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The Free State of Jones, Movie Edition: Mississippi's Longest Civil War (The Fred W. Morrison Series in Southern Studies) Paperback – January 25, 2016
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Bynum is to be saluted not only for her profound scholarship but for her evenhanded accounts of matters that remain volatile and controversial. . . . [This] book should be praised as an original and cogent piece of scholarship on a devilishly complicated and demanding subject.--Washington Times
An important book that may cause historians who are skeptical about putting too much stress on an 'inner' Civil War to rethink their position.--American Historical Review
Powerful, revisionist, and timely, Bynum's book combines superb history with poignant analysis of historical memory and southern racial mores.--Choice
The Free State of Jones is clearly a story that needs to be told, and Bynum has done impressive research to bring it to a modern audience. She uses a wide range of social history sources to trace the long history not only of Newt Knight and his gang but also of their ancestors. She is interested in social structure, economic patterns, migration, religious revivals, family formation, and community relations--in short, a genealogy of the entire Jones County community before they became famous during and after the Civil War. This is an ambitious project that brings the Jones County community to life for scholars, students, and lay readers.--Altina L. Waller, author of Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900
Local studies have made us increasingly aware of the many different ways in which southerners experienced the Civil War. Few communities fought as much of the war on their own terms or generated as distorted yet profound a legacy afterward as did the men and women of this renegade county in Mississippi's Piney Woods. It's a fascinating story, and Victoria Bynum tells it remarkably well.--John C. Inscoe, coauthor of The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War
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Victoria begins by explaining the difficulty of separating fact from fiction. Folktales, few published eye witness accounts, and two opposing biased biographies of Newton Knight, made the task especially challenging. Thomas Jefferson Knight’s account aimed to ennoble his father, while Ethel Knight’s account aimed to vilify her granduncle.
Next, she traces the history of seven principal families that composed the Knight Company, by identifying the events that caused their move to Jones County Mississippi, and caused the subsequent desertion from the Confederacy.
The strife that resulted from the Regulator Movement, Indian Wars, Revolution, and the Great Awakening acted as a catalyst that drove their descendants to painfully carve out an existence for their families in the New World.
The Knights struggled to rise beyond mere landholders to become slaveholders. The Welborns, Collinses, and Bynums participated in the Regulator Movement, which condemned lawyers and merchants for making wealth off the productive labor of farmers. New Light preachers with close ties to the Knights and Welborns, spoke against political and economic corruption and were persecuted by conservative clergy, which resulted in them leaving to find new converts in other regions.
The economic, social, and religious strife that existed over the years between the seven and other rival families is the primary cause that led to the full-scale rebellion against the Confederacy.
By late 1863, deserters from Jones County (the Knight Company) organized under Newton Knight and armed themselves into a deadly fighting force. The imminent threat of retaliation from the Confederacy provided incentives for other members of this community (women, children, and slaves) to cast off the restraints of customary acceptable behavior roles in society, and instead, band together as free individuals against oppressive governance.
For over a year the Knight Company fought against Confederate soldiers. Several men were either hanged by the Confederate troops or shot to death during skirmishes. It’s rumored that Newt killed Major Amos McLemore among other Confederate soldiers.
She ends by recounting Newt’s postwar responsibilities as relief commissioner in Jones County and by recounting how his descendants were able rise above abject poverty and the stigma of belonging to a mixed-race community through hard work, religion, and education.
The one critique I have is that Victoria’s current biases against various social norms and institutions color her interpretation of the past. From beginning to end hues of modern liberal, feminist, and anti-capitalist sentiments are very apparent. This makes the book distasteful because it detracts from the facts—whether good or bad—of life as they experienced it. Tensions have always existed between men and women, this fact however, neither makes all men sexist nor all women feminist. Conflict has always existed between merchants and buyers, borrowers and lenders, however this fact doesn’t mean capitalism is a system that deserves our disdain. The raw historical facts should have been presented leaving each person free to formulate their own moral judgment of events.
Despite the politically correct modern bias, the Free State of Jones is a good account of events and of the primary factors that led a community to resist the Confederacy. It’s an American story that needs to be retold to each new generation and a reminder of the American principle that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends [deriving power from the consent of the governed], it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.”
Ms Bynum also presents an uncommon view of what happened in some areas both during and after the conflict. I gained an appreciation for the trials and tribulations of the period of reconstruction in the South. Something I never really understood in High School or college.