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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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Top Customer Reviews
History vs Hollywood, movie, book, audio book.
The popular movie “Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a non-slave owner, who deserts from the Confederate army and leads a biracial guerilla band hiding in the swamps has excited a great deal of interest because it challenges the long held Myth of the Lost Cause. Historians have generally praised the movie for showing to a wide audience that the South was not unified in its support for slavery and some people, such as Newt and his followers, resented the “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” of the CSA to protect slavery. Historians also appreciate that Gary Ross consulted and actually listened to experts of the period in particular Victoria E. Bynum whose impressively researched book Free State of Jones was published in 2001. Political commentators and film critics have been less generous with their appraisal of the film. They seem to want something different from the actual historical Newt and would have preferred a completely fictional movie that satisfies their own political purposes or concepts of a proper narrative arc. It is a shame they have such a poor understanding of history. Other reviewers seem to dislike the un-triumphant movie ending. Hollywood has taught audiences to expect a feel good ending but real life Reconstruction make that impossible.
The good news is no one has to take their word for it. Many people, with their interest piqued, will order the book both in print and the newly released audio book. They can watch the movie, then read or listen to the book. This is the perfect opportunity to explore the ways a movie adaptation of true events is different from an excellent academic meticulously researched book.
Newt Knight was a man who defied social rules by deserting from the Confederacy, hiding in the swamp with runaway slaves and other deserters to fight the Rebels and declare Jones County, Mississippi as the Free State of Jones. Some of his men were captured and executed and, as in the movie, the women in their family cut them down. Women also aided the Knight Company. Newt also took a black wife who had several mixed race children.
Free State of Jones is an excellent comprehensive study that begins with people in the back country of North Carolina during the Revolutionary War who settled Jones County bringing with them their sense of justice and attitudes toward tyranny. Bynum mines everyavailable source to recreate the society of Jones County through the decades from settlement into the 20th century.
Bynum describes the mixed race community created by the tangled and complicated extended families who intermarried and created their own schools living in defiance of the hardening Jim Crow attitudes. Bynum expertly places Davis Knight’s 1948 charge of miscegenation in the larger historical context of the period and expertly connects it to Newt Knight’s flaunting sexual racial norms of his day.
Newton Knight has been portrayed as a principled American patriot fighting for civil rights for African Americans and his mixed race progeny and as an unprincipled, villainous traitor who betrayed his race, the Confederacy and transgressed racial boundaries. Whichever narrative a person believes reveals a great deal about that person’s attitude about race and the Confederacy.
There are no letters or diaries of Newt, his white wife nor his black wife to tell us what their actual relationships were. This is the biggest difference between a movie and a history, the creative license to recreate dialogue. Another big difference is the creation of composite characters to show historical events. In the film, Moses, is a composite character but his experiences happened to African Americans, such as: remaining himself upon freedom, thinking that “40 acres and a mule” would happen, having children apprenticed, joining the Union League, fighting for suffrage and then being lynched for that act of citizenship. Yes, even his castration.
The audio version of Free State of Jones is narrated by the melodious voice of Mahershala Ali, who plays Moses in the film. The preface and epilogue are narrated by Bynum who describes how she became interested in the story and in her new epilogue she tells of new information gathered since the first publication. On Bynum’s blog, Renegade South, descendants of men of the Knight Company have shared information and genealogy.
The paper copy contains photos of Newt and his mixed race descendants, a timeline, family trees and footnotes, not available on the audio version.
The movie, the paper book and the audio book all offer different experiences concerning this important story of American history. One thing they all do is correct the wrong history of the South as monolithic in support of the Confederacy. This is a much needed death blow to the Myth of the Lost Cause.
Victoria E. Bynum’s Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War is vital to our understanding of today’s society. She is a top notch historian and her work is changing perceptions of the Confederacy, Reconstruction and Civil Rights.
Racism in 1950's and 60's Jones county went beyond "Whites Only" signs over water fountains. A classmate's father was arrested for the firebombing and murder of Vernon Dahmer in his home. I never will forget my classmate's response. "I can't wait until I'm 18 so I can be the best Klansman I can be." That was his life goal. I didn't understand that level of fear, anger and hatred then and don't truly understand it now, but Ms. Bynum's book sheds a lot of light, history and context upon the human, political and cultural events leading up to that day on the bus.
The book does read like a dissertation, a series of dissertations actually, but that should not deter the reader who wants to understand this fascinating bit of history and culture. I am grateful to have found this book which has provided me with an insight and understanding of why things were the way the were in my hometown so many years ago. Thank you, Ms. Bynum.
What was so very interesting was the work does not seek to rehash the events but attempts to explain why he made this choice, and to tease out the truth of Newton Knight's decisions mired as it is in Southern myth-making. Part of the family descended from him and his siblings is fiercely proud of his actions, turning him into some sort of 19th century Robin Hood (which he was not) and romanticise his stand; another section loathes him for his betrayal of the Confederacy, an attitude which I know from experience still lives firmly in sections of the South; and yet another family line is appalled and embarrassed by his liaison with an intelligent Afro-American woman whom he regarded as his wife and with whom he had several children, though his first wife still lived. The many sources that Ms Bynum used must have presented a quagmire because those for him write with a rosy glow and those who hate him equally distort facts. Ms. Bynum has done a remarkable job to sift reasons, causes and reactions from these most biased of sources.
She creates a picture of a working class farming man with little education but a sharp and enquiring mind and clear leadership qualities who does his duty by the Confederacy in the first year of the war but sees all too clearly that the Confederacy is resting very heavily on the shoulders of men who do not have the power to say no. When the Southern government decided that all men who owned 20 or more slaves would be excluded from having to fight and for every 20 more could exclude another member of their family, Knight, a poor man with few resources, decided enough was enough and went home where he found his family and his neighbours' families being harassed by Confederacy outriders who stole their animals, raped their crops, commandeered their homes and left women and children to starve. Forced to live in the forest to elude troops sent out to arrest all absconders, he gathered around him a sizeable group of other disaffected men and women, including many escaped slaves. Deciding that they were independent of the Confederacy, though the declaration of the State of Jones as part of the Union is still in question, he and his small ragtag army harassed the Confederacy troops sent out to defeat him. He survived the war and took office in the local authorities of the Reconstruction period in the South as a US marshal, at one point reuniting with his first wife while continuing to live with Rachel, now a freed woman.
The book is not an easy read. Because Ms Bynum has focussed not on the chronology of events but on the rationale for Knight's stand, and seeks to establish as much of the truth as she can, the book dives around through time, backgrounds and reasons. Nonetheless, it is well worth persevering. Knight emerges from its pages as a real human being, a man driven by a variety of beliefs, flawed, stubborn and temperamental but one who had beliefs which he would not compromise. Once committed he found that he was driven to actions that were frequently violent. For anyone interested in those tiny fragments of a wider history, this is a very satisfying read.