The Free State of Jones

Why I’m excited about the movie “The Free State of Jones”

by Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War

 

Newton Knight

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 fsoj girlsunflinchingly 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 emerged within this relentlessly violent war.

Matthew McConaughey as Newt Knight; Mahershala Ali as Moses Washington. From the movie Free State of Jones

Matthew McConaughey as Newt Knight; Mahershala Ali as Moses Washington. From the movie Free State of Jones

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.

latest movie poster Never in my FSOJ movie editionlifetime 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.

listing_free_state_of_jones-310x165.

29 replies »

  1. As a native born citizen of Jones County, Mississippi, I remember my Dad telling his story of “the Free State of Jones” as we drove by a swamp area in the region where Newt Knight was thought to have lived. That was the first rememberance of the tales of this “notorious hero” for many of Jones County’s citizens. The infamous Deason Home was about a half mile from my childhood home and across Ellisville’s Deason Street from the elementary school I attended.

    • Wow, you grew up so close to historical landmarks and soil whose history is soon to be known like never before!

      Vikki

      • When to school at South Jones which is also across the street from the Deason House my “home town” was Ovett and I grew up in a house that was build only a few years after the Deason House, the history does run deep in Jones County

  2. What makes this story so important in this day and age is that we as citizens, country men and women and humans need the truth of history to be made available, for so long and disasterously so, we have been subjected to the misconceptions preached to us that only supports the illusionary ideology of a incorporeal nation. Newt Knight is a story of practical survivial one that is not inhibited by social dictates This is where true freedom comes from. Where the charactor and not the color of those that one calls freinds,or neighbors or even ones spouse.
    .

  3. Hello Vikki, I came across your site by a very precarious route! I’m in Virginia and several of my friends and family are “flaggers”. From time to time in my facebook news feed appear these “heritage not hate” posts. I read the comments, shake my head and sigh. Someone was bold enough to post a link to the movie trailer. I clicked that and eventually found YOU. I am so overjoyed to find you and this site. I can’t wait to see this movie too!

    I too study history, mostly my family history. I had uncovered so many instances in our history that just did not fit what I was taught about the Civil War in the south. I had 6 grandfathers that fought for the Confederacy…what I learned is the majority were just trying to survive the war. They were conscripted, or took another’s place in return for land. Even had one who just refused to fight. The story is and I verified it, that he had one brother fighting for the north and another for the south and he wasn’t fighting against either. He was shot as a traitor to the Confederacy. When I began researching my grandfather’s that is when I realized not everyone was so pleased with the split from the Union nor the war. They were Appalachians in which the economy did not rely on slaves in the mountains on their hard scrabble farms. Researching another project, I found, the largest slave owners in Appalachia in my area were raising slaves for sale to the lowland south, not using them to farm land.

    I also worked for a small archives here in Appalachia for the Holston Conference of the Methodist church. It was there I learned that the “national” Methodist church split over the issue of slavery in 1845, specifically over a Bishop of the Holston Conference owning slaves. After the split in the south and in Appalachia, you would have a Methodist Episcopal Church North and in the same town a Methodist Episcopal Church South. There were ministers diaries that would talk about depending on who controlled the towns during the war, Yankees or Rebels, they would tar and feather the opposites preachers.The Methodist Church did not reunite until 1939.

    I was also researching a black community in our area and found out the land, almost 1900 acres sold to 9 families of former slaves, was sold to them by a former Confederate Lt. who owned no slaves. neither did his father. He and his father were members of M.E. Church North and belonged to the Manumission society before the war. The same society that would raise money to send former slaves to Liberia or other areas they could be free. His neighbors were very UPSET with him for selling this large chunk of land to former slaves from Franklin County VA, in the late 1870s. This Lieutenant was also a member of what became known as the “Immortal 600”. He was captured at Winchester in 1864. Being an officer, the Union at that late date would place captured officers in the front of their battle lines, thinking the Confederates would not fire on their own officers. He survived that. So the story of this war is very complicated.

    Though try as I might to convince my family about the use of the Confederate flag these days,is nuts, it’s as if they have blinders on about the true history of the Civil War. I don’t know if they will ever drop off those blinders but so glad I found your site. It’s now one of my favorites. I’ve a book to order and much reading to do. So thank you for all this work!!!

  4. It is time, Vikki. Past time. Now is the time. Finally.

    To this day, what some in power fear more than anything, is the unification of men and women of different races and from different cultures across that most formidable and elusive divider of people: class.

    I have the good fortune to know in my bones that Newt Knight’s story is true, because of the legacy of a kindred soul of his, my ancestor.

    So telling of the SCV in a “Good Morning, America” interview to dismiss the entire history as something that never happened. (The SCV so does wish.) Also so telling that Newt Knight insisted that he be buried next to Rachel. Anyone over 50 who lived in the South knows what a taboo that was. There was the “colored” cemetery; and there was the white cemetery. Not to Newt Knight, however.

    Thanks for staying the course for four decades. What an incredible job you have done. The truth does win out in the end.

    • Thank you for a great comment, Sherree. I have appreciated your support for this story—and for this blog—over the years, and I am delighted to read your remarks today.

      You are right on target with your words “To this day, what some in power fear more than anything, is the unification of men and women of different races and from different cultures across that most formidable and elusive divider of people: class.” It was true during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and it is true today.

      So glad you stopped by!

      Vikki

  5. This movie is one mans life account and embellishment by hollywood of a War my ancestors fought in. Farmers who needed slaves to work the fields of food and cotton to feed and clothe everyone. You can say it was all about slavery till you turn blue, but it was not a main issue. My family were considered white slaves to work the crops. It was about the north gaining control over commerce and Lincoln used his power to accomplish this. Farmers were willing to fight to protect what they had and their neighbors, with no advanced weaponry as the yankees had. I feel the portrayal of this movie will be used as a political tool to try to change the minds of those who have no stake or heritage in the History of the Confederate Army of the Civil War and give no respect to those who do. Being a Daughter of the Confederacy lineage from Jones County, to my family, Newt Knight was a traitor to our County of Jones, and made it dangerous for those who were trying to fight in the war.

    • I accept, Jan, that going to war may not have been about slavery for your ancestors, and I have great sympathy for their dilemma. But you appear to DEFEND slavery with your remark that they were “Farmers who needed slaves to work the fields of food and cotton to feed and clothe everyone.” Are you meaning to say that enslavement of African-Americans was okay because of your ancestors’ economic needs? Sure sounds like it. But then you go on to refer to your ancestors as “white slaves,” so I’m uncertain exactly what you meant to say.

      I do agree that control over commerce was a central division between North and South. But slave labor was at the center of commerce in the South—you can’t separate the two.

      My Jones county ancestors also fought and suffered in that war; they, too, opposed Newt Knight. But, as a historian, I know that the war was BEGUN by slaveholders who feared the loss of slavery with the election of Abraham Lincoln. Our white ancestors either believed in slavery, or did not understand the true cause of the war. Below is a link to Mississippi’s own declaration of causes for secession.

      http://www.civil-war.net/pages/mississippi_declaration.asp

      Please note the passage stating the following:

      “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

      The reality of slavery’s central position as the cause of the American Civil War is thoroughly documented in history. Unfortunately, there have been many wars in which the people of a nation were used to further the interests of the powerful few. The Civil War was no exception.

      Vikki

  6. I am not related to Newton Knight or the Knight Family but I cannot help but think that. How can a Nation of free people allow wealth, power, and people who only have their own interest at heart keep these truths from us for 300 years ??? How do we let this happen ? I am looking forward to the movie as my own family has a mixed racial history. I have some uncles with the last name West from Hayti MO that look white. Looking forward to seeing the movie. I would also like to find out more about my Uncles who I am sure are from mixed race heritage. When we look at the civil war it was fought for profit, free human labor. All of the officers of the confederecy should have been charged with treason, for those who believe in and read The Constitution. I am happy for you and your family , that your (our) American history is finally being told. Walter MC.

  7. Thank you, Vikki!

    I have both enjoyed your blog and learned so much from it.

    I will be first in line to purchase a ticket when Free State of Jones comes to a theater near me. I have encouraged my nephew, who graduated this year, to see the movie, too. He is excited about it. The movie’s release comes at an opportune time for him as he attempts to define what it means to be a white Southern man in today’s culture. The option currently presented to him is to either embrace the stereotype or to deny the culture altogether. That is actually not an option, and it is a-historical: we have always been here–that other South. My nephew is part of that. The portrayal of Newt Knight on the big screen gives life to my nephew’s own personal ancestral history. I can, in all honesty, point to Newt Knight and tell my nephew that his ancestor had many things in common with Newt. More importantly, I can point to my father, my nephew’s grandfather, who has had a tremendous influence over my nephew, and let him know that my father, with his steadfast, lifelong unpopular opinions, stands firmly on ground rooted in tradition. (as does my nephew now) That is powerful. I can’t thank you enough.

  8. I am looking forward to the movie. How are they going to handle the fact that Newt was a murderer? Not only of Amos McLemore but others. That he forced his white children to marry the black children and vice versa. How will our ancestors be portrayed good/evil or Glamorized by Hollywood who came to tromp through the swamps of Louisiana, not even Mississippi? They already made one movie long ago, “Tap Roots”

    • Marian, how do you know Newt Knight was a murderer? Because you were told so? How do you know he “forced” his children to marry across the color line? Because someone told you he did? I don’t doubt that Newt killed men; that’s what the Civil War was about. I look at Newt Knight within the horrific times that he lived in, and I do my best to judge him—and the people around him—within those times. I’m not interested in hatred and blame, I’m interested in causation and and the human condition.

      The movie Tap Roots was not about the Free State of Jones; it was a poorly-done adaptation of James Street’s novel, a work of fiction inspired by, but not about, the Free State of Jones.

      Parts of Louisiana resemble Civil War Mississippi more than today’s Mississippi does.

      Vikki

  9. Vikki,
    My grandfather was Amos Deason Anderson, He grew up in the Deason Home. All of my life I have heard stories about what took place regarding Newt Knight and the murder of Confederate soldier, Amos McLemore. I can truly state that no one in my family ever accused Knight as being the murderer. The identity of the person who took McLemore’s life, at the Deason House, during the Great War shall never be revealed. I feel certain that those who may have known, took that secret to their graves. The story of the Free State of Jones has been told and retold with much embellishment for decades. What is true and what is not can no longer be established. However, there is something that needs to be said about the natives of Jones County, Mississippi. We are an independent people, always ready to enter into a fine debate about whatever finds itself in need of debate. We speak our mind in truth and with little humility. We are not a perfect people, but most of us refuse to back down to anyone when we feel that we are right, regarding anything worth a good, heated discussion. On the subject of race, when I was growing up many of my friends for life were Black. My parents and my White friends parents always stressed that we show honor, respect, and love for all people! But then, my and my friends’ parents endured the Great Depression and never forgot what friends can be and do to one-another during very difficult times. My parents learned to count on their neighbors during two WORLD WARS. My grandparents having grown up during the Civil War could attest what war accomplishes–heartache and misery. War at its best, is never good…many lose loved ones and so much more. And, in the lives of so many, though a physical war ends, more often than not, the apparitions of war live on in the depths of the heart.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and heartfelt comment, Danice.

      The murder of Major Amos McLemore was tragic. Major McLemore did not advocate a Civil War—in fact, like most men of this region, he originally opposed secession. But once war was declared, he served the Confederacy in what seemed to him the best and most honorable manner. Newt Knight began on a similar course after war was declared. He too volunteered for the Confederate army and his military records show that he was an exceptional soldier during that early period.

      By late 1862, the two men had diverged in their courses of action. Newt Knight and many other Jones County citizens came to the conclusion that the Confederacy had been formed by an elite class of slaveholders who served its own interest in protecting slavery’s expansion into the western territories at the expense of farm families who were forced to fight in a deadly war that was neither of their making nor in their interest. Their community was being destroyed by the demands of war; families were on the bring of starvation. Literally. At the same time, Major McLemore was commanded to hunt for deserters in Jones County.

      I am not from Jones County, though my father was. To my knowledge, I am kin to neither Major McLemore nor Newt Knight. My ancestors appear on both sides of Jones County’s inner civil war. Two Bynums appear on Newt Knight’s roster. Three Bynums, including my great grandfather and great-great grandfather, appear on postwar petitions of men who opposed Newt Knight and the Knight Company. My sympathies are with ALL of the people faced with a tragic war that, again, was not of their making.

      But I am a historian first, a descendant second. I neither endorse nor condemn my ancestors’ actions; instead, I struggle to put them into a historical context that allows us to understand them—to understand that neither Newt Knight nor Amos McLemore need be seen as heroes or villains. They were men acting in their own interests in what was for both a life or death struggle imposed by war.

      After studying the evidence, I think it’s highly likely that Newt Knight murdered Amos McLemore despite the evidence being based on hearsay. And we should not be surprised: by 1863, Civil War home fronts had become deadly battlefields throughout the South. Pro-Union and pro-Confederate men both committed murders, especially in regions where few people owned slaves, and where Confederate troops, militia, home guard soldiers, and vigilantes committed at least as many depredations and pillaging in local communities as did bands of deserters. (Ample evidence of such pillaging is documented in court records, government papers, and official and personal letters.)

      My position is simply this: we need to understand the Civil War on its own terms, which requires educating ourselves about the larger, fundamental causes of a horrific, tragic war that ultimately was about protecting the brutal system of slavery. Slavery was planted on colonial American soil early in the 17th century, and was the greatest source of individual wealth in U.S. society during the decades leading up to the Civil War. It wasn’t going to “fade away” on its own; it could not be compromised within the halls of Congress any longer. President Abraham Lincoln was no abolitionist, but he WAS a member of the new Republican Party which advocated the “containment” of slavery within its 1860 borders. Many powerful slaveholders viewed containment as tantamount to abolition; they knew that the ability to expand was necessary for slavery’s survival–and for their continued wealth.

      Once men like Newt Knight realized this fundamental truth, they were no longer willing to risk their lives and their families’ safety for the continued right of wealthier men to own slaves. Period. Tragically, men like Amos McLemore paid for this realization with their lives. But so also did multitudes of soldiers die in a war that did not serve their interests; so also were Unionists murdered and women and children abused on the home front by marauding vigilantes and soldiers.

      And so also did some 4 million people of color remain slaves during four long years of war. For them, the Union victory was truly their revolution—it ultimately ended slavery despite that fact that so many white Republicans wanted only to “contain” slavery within its Southern borders.

      Vikki

    • No one in the South advocated a “Civil War”. They advocated being left alone. There WAS no Civil War. Only an invasion that Jefferson Davis spent a full 12 years prior to the invasion trying to prevent. Whatever Jones County, Mississippi, and one renegade decided to do is really of no consequence to the larger picture…unless the picture one chooses to paint is with the broad brushes of popular sentiment, and overgeneralization.

      • “No one in the South advocated a ‘Civil War’?” The Jones County uprising was “really of no consequences to the larger picture”?

        Sorry, Thunderingson, this conversation is over before it begins. I’m fine with navigating differences of opinion, but when opinions are based on a complete distortion of the most obvious facts of history, there is no room for civil discourse.

        Vikki

    • Thanks, Kerry–the clips you posted here are great! I urge readers who are interested in seeing scenes in the process of being filmed to click and watch.

      In regard to my debate on Twitter about the contents of the movie, I have to say, Twitter is alive with people who haven’t seen the movie, but are convinced they know exactly what it’s about. Well, soon it will be out—and the next phase of debates will begin!

      Vikki

  10. Reblogged this on Pop South and commented:
    My friend and fellow historian, Victoria Bynum talks here about “The Free State of Jones,” the movie that is based on her superb book. Buy the book, watch the film, and learn something new about the Civil War.

  11. I am going to read your book before the movie comes out to get the history without the “Hollywood”. I am looking forward with trepidation to seeing the movie since many of my relatives were anti-Knight and were directly involved in the issues in Jones County. My great, great, great uncle was John McCormack Baylis, the secessionist candidate (and business partner with Amos McLemore) and the anti secessionist candidate was my 4x great uncle John H. Powell Jr. William Baylis was my 3x great grandfather (JM Baylis’ brother). My 3x aunt Sarah Elizabeth Baylis Knight was Jesse Knight’s wife who owned Rachel.

    • Hi Tim,

      It’s great to hear from you. I’m expecting families on the “other” side of the divide in Jones County to view the movie with a critical eye, as well they should. We all need to remember that it IS a movie, and by definition paints the story in broad strokes with clearly-defined issues and heroes. As a historian, I like Gary Ross’s commitment to telling the story within an accurate, well-researched historical context. In some ways, FSOJ is a composite of anti-Confederate revolts throughout the South, but it also presents much about the Jones County story that is well-documented. I’ll be interested to hear what you think, and how the book and the movie compare to the stories you’ve heard.

      Vikki

  12. Hi Vikki,

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts over the years and am anxious to see the movie. B J Rushton was my 4x great grandfather.

    Veloyce

  13. Victoria,
    Last night we saw the movie! I gathered up my mom and uncles, descendants of Morgan Columbus Collins to watch this great movie! My husband, in-laws and best friends joined in too! They have all had the pleasure of listening to my stories and your book over the last five years or more! I’d have to say I was so excited I had a nervousness about me the whole day! Although the Collins’ we’re not mentioned as much as I had hoped, I loved that the movie is bring light to the subject that not all white men and women were pro-slavery/pro-confederacy. Congrats to you and your hard work throughout the years!! What a great moment to celebrate!!!

    • Hey, Howdygal,

      Delighted to read that the Texas branch of the Unionist Collins family went out to see The Free State of Jones! Sure wish we could have a movie about the Big Thicket Jawhawkers, led by none other than Warren J. Collins.

      Vikki

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