129 of 157 people found the following review helpful
on July 19, 2009
Rating as Historical Fact: *
Rating as Historical Novel: ***
"State of Jones" purports to deal with the events surrounding an insurrection against Confederate authority that took place in 1863-4 in Jones County, Mississippi. Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Piney Woods area in which Jones County is situated had relatively few slaves and an economy based on livestock rather than cotton. Hence many of its men were reluctant participants in the war and, when Union forces clearly established the upper hand with the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, they deserted and returned to their farms. Their numbers and their effective control of the area alarmed Confederate officials who sent in troops. There were several small scale engagements and about a dozen of the deserters (and a few unfortunate kinsmen) were hanged. Whether the Piney Woods renegades were simply deserters and bushwhackers or were true Unionist--and to what degree they were truly an effective military force--has been debated ever since. Adding to the debate is its central character: Newton Knight. Knight was the leader of the most prominent band of deserters. Following the Civil War he capped his lifetime of independent action by maintaining a second family with a mulatto woman, Rachel Knight--a former slave who had assisted him during the war.
The book under review has received a fairly substantial promotional push by its publisher perhaps owing to the fact that, as the authors note in their acknowledgement, it developed out of a screenplay for a proposed movie project by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit). The authors have made liberal use of a number of secondary historical accounts, the most frequently referenced (if not too openly acknowledged in their interviews) being Rudy Leverett's "Legend of the Free State of Jones" and Victoria Bynum's "Free State of Jones." But popular depictions of the Free State of Jones go back to the 1940s publication of James Street's novel "Tap Root" which, following the more usual course of events, was subsequently made into a movie. Thus the authors of "State of Jones" are disingenuous in their repeated claims to have uncovered a story overlooked by history (see most recently their letter of 17 July, 2009 to the Wall Street Journal) and are docked one star for this distasteful arrogance.
But a crucial problem for those of us familiar with the known facts are the substantial liberties the authors have taken with these facts--and the instances where they have gotten these facts wrong. To cite just two (and my personal tally runs several pages):
1) The authors state that pioneer settler Stacy Collins "had spoken out vehemently against secession" (p 15) when, in fact, he died in Texas ca 1853 and the two sources they cite for this statement do not support it.
2) The authors state as fact that Jones County voted to elect an anti-secessionist delegate to the Mississippi Secession Convention by a margin of 374 to 24 (p 73). And this is, indeed, what myth laden secondhand sources have stated. But the actual document reporting the vote count is housed in the Mississippi Archives and shows the tally was 166 to 89. Still a substantial vote against secession, but not a mythic one. It can be noted that Bynum, using a more reputable secondary source, gave the correct election result in her more scholarly and, by my estimation, much more accurate account.
The list of such factual errors that interrupted my reading goes on and on, but would be tedious for all but obsessive researchers like myself. Let it just be said that the book contains a perplexing number of such factual errors, both small and large.
More troubling is the narrative style of the book. To make the narrative an easy, exciting read (and, in general, it is) the authors have dropped the usual qualifiers that should pepper an account for which so few original records exist. In this they are only following the regrettable trail blazed by other popular historical accounts such as "Isaac's Storm" where suppositions are paraded as facts and the caveats relegated to the fine print of the end notes. Still, with one of the authors being a prize winning Harvard professor, one would have hoped that so much dubious hypothesizing would not have been implied as fact simply for the sake of propelling the narrative.
The assertive narrative style allows the authors to mask gapping holes in our understanding of Newton Knight by depicting him as a, well, very cinematic John Brown of the Piney Woods. What we do know about Newton Knight is that neither he nor his father owned slaves (although his grandfather did) and that his relationship with his "outside" wife Rachel was conducted openly in defiance of social conventions. Accounts reveal that he encouraged some of his children into mixed race marriages. All this makes him a highly unusual character for the place and times, but that should be enough without forcing undocumented ennobling ideology onto the back of his actions.
Where the book does have a credible claim to staking some new ground is in its examination Newton Knight's postwar pursuit of a Union pension. Even here, however, the authors forsake historical analysis for the sake of narrative simplicity. Thus all Newton's claims of his pro-Unionist stance are taken at face value. But Knight had good reason to embellish his activities. Maybe not falsify, but embellish. A number of his band, in the wake of the Confederate actions against them, fled to New Orleans and enlisted in the federal army. These men, or their survivors--since a fair number died of disease following their enrollment--obtained pensions. It is reasonable that Newton Knight, accurately viewing himself as the guiding force in the organization of the deserters into a fighting force, felt he was also due compensation. And perhaps by moral right he was. But the laws governing pensions were strict and Knight fell outside their scope--unless his story was refashioned. And during the 1870s Washington was filled with lawyers who earned their livelihood by helping persons obtain pensions legally due them--or possibly not. Knight was not represented by some backwoods Southern lawyer. His pension counsel was based in Washington and, I believe, encouraged him to enhance his descriptions of his activities in order to have the best chance to obtain compensation. In good history the examination of such possibilities would be expected. But in "State of Jones" the authors consistently favor plotline over analysis. And this, along with the other reasons cited above, makes it difficult for me to accept the designation of this book as a history. It seems more a novelization of a screenplay with reference notes.
So where does this leave us? The real facts clearly show Newton Knight led a quasi-military insurgency against Confederate authority in the Piney Woods of Mississippi. He was a strong-willed, complex man of action who did as he damned well pleased. This placed him in a leadership role in the Piney Woods insurgency and quickly made him a social pariah after the war. The insurgency over which he assumed control was just one of many throughout those sections of the South where the cotton economy did not predominate. Sadly, the authors of "State of Jones" refused to examine Newton Knight on his own terms, but instead collaborated in the production of a classic Hollywood makeover.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2009
This book just missed getting four stars from me, likely through no fault of the authors. The problem is that while the topic of the book is utterly fascinating, its narrative suffers greatly from a lack of primary source material.
Doubtless, the intent of the authors was to accomplish three things. First, to shine light on a phenomenon that was utterly foreign to me: Pro-Union Southrons acting against the Confederacy before, during and after the Civil War. Second, to focus in on one particularly strong anti-confederacy pro-Union county in Southern Mississippi. Third to discuss in particular the most dominant actor in that county; who he was, how he lived, what he believed, and how he acted.
In other words, this book has the makings of a real pot boiler for, who'd have thunk that the confederacy was anything but a monolithic pro-slavery anti-union force? Even if we allowed for that possibility, who knew about a small Mississippi county that became a hotbed of anti-insurrection insurrection? Finally, how can we not find ourselves in the thrall of a man who not only waged war against the confederacy from within the confederacy but also practiced a way of life that was completely outside of the normative functions of society then and now?
That's right, one Newton Knight, a Mississippi dirt farmer from Jones County almost singlehandedly defied the might of the rebel government and its military in defense of the United States of America. Not only that, but he also fell in love with an enslaved negress who bore him many children at the same time that we was married to and creating children with a caucasian, maintaining separate but equal households first on shared land and then on adjoining plots of land. Furthermore, he acknowledged and loved both of his families equally a lynching offense at the time.
Needless to say, these activities tried mightily the societal mores of the time, leading eventually to the man being shunned by virtually everybody regardless of their skin color.
A potentially fascinating tale, no?
As stated above, the story falls down because there is very little primary source material: The main protagonist didn't talk much about his activities, nor did he write about them: The pro-Union shadow government and army that was established in Jones County was had an informal framework with no record-keeping bureaucratic apparatus: Mr Knight's descendants were mum for the most part either because they didn't have the resources to make a record of his story, or they intentionally suppressed as much of the information as they could.
Suffice it to say that the book has lots of great elements: Guerilla warfare, formal wartime service in the Confederate Army, miscegenation, polygamy, incest, personal vendettas, ambushes and murder, swamp hideouts, lynchings, shootings, burnings and all manner of disturbing activity. Unfortunately, the authors' discussion of these things often had to be created out of whole cloth as they wove their tale around the small threads of concrete information they actually possessed.
Thus, the book reads a bit like this review: it has a whole bunch of connected stuff woven together haphazardly so that while one wants to connect, the uneven and incomplete presentation of it makes this difficult.
If, when the book is published, pictures are included in it the book will be about 100 percent better because the reader can literally, put faces and places to names. (Newton Knight literally looked extraordinary).
Note also that the discussion of the depravities of the unreconstructed rebels against the freed slaves and their Unionist and 'carpetbagger' defenders causes on to wonder how the USA made it to its present greatness, and with a half-black and half-white president no less. Hooray for America!
34 of 44 people found the following review helpful
The authors have done an extraordinary job of finding, and telling, a story of resistance to the Confederacy, both during and after the Civil War. I've read, and researched, considerable Civil War history and find that the authors have been meticulous in their research. Certainly the War Department's Official Records kept enough angry Confederate reports of a loyal Unionist revolt in southeastern Mississippi, but there's signs that their research went much further.
Indeed, the story puts the revolt in the greater context - many of the Jones County fighters were men who had been drafted into the rebel army and had survived the terrible battles at Corinth and Vicksburg. These were piney-woods farmers who had had enough of fighting a slaveholders' war.
And, as we're told in this book, the war between Confederate government and Unionist rebels was without mercy. The Confederate army had been ruthless, we find, in expropriating the meager crops and livestock of the local farms, from farm women and children whose men had been dragged off to war, and now the revenge would be harsh, and not at all prompted by the distant Union Army forces in the north and west of the state. It would be a war of summary hangings and ambush that would not be recorded in the official, romanticized histories written later. Hardly mentioned, at least, till now.
Above all, it's the story of one of the most extraordinary figures of the period, Newton Knight. He would not only lead the revolt but establish, and maintain, two families, one white and one biracial - the latter a cardinal sin in the society that would emerge after the war. We see how the Union would abandon the South after the war, and leave the local struggle, now between Newton Knight and his kindred against the Klan and Jim Crow, for generations, even unto a 1948 miscegenation trial of one of his grandsons.
It's worth reflecting, given the Obama presidency, just how far American society has had to come: in this book, the war of slaveholder aristocracy and piney-woods farmers, of interracial and racist mindsets, is still a fresh, raw memory.
Kudos to the authors, and I'll be curious just how this works out as a possible film. Certainly, John Brown would have found Newton Knight a kindred spirit. Both were fierce, indomitable, and profoundly unforgettable.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2009
The authors of this book used language associated with discrediting those who dissagree with certain parts of this story. They specifically called Dr. Rudy H. Leverett, the author of "Legend of the Free State of Jones" a neo-confederate. He published that book in 1984 and has since passed away. Dr. Leverett was a native of Mississippi and a veteran of the Korean War. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from The University of Southern Mississippi; a master's degree in Library Science from The University of Washington; and a doctoral degree in Education from The University of Idaho. He served for a number of years as an Educational Consultant for the Idaho State Department of Education, and wrote extensively on such topics as the Civil War, religion, philosophy, education, and language philosophy. He died January 9, 1999. He work is a work of facts and does not promote any political stance. For these facts alone this book should be avoided.
[The Free State of Jones]
First of all there is very little official documented history of Newt Knight. I was curious to see how any historian could write 400 pages on this subject. The only official records of Newt Knight are the U.S. and Mississippi Census records (a fact I find humorous- the law could not find Newt but the Census taker could), his Confederate Service records, and his Union pension applications. Everything else we know of him is handed down from the family or from a 1920's interview by a dime-novel reporter who tries to portray Newt Knight as an Old West gunfighter. Newt Knight left no letters, no diary, no manuscript, no memoirs, nor any information about his early life, or his service in the Confederate Army.
I found the historians promoting this story instead of investigating it. Not once is the story ever questioned since the tale is heavily relied upon by third party information. This work is 95% historical filler without any real substance to the subject. The authors could not find any real information, so instead they took the histories of other people and skillfully entwined those events around the tale of Newt Knight. What is funny they actually compared Newt Knight, accused bushwacker, and murderer to Abraham Lincoln!
There was no Sheriff of Jones County, Mississippi by the name of Nat Kilgore. There was a sick Confederate soldier home on furlough by the name of Mathew T. G. Kilgore at the time. In 1864 when he was well enough to ride his horse again, Mathew started back to join his unit. The next day, his horse came home and someone went to look for him. They found him dead in the edge of a swamp. The story goes that he was carrying some tobacco with him and it was found someone had sat on a nearby log and chewed tobacco. It was assumed that Knight's men were the guilty party, as no Union Patrols were in the area.
The authors took a classic story of the community wagon trains to the Mobile, Alabama market and associated it to Newt Knight, and claimed he had experienced this trip. I know this to be highly unlikely since those wagon trains were common during the 1800-1840s. Since Newt was born in 1837, and being it was a very hard journey I doubt he would have been taken along. The women and children were left behind to tend the farms. When the Mobile and Ohio Railroad was built between 1848 and 1852, twenty-five miles away from Jones County, these wagon trains stopped.
The authors claim Newt Knight carried supplies by flat-boat UP the Pearl River. I find that very hard to believe, since the Pearl was never known to be navigatable for very far and only a few weeks out of the year and any portion that was useable would have been populated with people and guarded by troops. It's possible to move a loaded flat-boat up a river but only by pulling it with a team of oxen on waters cleared of obstructions and banks cleared with roads. This was not the case on the Pearl River, of which General Sherman wished had more water in it so he could have used it to attack Jackson.
Finally, the authors claim the state of Mississippi was void of troops in 1864-65 and left Newt Knight and his deserters in charge of the state. This part is laughable and without truth. Jones County was surrounded by Confederate authority. The authors wrote at length of General Sherman's forces expedition to Meridian and the possibility of Newt Knight making contact with those forces because of the proximity to Jones County. These historians failed to mention the December 1864 Union expediton to the very door-steps of Newt Knights "Free-State of Jones", 4,000 cavalry, that were met and defeated in a battle near Leakesville, Mississippi in Greene County by Confederate forces. How did this event effect the Newt Knight story? There were thousands of Confederate troops stationed along the Mobile and Ohio Railroad to the east, the New Orleans Jackson Railroad to the west and along the Gulf Coast. Jones County was surrounded by Confederate authority.
The book has lots of researched facts within in it but little of the information can be directly usuable to tell the tale of Newt Knight or the mythical "Free-State of Jones". The only provable facts are 1. Newt Knight lived in Mississippi; 2. he enlisted in the Confederate Army twice (and claimed the $50 bounty); 3. he deserted the Confederate Army; and 4. applied for a Union pension a half dozen times and was not believed by the U.S. Federal Government. Everything else is Piney Woods story tellin at its best.
46 of 62 people found the following review helpful
This is a true account of a man in Jones County, Miss., who defected from the Confederate Army because of his moral beliefs, including anti-slavery and "Unionism" (support of the mostly Northern Union states during the Civil War).
It is a scholarly and meticulous, but strangely unexciting, recounting of facts. I'd pick up the book each night, thinking maybe I was just tired the night before and that is why it never grabbed me. So I'd read and try to focus, but it was tough sledding. Facts are related, one after another. Quotes from old letters and journals abound. It should be fascinating--Tom Brokaw says right on the cover of the book that he couldn't put it down!--but I found "getting into" this book was a steep climb.
For me, "State of Jones" is curiously dry and keeps the reader at a scholarly arm's length, failing to capitalize on the real drama of its subject matter. For instance, in early scenes, the Battle of Corinth is described, and even though the authors list the date and HOUR...they then go on to give broad background on the events leading up to the conflict. The next installment is ONE HOUR LATER...but again, the authors fail to move the drama along in real time (although they have cued the reader to expect that, giving dates and hours), instead choosing to again give broad background.
I hesitate to write such a negative review, as the collection of research done here is truly impressive. Unfortunately, though, "The State of Jones" failed to make history really come alive for me. I wanted to love it, but instead of getting absorbed in the book, I had the feeling I was standing in a museum reading a series of bronze plaques in front of Civil War exhibits.
Recommended for studious, diligent and research-minded Civil War enthusiasts.
17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2009
The State of Jones is exciting as fiction. The main writer is a very talented one, and the book races along - it is a "good read." However, it is poor history. It is often impossible to find out from what primary sources the authors derived such sentences as "Newton was a gentle, conscientious father" on page 60 (and I could name many, many more) because the notes at the back of the book do not give them. While I like this note format because it doesn't interrupt the narrative with tiny numbers, it has to be done right.
When I read Irving Stone's Lust for Life, I was not a historian (I am now), but nonetheless I was appalled by his habit of putting thoughts in Van Gogh's head. (It was the height of authorial arrogance to invade the mind of a great man, but at least he titled the book as a "biographical novel.") It appalls me here in The State of Jones when I read that something "might" or, worse, "must have" have happened. For instance, ". . .Newton and Rachel's relationship must have involved deep emotional confusion. . ." (Page 157). We do not know if it did or not.
Conscientious historians do engage in speculation, but they are very careful about how they do it. "There is some evidence that Serena complained about these solitary trips" (285) demands more explication than a reference in a note to Ethel Knight's The Echo of the Black Horn. Or isn't it somewhat empty to say: "Newton left no record of his mood after the election of 1875, but it can be guessed at. . .[he] had no hope that the law would protect him. . ." (277); perhaps it would have been better just to describe what was going on in Mississippi after the election of 1875.
In some cases, it seems to me that the author is extrapolating from general history and applying it to a specific case, but she does not make that clear. For example, the notes for the description of Rachel's life in the Knight household (66) cite Deborah Gray White's Ar'nt I a Woman and Elizabeth Fox Genovese's Within the Plantation Household but don't make clear whether the citations refer to the Knight household or another. (In the case of Genovese, it is the Lumpkin household.)
Read The State of Jones for fun, but don't believe everything it says.
42 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2009
Being a fan of Dr. Victoria Bynum's well-documented and thoroughly entertaining book on Newt Knight and Jones County, "The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War", and also being a Jones County native, I was excited to learn what Stauffer and Jenkins had discovered to warrant yet another treatment of this oft told tale. (Besides Bynum's book, which is the strongest both in the research and in the telling, there have been at least three other book-length histories plus one fictionalized account which was the basis for the 1948 movie "Tap Roots")
Unfortunately, I have to say, not much new here, except the liberties the authors take with documented source material in an effort to put forth a story-line where none exists. They shouldn't have expended the energy. Even with all the fictional leaps, the unwarranted inferences, and the reshaping of historical figures to appeal to 21st Century sensibilities. the story falls flat. The book reads as if it has been cobbled together, moving bumpily from story to lecture and back again, as if someone accidently shuffled a novelist's manuscript with a history teacher's class notes. I'm also struck with how dependent the authors seem to be on Bynum's research to bolster their own historical suppositions. Why bother, if you are just going to rehash previous work? But then I listened to an interview with the authors in which they stated that their "history" was commissioned by film producer/director Gary Ross, AFTER he had already written his movie script. Now of course, it makes perfect sense why the authors took such liberties to create a sustainable story-line. I guess this is a case of history imitating art.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I thoroughly enjoyed The Real All Americans by Sally Jenkins. So I looked forward to reading The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded From the Confederacy by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer. Overall, I was disappointed by this uneven book.
The Jones in the title is Jones County, Mississippi. Unlike much of the south, Jones County was a poor, rural area devoid of plantations. To them, the Civil War was "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Newton Knight was one of 30,000 Confederate soldiers who surrendered at Vicksburg with the promise to never take up arms against the Union again. When they returned home, they were once again conscripted by the C.S.A. Knight was one of the many from Jones County who deserted and then fought against the Confederacy, with Knight serving as their leader. The authors claim that Jones County even seceded from the Confederacy. Although this fact has been disputed, at one point, there was no civil authority in the county--including a sheriff. Knight also claimed that he fought for the Union with the aid of Union officials. But despite much testimony, Knight was never able to get the Civil War pension that he applied for.
I found the events in Mississippi after the Civil War more interesting. After Federal troops pulled out of the state, former Confederates set to right the wrongs brought about by the Civil War. Conditions for blacks were in some ways worse--something seen first-hand by Knight. By then, Knight had taken a former slave, Rachel, as his common-law wife and they had five children together. He pretty much deserted his white wife. Conditions in Mississippi continued to be bad, well into the 20th Century. The 13th Amendment outlawing slavery was not ratified in Mississippi until 1995.
The State of Jones was not always engaging and I found good parts of this book slow-going and uninteresting. Also, the book was missing tools that would have aided the reader. The authors should have included maps of Jones County, Corinth and Vicksburg. A Knight family tree would have also been helpful.
The State of Jones is being made into a movie. I just hope that the movie is better than the book.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This is the most interesting book I've read about the Civil War. It is well researched, well written, and gripping.
The book covers the life of Newton Knight, a man in Mississippi who is against slavery, is conscripted into the Confederate Army, who leaves twice, and eventually becomes the leader of a group of Unionists fighting against the Confederates in Jones County Mississippi.
Through his story, it traces the politics and social environment of the South, before during and after the Civil War, and how that reflects in the lives of Newt and his two families... one with his white wife and one with his black wife.
What is wonderful about this book is not only is it fascinating, but it puts you into the lives of the characters. In fact, it is so immersive that towards the end I regretted that there weren't more photographs, only to realize there weren't any photographs...
I hope that school systems find a way to put books like this into high schools... it might lead to far more students interested in history.
If you are interested in the Civil War, or US History in general, I highly recommend this book. It is a great read.
26 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2009
The story of Southern dissenters during the Civil War is an important one, as is the story of Jones County's role in the conflict. But this book falls far short of doing justice to its topic. The authors make virtually no attempt to place Jones County and Newton Knight in the larger context of Southern dissent. They barely acknowledge that such a context even existed. This is far too much of a book on military actions like Corinth, Vicksburg, and Sherman's March, etc., and far too little a book about Southern dissent and Newton Knight's band of anti-Confederates in Jones County. Much, perhaps most, of what the authors say about Knight is conjecture, and the rest is essentially a rip-off of Victoria Bynum's far superior work, THE FREE STATE OF JONES: MISSISSIPPI'S LONGEST CIVIL WAR (2001). In fact, it appears that the authors, or Jim Kelly, their research helper, simply gathered up Bynum's hard-worked, original research and threw together a half-fiction/half-history tale that has already been much better told by Bynum. Jenkins and Stauffer have taken us a giant step backward in our efforts to get at a better understanding of Jones County, Newton Knight, and their place in the broader study of Southern dissent. For the real story, read Bynum's book.