Don’t miss this much needed discussion of THE FREE STATE of JONES!—Vikki Bynum, Renegade South.
The Free State of Jones
The summer of 2016 saw the release of the first large-budget Civil War film since 2012’s critically acclaimed Lincoln. The Free State of Jones, directed by Gary Ross and starring Matthew McConaughey, is not simply, however, another film about the Civil War. Based on historian Victoria Bynum’s acclaimed book The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, this film marks an important shift in the popular depiction of America’s greatest conflict as it takes viewers inside the complex inner civil wars many Americans fought during this period. Long defined as a conflict pitting the north against the south, the realities of the Civil War were, as this film attempts to show, much more complex. Questions of loyalty and issues of patriotism have become an important part of the historiography of the Civil War era, illustrating the ways average men and women, North and South, struggled with the collision of national and local issues. Although the nuances of patriotism and loyalty have long driven the scholarly community, these issues have played a less important role in public, and especially Hollywood, portrayals of the war and the Reconstruction era. Certainly, past films have touched on the subject. Ride with the Devil, Pharaoh’s Army, and Cold Mountain, for example, all touch on patriotism and loyalty, as the main characters struggle with the consequences of the war on the home front. Based on a true story, Free State of Jones, is, however, the first to truly analyze this struggle through the lens of southern dissent. Following the experiences of Mississippian Newton Knight, a disillusioned southern soldier who returns home to lead a revolt against Confederate authorities in Mississippi, the film strikes at the heart of the complex nature of identity, patriotism, and loyalty during the Civil War and Reconstruction and gives viewers a rare glimpse into aspects of the war often overlooked by Hollywood film. [End Page 400]
This roundtable seeks to help contextualize the ways The Free State of Jones fits within the broader historical narrative of the nineteenth century. Civil War History is pleased to bring to the table four historians to discuss the film and its implications to the field and to the broader historical interpretations of the war. Their collective work focuses on identity, patriotism, and loyalty during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and their insight into the film begins a valuable discussion on the importance of bringing these topics into public discourse surrounding the war.
Joseph Beilein (JB) is assistant professor of history at Pennsylvania State University Behrend, where he teaches classes on Civil War and Reconstruction. He is the author of Bushwackers: Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Missouri (2016) and coeditor of The Civil War Guerrilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History, Memory, and Myth (2015).
Margaret Storey (MS) is professor of history and associate dean at DePaul University. She is the author of Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (2004) and the edited memoirs of Tennessee unionist Thomas Jefferson Cypert, Tried Men or True, or Union Life in Dixie (2011).
Andrew Slap (AS) is professor of history at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republican Movement in the Civil War Era (2006) and coeditor of a number of collections on the Civil War Era, including, most recently, Confederate Cities: The Urban South during the Civil War Era (2015). He is also the editor for two Fordham University Press series: Reconstructing America and the North’s Civil War.
Jarret Ruminski (JR) is a freelance writer, researcher, and consultant living in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi (2017), which examines ordinary lives in Confederate-controlled Mississippi to show how military occupation and the ravages of war tested the meaning of loyalty during America’s greatest rift. He writes regularly about history, politics, and culture at That Devil History.com.
Ryan Keating (RK) is the Civil War History book review editor and assistant professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino. He is the author of Shades of Green: Irish Regiments, American Soldiers, and Local Communities in the Civil War Era (2017).