanks for adding Wendell Berry’s perspective and valuable information to this discussion. My understanding is also that the southern slaveholding clergy took control over early Baptist and Methodist Churches that spoke out against slavery early in the 19th century, and I argue this in The Free State of Jones.

      The Methodists, however, had a resurgence of anti-slavery sentiment with the rise of the Wesleyan Methodists in the early 1840s. That’s why, in the North Carolina Piedmont, there truly were Unionists who opposed slavery and secession on religious grounds. But in Jones County, Mississippi, I never found evidence of religious opposition to slavery, and believe me, I searched for it.



  8. Vikki,

    Thank you for the link.

    There is a Primitive Baptist congregation in our area that has been in continual existence since 1775. Several of my early ancestors were members of this congregation. The history of the denomination in Mississippi, as documented by Sparks, correctly describes my family’s involvement in the Virginia congregation, and may provide a missing link that explains some of my own history.

    My ancestors were not slaveholders, even though by the 1840s and 1850s they had the means to become slaveholders, according to recorded wills and census records, which I studied in detail in an effort to understand. The theory that all (or most) yeoman farmers aspired to become slaveholders, and actually became slaveholders once they had the opportunity to do so, does not fit the evidence, in my family’s case. There is the possibility that my ancestors did not become slaveholders on religious grounds–a possibility that I did not even know existed until I read your blog, since I did not know that there was a point in the history of the Primitive Baptist denomination in which ideas of equality were held by its members. In my family history, the ancestor in question was born in 1797. Even if the mores of the church changed to accommodate pro slavery views, it is possible that his views did not change with the church, since there may have been years of religious training that stipulated otherwise. I don’t know. What I do know is that such a theory is at least feasible in explaining the actions of my gg grandfather, the unorthodox Confederate veteran about whom I told you in an earlier communication–actions that led to an interaction of my family with the black community that continues unto this day. The free state of Jones does not seem like an anomaly to me at all. I truly wonder, as time goes by and more research is done, how the history of the Civil War will evolve. The Lost Cause view demanded that the south be seen and portrayed as monolithic in its dedication to the Confederacy, which clouded the history of the south for decades and produced counter histories that also viewed the south as monolithic. Your work, and the work of other scholars, is helping to change this. Thank you for your decades of research and dedication to your profession. Sherree


  9. I think the biggest point of the book is that a man had the courage to challenge the status quo and support the Union while the rest of the southern states were “bull dozed” into fighting for “states rights”.

    The south as it existed was an evil and rotting pit of immorality that threatened to take over the country and they had to be stopped at all cost if this land were to be free.

    Newt Knight was clearly on the side of righteousness. Was he perfect? I doubt it since not many of us are. But he put his life on the line for this country that we all love and for this we should all be thankful.


  10. Linzay,

    Thanks for your comment. I absolutely agree with you that Newt Knight supported the Union with great conviction—I argue that in my own book, The Free State of Jones.

    Nowhere do I suggest that Newt Knight had to be “perfect” for his actions to have meaning. My point is just the opposite: that we should not turn Newt Knight into a John Brown-style abolitionist and a sainted figure of moral righteousness—as I believe State of Jones does—in order to appreciate his importance as a Southern Unionist and a man who crossed the color line in segregated Mississippi.

    What I object to throughout my 3-part review of State of Jones is the authors’ misuse, even creation, of evidence to develop a highly romanticized and simplistic portrait of a complex man who reflected the class and racial divisions of the Civil War South.

    In my opinon, the authors have created a caricature that undermines the progress that historians of southern dissent have made toward increasing our understanding of southern dissent in general and southern Unionists in particular. It’s an exciting read, but it should be recognized for what it is—and is not.



  11. What astonished me was when I discovered that his book was not only not published by a university or scholarly press, but by Doubleday, probably the fluffiest of the major trade houses in New York. That’s a huge red flag, and it makes me wonder if more serious NY publishers, such as St Martin’s and Random House, turned it down.

    And isn’t Sally Jenkins a sportswriter? Was she assigned to Stauffer’s book to punch up the prose?

    Don’t want to sound too snarky, but where and how a book ends up being published can, um, speak volumes.


    • I appreciate your comments, Joyce. You are right that Doubleday is not a press renowned for publishing serious works of scholarship of the sort this book claims to be. According to the authors, the idea for this book was brought to them, rather than vice versa, which is also not typical of most historical scholarship.

      Sally Jenkins is indeed a sportswriter and the author of several bestsellers. She is not a historian (although she now plays one), and, as you speculated, was brought in to supply the lively prose. In various interviews, she and Professor Stauffer credit her with writing most of the book.



  12. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to describe the Jenkins/Stauffer book as “historical fiction”? They don’t really claim to be scholars do they?


    • Jeffrey,
      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. John Stauffer is a Harvard Professor and a historian; Sally Jenkins is a sportswriter and author of several bestsellers who presents herself as having made the leap to producing historical scholarship. So yes, they “really claim” to be scholars of history.

      Thanks for commenting,


  13. Vikki,
    Just finished the State of Jones and couldn’t help but notice alot of Ethel Knights references in the script. As I have mentioned to you before Ben Knight was my gg grandfather. In the State of Jones it has the confederate soldiers taking his body to Alberts house so that family may attend to his last rites. According to this book the confederates told the family to bury the body assuming that it was Newt. Upon seeing the body of Ben a member of the family exclaimed that they had killed Ben and not Newt. This is almost the exact wording in Ethels “Echo of the Blackhorn”. The story that has been handed down through the ages in my family was that Newt had warned Ben not to attempt to go home to see his newborn son Pounds Knight because the confederates would find out he was there by way of an informant in the community. The fact of the matter is that Ben was running with Newt and the cofederates new exactly who they had in their possession. While I relish reading anything concerning my family and the struggles of Jones county I have become painfully aware of the value of your research efforts. Just wanted to say thanks again for all your work.

    Steve Knight


    • Thank you for your comments on State of Jones, Steve. As you know from my review, I am quite disappointed in its authors’ uncritical and frequent reliance on the works of Ethel Knight and Tom Knight. Both Ethel and Tom tell many interesting stories, some true, some part true, some not true at all. In his 1935 and 1946 versions of the story, Tom tried to erase or mitigate Newt’s controversial behavior. In her 1951 book, Ethel used Tom Knight’s stories but reshaped many of them to create a much more critical image of Newt Knight. That’s why her story of Ben Knight’s death is so distorted.

      I am very sorry that descendants such as yourself now have to try and set the record straight. And by the way, I am interested to learn from you that Ben’s descendants believe that the Confederacy DID know who Ben was from the start–i.e. did not mistake him for his cousin Newt.

      Thank you for appreciating my research efforts. 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.



  14. To Steve Knight: Vikki informed me that you are descended from Ben Knight and his wife Louisa Elizabeth Wade. I’m assuming you are part of the John Pound Knight branch.

    I am attempting to research the post-Civil War life of several Piney Woods war widows, including Louisa. I’ve come across very little about her second husband P. Lowery, other than his listing in the 1880 census in Washington Co, LA.

    If possible I’d appreciate any information you might be willing to share. Don’t know if you live in Jones Co, but I’m in Jackson and come down for most of the genealogy meetings (3rd Saturday of each month).

    You can check with Vikki and she can provide my email address. Hope to hear from you.


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