Free State of Jones and Historical Accuracy

An interesting piece from Christian McWhirter as we await the release of movie, Free State of Jones:


Free State of Jones is only a week away and the New York Times ran a fascinating interview Wednesday with its director, Gary Ross. I was especially struck by Ross’s investment in establishing…

Source: Free State of Jones and Historical Accuracy

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18 replies »

    • I think so, too, Patrick. Christian McWhirter’s analysis opens the door to a much needed dialogue about the manner in which popular movies and historical scholarship might reinforce each other. The very different approaches inherent to each medium may actually be their strength. The Lost Cause version of the Civil War, thoroughly discredited by scholars decades ago, presently flourishes in popular culture. It goes without saying that an exciting movie backed up by solid works of scholarship will reach a far wider audience than any academic book. Viewers who want to read more deeply on a topic will find the books.


    • Yes, sales of my book, Free State of Jones, have seen a significant spike, giving hope that Hollywood and academia can actually reinforce one another in presenting a Civil War and Reconstruction grounded in factual analysis.


  1. I purchased your book and find the history quite fascinating! Looking forward to seeing the movie this weekend.


  2. Thank you, Ms. Bynum, for your book and consequent movie. Having heard of the Free State of Jones from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, I was aware of the topic when I saw a “coming soon” movie poster last March, and your book featured in my local library a month later. I’ve read most of it, and I’m impressed with how it has the sweeping drama and rich character development of a fine novel, with the added benefit of being true. As a native New Yorker, it’s also given me a more textured understanding of a swath of America with which I have little direct experience.
    If there is a flaw, at least of omission, it may be in attributing Tom Knight’s resentment of Rachael and her progeny solely to racism. I haven’t done the research to speak with authority, but it seems only natural that Tom first of all felt betrayed by Newton for making his mother and he share him with a bigamous second family. If so, then it’s deeply regrettable that Tom lashed out with racism rather than face the root of his pain. Racism was more socially acceptable (and emotionally comfortable) than accusing his father of adultery. This failing is certainly consistent with the portrait of Tom in your book. He failed to reconcile with his father – even on the latter’s deathbed and funeral, instead writing a biography that excised everything in Newt that Tom needed to forgive, and likewise presenting himself as a paragon of filiopiety. Erasing Rachel and her children from his book was a natural outgrowth of Tom’s misguided quest for inner-peace. When erasing the memory of his mixed-race kin failed, bearing false witness about Rachael to label all her descendants Negro promised to at least tell the world they had nothing to do with him. In a Greek-tragic twist, however, it seems that Tom’s venom largely poisoned himself. Your parting picture of Tom, as a bitter and lonely old man, would suggest that he was as uncomfortable in his own skin as the racism to which he contributed made his “Colored” cousins in theirs.


    • Sean,

      Your point is well-taken in regard to the likely sources of Tom Knight’s alienation from his father, Newt Knight. I agree that it cannot have been easy growing up in a household where one’s mother was displaced by another woman (or at least shared with another). It was a household none of us truly knows the content of all these years later. And while we have evidence of Tom’s racial views (which were quite in line with those of southern white society during the 1930s), he (not surprisingly) seems never to have spoken publicly about his father’s intimate affairs.



  3. Vikki,

    By way of thanks, I’d like to share an Irish folk song that speaks to many of the central themes of your book. It’s about civilians coping with war, and especially rural women grappling with the temporary if not permanent loss of their menfolk:

    In a historian’s footnote, it took me years to find out which war the song refers to, since Ireland has never been at war with Spain. (It’s the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic War.) Ironically, the British-backed Spaniards who fought to restore the House of Bourbon were more likely to call themselves monarchists than those who supported Napoleon’s brother, who was installed as King of Spain. Nevertheless, it’s understandable that “Bantry girls,” trying to make sense of the overseas conflict, would frame it as “thrashing the dirty King of Spain.”

    On a note less related to the song but more to this website, it occurred to me that there is a photo-negative quality to the Free State of Jones and the New York Draft Riots. As yeoman farmers in Jones County generally voted for compromisers in 1860, so did the heavily immigrant and Catholic working class of New York City. Just as Mississippi’s planter elite – who disproportionately backed Fire-eaters – exempted themselves from fighting through the Twenty Negro Law, so New York’s commercial elite – who disproportionately backed Republicans – exempted themselves through the buy-out provision of the Draft Act. Likewise once the bloodletting was over, Mississippians and New Yorkers debated whether the violence was a political protest, organized crime, or the natural lawlessness of “White trash”/the Irish. I wouldn’t wish a movie to romanticize the Draft Riot (as Scorsese did in “Gangs of New York,” airbrushing out its targeting of Blacks) but the parallels between resistance to the Federal and Confederate governments is undeniable. Of course, for a beleaguered population, political, cultural and personal motives are inextricably intertwined.

    – Sean

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Vikki,

    I drove sixty miles this morning and caught the first showing of Free State of Jones. The theater in my town is not showing the movie yet. It will be interesting to see if it is shown at all here.

    I was literally in tears ten minutes into the movie. Such is the tenacity of memory. I only wish my grandmother could be here to see this movie–to have validated her experience and memory of her grandfather, the unconventional Confederate veteran.

    No matter how the reviews begin to stack up, or how bitter the wars of interpretation become, Ross, and McCoughnehey ( in yet another brilliant performance), have captured the essence of a forgotten history. The South did not and would not claim us, even in my lifetime, and the North did not want us. Maybe that will begin to change now.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. As a history major, once again I am blown away with material that is hidden. I watched the movie today and wow is all I can say. Thank you for bringing this to film, as I will definitely pick up the book to learn more about the history.



    • Thanks for sharing your reaction to the movie, Mike. I too am enormously pleased that Gary Ross and STX entertainment introduced this history of Southern Unionism and interracial alliance (which I brought to print fifteen years ago) to the world of popular film!



  6. Sherree,

    Lord rest your grandmother and great-great-grandfather! If it’s any comfort, I’m a Northerner who’s come to appreciate the contribution of Southern Unionists to giving America – in Lincoln’s words – “a new birth of freedom.” One of the saddest details in Vikki’s book is how successive Republican Congresses ignored or rejected Newt Knight’s petition for the Knight Company to be recognized and compensated by the Federal government. Giving men like your great-great-granddad an honored place in American history will be a higher accomplishment than an Academy Award or box office success (although those would be welcome too).

    – Sean


  7. Sean,

    Thank-you for your kind words.

    My great-great grandfather was not a Unionist, as far as I know. He was not a typical Confederate, however. After the Civil War he formed a relationship with the local African American community that spanned generations, including my own. I am grateful for this legacy. It is a gift.

    The song you posted by the Bantry girls is beautiful! When I was growing up in the mountains, the farmers had sheep. We used to climb the fence to get near them and got chased by rams one day. This song brought that to mind. Who tended the sheep when the men were gone to war? I think that is clear: the women.


  8. Sorry for the confusion, Sherree.
    In the wrangling over how much slavery had to do with the Civil War, it’s easy to forget that what motivated Fire-eaters to push for succession is a different question from what motivated most ordinary soldiers to put on a grey coat.

    Glad you enjoyed “Bantry Girls Lament!” I hope “Free State of Jones” prompts more fellow-Americans to think about the costs of war. With a volunteer military, it seems easy for presidents (of both parties) to wage undeclared wars all over the world, and most folks don’t pay attention ’cause they don’t feel the price. I suppose I haven’t, though my dad served in WWII and I have a couple of friends who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some say the answer is another draft, but our Founders had good reason to fear a permanent standing army; governments tend to want to use them, in wars of dubious necessity, if not against their own people. I’m not sure what the answer is, but our military families are really being abused.


  9. Sean,

    No apology necessary. Your comment is actually right on target. Unionist or not, my great-great grandfather was ostracized for his views on race, as was his granddaughter, my grandmother, with whom I spent many of my early years, along with my mother and my father who were active in local civil rights issues and worked for Job Corps, part of Johnson’s Great Society.

    I completely identify with Free State of Jones and am truly ecstatic to see this history made into a major motion picture.

    Even today, liberals are ostracized in the South. And, there was a tradition of liberalism indigenous to the South long before demographic changes. I know because I lived it. White southern liberals sing the same song as liberals elsewhere in the nation. We just sing it in a different key.

    Thank you for your sensitivity and insight concerning this history. I think that it is critical to reclaim the history for a number or reasons, not the least of which is to prevent future generations of white southerners from romanticizing the Confederacy. People do need heroes, especially young people. Newt Knight and Southern Unionists open up a whole new world for them that was always there, just waiting to be rediscovered.


  10. My brother Daniel Collins, and first cousin David Collins went to see the movie last week and loved it. Our dads (Wilson Hollis Collins and Edward Alva Collins) are and were the sons of Alvah Allen Collins who was the son of Clay Crittenden Collins. Thank you so much for giving us this compelling view into the history of our fathers’ legacies.


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