Speaking About Southern Unionists and Mixed-Race Americans: My visit to Leiden University


By Vikki Bynum

I just returned from a wonderful visit to Leiden University in the Netherlands, where I spoke generally about Civil War Southern Unionists and specifically about The Free State of Jones as part of that university’s yearly American Studies Lecture Series. In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, this year’s theme was “The American Civil War After 150 Years: An Unfinished War?”

I was impressed by the deep interest in the American Civil War displayed by Leiden students and faculty. I’m happy to report there were no arguments between True Believers in either the noble “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, or the total benevolence of Northern motives and goals in thwarting the South’s secession from the Union. Rather, discussions centered on understanding that many Southerners—white as well as black—opposed secession and the creation of the Confederacy, and that many more turned against the Confederacy as the war dragged on. How common across the South was guerrilla warfare such as that of Jones County, Mississippi?, they wanted to know. Who was Newt Knight? This question led to a discussion about the deep need displayed by Civil War partisans to turn Newt into either a murderous traitor to “The South,” or, conversely, into an abolitionist whose racial views anticipated the modern Civil Rights Movement.

We probably will never know the full story of Newt Knight’s political or racial views, but we do know that no Solid South existed either before, during, or after the Civil War. And, yes, we know that slavery played a crucial role in convincing key Southern leaders to push for secession, even though most Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, were not abolitionists bent on fighting a war for the liberty of African Americans.

They didn’t have to be abolitionists. It was enough that the newly-elected Republican president was dedicated to limiting slavery’s expansion into the nation’s western territories. Slaveholders’ equal dedication to the expansion of slavery as essential to the institution’s survival eventually led to the Civil War—a war that ironically resulted in what slaveholders most feared: the abolition of slavery.

Not only did a good many white Southerners oppose secession, but the disastrous course of that war eventually demoralized a good many more who originally believed they were fighting for liberty and honor, but increasingly saw a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

There was special interest among the Leiden audience in the mixed-race community that grew out of Newt Knight’s wartime collaboration with Rachel Knight, the former slave of his grandfather, Jackie Knight. Many of the questions centered on issues of racial identity and the historical importance–and limits–of the “one drop rule” in determining such identities. Members of the audience were fascinated by the variety of racial identities assumed by, as well as imposed upon, descendants of Newt Knight, his white wife Serena, and the two mixed-race women–Rachel Knight and her daughter George Ann–by whom he had children.  Historically, they understood, race is a social, political, and legal construction rather than a biologically rational system.


I recently discussed the above themes (and more) in regard to my latest book, The Long Shadow of the Civil Warin an interview with the Peabody Award-winning show, “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International (PRI). The interview, part of NPR’s “Remembering the Civil War” series, was arranged by Erin Clune and conducted by Anne Strainchamps. It will air on various NPR affiliates throughout the nation tomorrow, on Sunday, May 8, and will also be podcast:

FYI, here’s a list of NPR affiliates that broadcast “To the Best of Our Knowledge”:

13 replies »

  1. Vikki,

    Congratulations!!! Excellent reporting! I know your audience found your presentation fascinating. I realize there aren’t enough hours in any given day to present even the most compelling events that took place during the Civil War, let alone the lingering suffering that followed. Having said this, were you able to include the story of Davis Knight and his trial for miscegenation in Jones Co MS in 1948?

    And lastly, was your audience treated to the sounds of ‘Dr G and his Mud Cats twangy great, ‘Jones County Jubilee’?

    Your fan in San Diego,

    The other (Vikky) Wilburn Anders


  2. Hey Vikky,

    I was able to speak and answer questions for over an hour, which allowed for one of the fullest presentations I’ve ever given. It was a great experience and I was indeed able to discuss the Davis Knight trial.

    Sadly, Gregg did not perform “Jones County Jubilee” for the Leiden audience, but he did take photos, smile at me a lot, and join me and several Leiden faculty for dinner directly after the event. For those interested, the song can be heard here:

    Thanks for your good words!



  3. I caught your interview on “To the Best of Our Knowledge” yesterday. I found it very interesting. I know that there were pockets around the south that opposed the Confederacy.

    In 6th and 7th grade I read a fictional family saga by James Street about the Dabney family. The second book Tap Roots recounted the story of the Mississippi county where the Dabneys farmed succeeding from the Confederacy.

    I wonder if your Jones county was the inspiration for Mr. Street.


    • Luis,

      Welcome to Renegade South, and thank you for your comment on the interview! To answer your question, yes, Newt Knight was the inspiration for James Street’s novel, Tap Roots, and Street said so in the introduction to the book. In my own book, The Free State of Jones, I drew extensively on Street’s insights.



  4. Great report Vikki and glad you had a fine trip. I’m fairly new here so I would like to know what “Jones County Jubilee” is and where can I hear it?


  5. Vikki, thanks for that info. I read Tap Roots 50 years ago when I was 12 or 13 and even though I was a great reader I was prone to skip introductions and forwards. Sadly Mr. Steet’s books are rare and even sadder is that my local library has been purging itself of old books. 5 years ago the library had 3 of his books now zero.

    I requested “Free State of Jones” via inter-library loan and can’t wait.


    • I know what you mean, Luis; I rarely read introductions when I was young. I also know what you mean about the difficulty in finding Street’s novels (btw, Oh, Promised Land, 1940, is also based on the Knights); at the University of Texas Library, I found Street’s works filed in the old dewey decimal section of books–I sure hope UT hasn’t since purged those old collections!

      Another of Street’s works–this one nonfiction–that includes material on Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones is his Look Away! A Dixie Notebook (1936).

      Hope you enjoy Free State of Jones.



  6. Just finished Free State of Jones-6 stars out of 5. If I were teaching history I would require this book for my students regardless of what period or area of the world we were covering. It would be a text to teach them what real historical research looks like.

    I am impressed by the massive use of primary sources both oral and written that you used, and even more impressed that the dry facts had life breathed into them. This is a very enjoyable book to read. Oh and you made me do a bit of research of my own such as New Light.

    Thank you for your work.

    BTW there are Bynums living in Bryan, TX- could be relatives?


  7. Thank you, Luis, for your kind words of praise about Free State of Jones! I worked hard to recreate a history of Jones County that considered the socioeconomic origins, westward migrations, and Civil War struggles of its people. It’s always gratifying when a reader expresses appreciation of those efforts.



  8. Luis,

    I forgot to mention that the Bryan Co., TX, Bynums may indeed be related to those of Jones County, MS,–but probably distantly at this point.



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