The Free State of Jones is a story about nonconformity and pugnacious individuality. It is a story of a minority of Southern Whites, who during the Civil War, were either pro-union, anti-slavery or at least, anti-Confederate. It may possibly be summed up by quoting the text of a headstone that now marks the formerly unmarked graves of three Knight Company members; it says, they were “summarily executed by the Confederate cavalry during the War between the States because of their honest convictions.” It is a story of the cost of war, and the things people do during war generally and what these people and others like them did specifically during the Civil War.
The book is called, The Free State of Jones, by Victoria E. Bynum, The University of North Carolina Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8078-5467-0. The author begins by telling us a story of race set in 1948. The issue was a legal definition of whiteness, an issue full of contradiction and ambiguity. The person in question was determined to be white, though his mixed ancestry was known. He was part of a community known as White Negroes. Dr. Bynum has done an impressive job of research that goes a long way toward explaining how race, class, and gender affected, and were affected by, the development of social customs in the South.
Jones County residents’ connection with the Carolinas, and to a lesser degree, Georgia is discussed in Chapter One. All the families that came to play a role in the Free State of Jones found their American origins in South Carolina. Theirs is a rich heritage of obstinate dissent. These families had been involved in the regulator movement: a movement of have-nots against the powerful haves. This thread of anti-authoritarianism runs true for these families throughout the civil war.
By the time of the civil war, race and class had clear distinctions, and honor was always at stake. These particular families of Jones County kept to an older view of interracial activities and associations, that was slightly more open and elsewhere in the South. Their view was an older view, from an era two generations past. Racial mixing still occurred but it was more clandestine and subversive at the time of the civil war.
The constant pressure for land, for a growing population, pushed settlers ever westward. Free men could rise by their own efforts and keep the fruit of their labor, due to obstinate independence. A dichotomy emerged between the ideal of free men as Yeoman Farmer and the practice of some men as wealthy planters. The desire to rise in status, class and wealth, resulted in a need for servile labor by Planters, and this put economic pressure on Yeoman Farmers. “There was a desire by many for primitive simplicity over corrupt wealth” (30). The families that resisted Confederate military service in Jones County, and elsewhere, tended to come from the free labor class. The families that demanded Confederate military service from the Yeoman Farmer was the Planter Elite.
Religion evolved with settlement. The Great Awakening caused a huge increase in new churches and a move away from the established churches. Westward settlement played havoc with coordination and organization, but finally denominations such as Methodists and Baptists had an organization and creed, though not without a lot of gnashing of teeth. Finally these churches established a definition of equality that allowed for great disparities of wealth and freedom. This became another consideration that separated the Free Staters from the Planter Elite.
The core membership of the Knight Company was seven families of the Yeoman class. These colonists were part of the Regulator movement that resisted the concentration of power into the hands of a few wealthy landowners. The Planter Elite supported the Confederacy almost unanimously. Some families split, as did the Knights. The two factions of the family continued their argument well into the twentieth century. Interestingly, Newton Knight went against class interest. His Grandfather Jackie was a slave owner, though a staunch Unionist, as was Ben Sumrall, who condemned secession publicly.
Originally the Piney Woods area of Mississippi that later became Jones county was settled by prospective ranchers, who turned to farming, as time went on. The Piney Woods are much more extensive than Jones County, running east and west of Jones County. In fact the Piney Woods run all the way into East Texas, where there are some similar stories, of pro-Union minorities, anti-authoritarians, and curmudgeons of all kinds. Slavery was less prevalent here in the Piney Woods than in other areas of the Deep South. The author provides an excellent local history of Southwest Mississippi from the early 1800s to the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. The author begins with the immigrants to Mississippi territory, mainly from the Carolinas. Excellent maps of migration routes and the early counties in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi are included.
This westward mobility was not unusual, of course, but Bynum shows that the types of land that people moved onto can serve as a clear indicator of their later political views. Families who settled on rich river bottoms tended to become wealthy slave-owners, while families and parts of families who stayed, by choice, in the less fertile hills, tended not to own slaves, though some did garner considerable wealth. The plantation owners in any extended family were the strongest supporters of the Confederacy, while the backwoods subsistence farmers were more skeptical of any authority.
Some of the Knight Company joined the Confederacy with gusto and enthusiasm Newt among them at first. For those that enlisted but later deserted, the cause seems often to be a growing hatred of the Confederate government and its ruinous and corrupt practices. The Twenty Negro Law is often cited for favoring the Planter Elite. Also, Confederate impressments of men and confiscation of material, sweeping in scope, created animosity.
Late in the war, desertion of Confederate troops became such a large problem that active measures were taken. Confederate cavalry swept up deserters, many were hanged. For some Southerners this was a fearsome reign of terror. The Knight Company formed a protection service for men who wanted to survive the war and who had lost sympathy for the cause of the Planter Elite; there is no proof that they ever desired to fight for the Union, or actually seceded.
The uprising of the people of Jones County seems more a measure of defiance and self-preservation. The county residents opposed secession all along; they sent a delegate to make the case though he soon enough voted for secession against the wishes of his constituents. Then as the catastrophe of war engulfed one and all these people at least tried to do something to survive and be recognized. The Confederate cavalry commander who was tasked with gaining control of Jones County; a man who hanged many of the people of his own state for desertion, later became governor. Later, as the Redeemers came to power the heroism of people who stood up for beliefs not in accord with Redemption were brought low by conformism and political cynicism.
The organization of the book was neither chronological nor categorical; I found this difficult reading for that reason.
Her own family history is also at stake, which makes her impartiality more noteworthy. Bynum told a story of her people, but she didn’t argue a conclusion. That may be a good thing however, because this allows readers to more readily consider their preconceived views about the Civil War without requiring them to admit error.