A stubborn incongruity to the again resurgent southern “Myth of the Lost Cause” is that the commitment to secession was far from universal. In fact, about one hundred thousand white southern loyalists fought for the Union; except for South Carolina every state of the Confederacy sent at least one battalion to join the northern ranks. More significantly perhaps is that there were multiple geographies where Unionist sentiment prevailed throughout the conflict, especially those where hardscrabble farming was far removed from the arena of the slave-holding plantation elite. Indeed, a great chunk of a cornerstone Confederate state broke off to become the new loyal Union state of West Virginia. A less well known locale is the subject of The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, the tale – a blurred mix of fact and legend – of how pockets of loyalists in Jones County, in eastern Mississippi, were led by the colorful Newton Knight to secede from the Confederacy and form the “Free State of Jones.” This book, which dates back to 2009, served as the basis for the 2016 motion picture featuring Matthew McConaughey, which has brought the story to a much wider audience.
Despite the title, Newton Knight – rather than the State of Jones – is the true central character, which forms both a strength and a weakness to the book. The strength is that a biographical figure serving as focal point often enriches an unfolding historical narrative. The weakness in this case is that the perspective is often severely delimited to that figure, which diminishes the wider view. The authors introduce us to Newton Knight in 1921, interviewed in the twilight of his days by journalist Meigs Frost. It is hard to know what to make of him, especially since much of what is known about him is derived from his reminisces and those partisans who were loyal to him. Was he a heroic figure with a strong moral core and loyalty to an unwavering ideological outlook? Or was he rather an opportunistic scalawag, a narcissistic self-serving outlaw that constructed his ethical framework entirely to suit his own interests? He seems to be a bit of both, and to their credit Jenkins and Stauffer largely tell the story as they have it and leave it to the reader to pass judgment, although overall Knight tends to come off as more of a sympathetic figure than not in the course of this account.
Newton Knight was apparently a larger than life character, imposing both physically by his great stature and otherwise by the strength of his disposition, which encompassed a devotion to his Baptist “primitive” faith, a personal aversion to alcohol and a moral opposition to slavery. Knight, like many others in Jones County, was a poor white dirt farmer who had little sympathy for the Confederate cause, especially because of his anti-slavery views. Nevertheless, as the draft loomed, he joined the army and served as both soldier and hospital orderly. His service did not last long. Disillusioned, he deserted and teamed up with other Unionists as a guerrilla fighter, leading the “Knight Company,” the genesis of the forces that eventually broke Jones County off from the CSA and became what was later more or less formalized as the “Free State of Jones.”
Naturally, pro-Confederates viewed Knight and his band as traitors. And while the reader may be sympathetic to Knight’s cause, it is often difficult not to wince at his methods, which as a guerrilla frequently eschewed the rules of war to include bushwhacking and the assassination of opponents, in and out of uniform. Also, it becomes increasingly ambiguous whether Knight was really fighting for any cause other than what best suited Newton Knight.
Knight differed from the majority of southern Unionists not only in his opposition to secession but also in his stand against slavery and his views on African-Americans, which encompassed not only abolition but a kind of equality which would have been viewed at the time as extremely radical, north or south. Knight, who was married and had multiple children with his Caucasian wife, also became involved with an African-American former slave named Rachel with whom he sired many more children. While it was hardly unusual for southern white men to consort with black women in the antebellum era – slaveholders including such notable figures as Jefferson commonly (if hardly publicly) had slave concubines that they impregnated – Knight went a giant step further as he eventually also took Rachel to be his wife, and came to treat all of his offspring and various relatives, white and black, as full equals. This story spills over into the post-war period, with Knight serving as a despised Republican officeholder in the Reconstruction era. This is perhaps the most captivating part of the book, as the “Free State of Jones” is left in the dust and we observe the tragedy in microcosm in eastern Mississippi as the south loses the war but essentially wins the peace, as Reconstruction gives way to Redemption, as the brief experiment of attempts at equality end ruthlessly as African-Americans are murdered, terrorized, dehumanized and turned into second-class citizens for a century to come. Yet, somehow Newton Knight not only weathers the calamities about him but thrives, carving out his own enclave for his ever expanding inter-racial family, which somewhat uncomfortably intermarries amongst themselves. Hero or villain or a blend of the two, Newton Knight remained a fascinating and singular character throughout his long life.
Given the wealth of great material, this should have been a far better book, but alas it often falls flat. I would chalk that up to the fact that there are two authors, which frequently is problematic in any such volume. Audiophiles will tell you that CD’s never sound as good as vinyl records because the highs and lows are averaged out – Keith Moon’s percussion is simply not as dramatic on a “Who” CD as it is on vinyl; the passion is, if not lost, deeply compromised. Something similar often occurs when two authors attempt to speak with a single voice in a narrative – in this case Stauffer, a Harvard professor of history, and Jenkins, an award-winning journalist – and here again what is most conspicuously diminished is the passion of the telling of the tale. Still, it remains a compelling story and despite this flaw I would recommend it.