The Free State of Jones

Did Slaves and Deserters make Common Cause during the Civil War?


By Vikki Bynum

In a recent interview with historian Megan Kate Nelson for the Journal of the Society of Civil War Historians, Megan and I discussed my perspective on the upcoming movie, The Free State of Jones.  Knowing that I had visited the movie set, she asked, “what was it like to experience the subjects and arguments in your book morphing into a visual format?” I responded that I was

impressed with the way in which class issues, front-line participation by women, and collaboration between deserters and slaves in this home front insurrection came to life on the screen. (Interview, Journal of Society of Civil War Historians, March 1, 2016)

Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali

Over the past year, this blog has featured several actors who play characters in the movie.  Today, I want to focus on Mahershala Ali, who appears as Moses Washington, a runaway slave who joins forces with the Knight Company to fight against the Confederacy from the swamps of Mississippi. Moses, you may already have noticed, is not mentioned in any historical work about the Jones County uprising. That’s because his character was created by director Gary Ross, author of the movie’s original screenplay.

The creation of a fictional character for a movie based on a true story raises questions about truth and fact. Are they one and the same? Well, no, they aren’t, and, depending on whether we are reading a historical work, a novel, or watching a movie, truth and fact will interact differently with one another.

Megan and I discussed these differences. When she asked whether anything “worried” me about watching the movie come to fruition, I admitted that, “like most historians, I worried about the movie’s factual accuracy.” I went on to say that

Over time, my thinking has evolved on the creative differences between an academic work of history and a historically-based movie. Both rely on imagination, but in very different ways. Historians don’t merely assemble facts, apropos the cliché, “let the facts speak for themselves.” We must use imagination as well as intellect to assign the elusive truth of meaning to our work, or we risk producing little more than a footnoted list of facts.

In contrast to historians, Hollywood moviemakers use imagination to recreate a historic event that can be viewed within the space of 2-3 hours. The larger truth of an event is typically delivered without perfect adherence to facts—but rather with invented dialogue, composite characters and compressed events—to tell a true story that informs, inspires and entertains. My expectation is that the movie and my book will mutually reinforce the larger truth about the Free State of Jones. (Interview, Journal of Society of Civil War Historians, March 1, 2016)

The character of Moses Washington demonstrates the above distinctions.  A movie, like a novel, may tell a true story through the actions of both factual and fictional characters.  Is Moses factual? No. But his cinematic presence represents the fact that deserters and slaves collaborated during the Civil War, and assumes that Newt Knight himself likely crossed the color line beyond his factual relationship with the enslaved Rachel.

The-Free-State-of-Jones-Matthew-McConaughey-and-Mahershala-Ali-EW-picStill, given the clandestine nature of interracial alliances, how do we know this “larger truth” to be based on historical facts?

The evidence of such alliances appears sporadically in various wartime records and frequently in personal interviews conducted with ex-slaves by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the 1930s New Deal.  As I noted in The Free State of Jones:

Many former slaves recalled their ties to deserters. Jeff Rayford described a scene on the Pearl River that could easily have occurred on the nearby Leaf River. “I cooked and carried many a pan of food to these men in Pearl River swamp,” remembered Rayford. One deserter became a regular customer, in fact. As the slave walked after dark along a path beside the swamp, the deserter “would step out from behind a tree and say: ‘Here Jeff,’ and I would hand it to him and run back to the house. (Bynum, Free State of Jones, p. 109)

Likewise,  Creole slave Henri Necaise of Pass Christian told his WPA interviewer that he provided food

“to feed the womens and chilluns dat was fightin’ [on the home front]”, while their soldier husbands “was a runnin’ and hidin’.” (Bynum, Free State of Jones, p. 110)

Similar evidence exists throughout the South. As I observed in my first book, Unruly Women, underground trade networks flourished among nonslaveholding whites and people of color in North Carolina, particularly in the Piedmont region where fierce inner civil wars erupted between pro-Union and pro-Confederate forces:

Slaves and deserters funneled plantation goods to whites and free blacks, who then passed the goods on to others. White authorities sought in vain to halt illegal trafficking by arresting suspected whites or harassing free blacks who seemed too independent and “high-minded” for members of their race. (Bynum, Unruly Women, 123-124)

Deep-seated racial animosities between white citizens and people of color in the slaveholding South, as well as master class control over slaves (imperfect as it was during the war), rendered many such alliances tenuous and temporary. But not all of them—some were extensions of interracial relationships among slaves, free people of color, and poor whites that existed long before the eruption of the Civil War. These relationships continued into the war, dramatically reshaped by the ravages of war.

We still don’t know for certain that Newt Knight collaborated with a man like Moses Washington during the war, but we do know that Newt crossed the color line in his personal relationships, that he and his men traversed the rivers and swamps of Piney Woods Mississippi where escaped slaves also hid, and that he worked with Gov. Adelbert Ames and black politicians during Reconstruction. Most important, we know that men like Moses Washington made common cause with men like Newt Knight in the struggle to survive the Civil War and prevail over Confederate forces.

In the same spirit, I hope that the movie Free State of Jones will prevail over its Lost Cause predecessor, Gone With the Wind, in presenting this story of internal dissension. When Megan Kate Nelson asked me how I hoped the movie might shape Americans’ understanding of Civil War history, I answered without hesitation:

Most Americans know little to nothing about landowning, nonslaveholding white Southerners of the antebellum and Civil War South, which in turn prevents them from fully understanding the average Southerner’s experience of the Civil War. In bringing the story of the Free State of Jones to the masses, not only is the image of a white Solid South negated, so also is the agency of Southern dissenters during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction asserted. This represents an important shift in the general manner in which Hollywood has presented the Civil War. (Interview, Journal of the Society of Civil War Historians, March 1, 2016)

Who knows? In this instance, common cause between historians and Hollywood might just shake up the old paradigm of a Solid White South!



14 replies »

  1. I just think you’ve done a wonderful job of “opening up”, not just history, but families and there stories, and in return many have given up secrets, that many did not want to share, about their loved ones, but about their views of those struggling to survive during the war, and long after the war ended. I feel that we have come full circle, because once again we have landed smack into the 21st century issues that goes back to that time, and what it is or isn’t that we have learned. Today we are again challenged by the times.

    I can’t thank you enough for listening to all the factors of family, and your observation that triggered your books, and triggered this movie. Most of us here share common bonds, with sometimes totally different experiences.

    I know that you have brought women to the frontlines. I haven’t seen much in the way of clips of women since the release of the movie. I have seen fantastic photos of groups of men, in the swamp, and in protest. I’ve yet to see Hollywood bring women to the front. Maybe I am wrong, maybe you can point me to some clips. I know that you did in your books, but I am not seeing much visual of them in regards to the movie. Maybe there is a reason for this at this point in the making of the movie. Thanks Vikki


    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Fannie. You, of course, are one of those people who shared memories with me that helped to enrich my version of The Free State of Jones so much.

      As for my interview remark about women on the front-lines of the inner civil war, I was referring only to the movie trailer. I was so glad to see the scenes of women there because, like you, I haven’t seen any other stills that highlight women—or put them anywhere near the action. I understand that marketing focuses on the most popular “action” scenes in the public’s consciousness, so I hope the trailer was more indicative than the stills of the movie’s attention to women’s presence on home front schisms. Because we all know they were there!



      • Thanks again, I want to see them all, the ones dressed in fine materials, the poor women pregnant and working the fields, and the dancehall girls with flashily dressed blings, and the roadhouse ladies in the back of the woods trying to survive the war without shoes, or a hat, or piece of ribbon for their hair! I want to see them burying their babies, and want to see them washer women, and want to see them useful, and being tough, and honest, and hospitable. I want to see the Mothers break down when they get the news that their loved ones are coming home, and I want to see the woman who rode next to husband to the battlefield. And see the sweat, the tears, the blood that made them who they were.

        You’re the one who brought it all to life, and gave voice to the history of Jones County!


      • thank you. We’ll all be eagerly watching to see how women are portrayed! I wish both Sally Collins Parker and Sally Delaney were in the movie–there is one Sally in the cast; might be a composite character.



  2. Do you know how this movie will be rated? My fourth great grandfather was John Hathorn Powell and I would like for my grandchildren to be able to see the movie as a part of our family history.


      • Thank you. I am sorry I missed you in Jackson. I expected event prevented me from being there.


      • I thoroughly enjoyed my entire visit to the Mississippi Historical Association meeting! I’m sorry you couldn’t make it; would have enjoyed meeting you. Maybe another time will work out.



  3. I have learned to take movies based on historical events with a grain of salt. However, I do hope this movie keeps close to the center line on the history road. It looks very promising and very informative.

    It is my sincere hope Free State of Jones sparks an interest in the public to learn more about the war, its cause, and aftermath. I hope this is especially true among southerners and Mississippians specifically. I’ve grown weary of lost cause mythology.


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