by Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War
It’s been forty years since I first saw the name “Newton Knight” in the footnotes of a Civil War history textbook as I headed home for the holidays on a greyhound bus northbound from San Diego to Monterey, California. Since that moment, I have thought about, researched, written, and talked about the meaning of Jones County, Mississippi’s insurrection to the Civil War Era that our nation still struggles to understand.
Since 1992, I’ve published numerous works on Southern Unionism, opposition to the Confederacy, and the associated Civil War themes of guerrilla networks, women’s participation in home front uprisings, collaboration across racial lines, and retaliatory violence by Confederate militia and home front vigilantes.
I recently had the pleasure to attend a preview screening of The Free State of Jones. The movie unflinchingly depicts the brutality of war and the rising sense of a “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” among plain farmers of the South. The promise of “honor” becomes increasingly hollow for poor families facing death and deprivation on the home front. There is no “domestic sphere” for women facing harassment and tax-in-kind laws from Confederate authorities. The scenes and sounds within the swamps are haunting, while the growls and snarls of hounds in hot pursuit of deserters had me on the edge of my seat. At the same time, the intimate relationship between Newt and Rachel is portrayed with unusual sensitivity, and the evolving friendship between Newt and Moses with a compelling sense of how interracial relationships likely emerged within this relentlessly violent war.
We cannot understand the Era of Reconstruction that followed this war until we understand that internal schisms gave rise to inner civil wars throughout the South—producing “wars” that extended well beyond 1865 as the nation struggled to redefine freedom and freedom’s rights. Without that understanding, the travesty of Lost Cause mythology maintains its grip.
Never in my lifetime did I expect to see Hollywood take this struggle directly to the public sphere, but here it is! Director and screenplay author Gary Ross, by recreating the Knight Company, its captain, Newt Knight, and former slave Rachel Knight, Newt’s wartime collaborator and lifetime partner, refutes the fiction of a “Solid (white) South,” as well as the absurd Neo-Confederate assertion that the Civil War “was not about slavery.”
I don’t want to give away the story, but I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. It’s riveting (bring tissues!) and politically engaging, and the acting is superb. What a thrill to see history and Hollywood on the same page! Or should I say, sharing the same screen . . . .
To learn more about the movie, click here.
Categories: The Free State of Jones