The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War

The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War

by Victoria E. Bynum

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The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War by Victoria E. Bynum

Between late 1863 and mid-1864, an armed band of Confederate deserters battled Confederate cavalry in the Piney Woods region of Jones County, Mississippi. Calling themselves the Knight Company after their captain, Newton Knight, they set up headquarters in the swamps of the Leaf River, where they declared their loyalty to the U.S. government.

The story of the Jones County rebellion is well known among Mississippians, and debate over whether the county actually seceded from the state during the war has smoldered for more than a century. Adding further controversy to the legend is the story of Newt Knight's interracial romance with his wartime accomplice, Rachel, a slave. From their relationship there developed a mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended, and the ambiguous racial identity of their descendants confounded the rules of segregated Mississippi well into the twentieth century.

Victoria Bynum traces the origins and legacy of the Jones County uprising from the American Revolution to the modern civil rights movement. In bridging the gap between the legendary and the real Free State of Jones, she shows how the legend--what was told, what was embellished, and what was left out--reveals a great deal about the South's transition from slavery to segregation; the racial, gender, and class politics of the period; and the contingent nature of history and memory.

In a new afterword, Bynum updates readers on recent scholarship, current issues of race and Southern heritage, and the coming movie that make this Civil War story essential reading.

The Free State of Jones film, starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Keri Russell, will be released in May 2016.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781469627052
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 03/21/2016
Edition description: Movie Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 541,585
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Victoria E. Bynum is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Texas State University.

Read an Excerpt

Jones County's Carolina Connection
Class and Race in Revolutionary America

We can't boast of our ancestors because, when we get started talking about our families, out jumps the ghost of a pirate or a cousin of color. —Sam Dabney, from James Street's Tap Roots, 1943

[The Knights were of] the old aristocracy, bringing in slaves and finery from an older civilization. —Ethel Knight, Echo of the Black Horn, 1951

Although South Carolina was the birthplace of most Jones County settlers, most of the parents of these settlers, especially those born before 1820, came from North Carolina. Swept by the forces of evangelical revivalism, the Regulator Movement, and the American Revolution, they participated in various "uncivil" wars, creating antiauthoritarian traditions among their descendants that later would support desertion of the Confederacy as well as secession from the Union. Thus the divisions that ripped apart families and neighborhoods in Civil War Jones County would be nothing new for the Welborns, Knights, Collinses, Sumralls, Bynums, Valentines, and Welches, who shared with one another a rich heritage of dissent and conflict.[1]

While it would be a mistake to attribute Southern dissenters' political views and behavior to their ancestors' experiences, that heritage did influence descendants' future economic, geographic, and marital choices, which in turn influenced their Civil War behavior. So important, in fact, is the historical background of participants in the Free State of Jones that it, too, became contested terrain between novelist James Street and local historian Ethel Knight.

Street's allusions to pirates and cousins of color in Tap Roots were part of his effort to link the origins of anti-Confederate sentiment in Piney Woods Mississippi to the ancestry of its participants. Interwoven within his tale of action and romance were the Revolution, the War of 1812, the settling of the frontier, and the historical evolution of relations of class and race from the perspective of his fictional characters. As an author of history as well as fiction, Street wanted readers to understand that the past weighed mightily on the Civil War generation.

To understand Street's effort to connect the Free State of Jones to the Revolutionary era, however, one must read his earlier novel, Oh, Promised Land, published in 1940. The popularity of Tap Roots, reflected in Universal Studio's release in 1948 of a movie by the same name, overshadowed his earlier novel in which he discussed not only race relations but also the class origins and political backgrounds of Piney Woods settlers. Using the Dabneys as a fictional composite of Jones County's early Anglo settlers, Street placed them in frontier Georgia as former Tories, Indian fighters, and plain folk who eventually came to hate the institution of slavery.[2]

If Street had gone back one more generation, he likely would have added Revolutionary era Regulators and radical Baptist exhorters from North and South Carolina to his cast of characters. Between 1750 and 1815 in the Carolinas, plain folk participated in religious schisms, civil disorders, and battles with Indians over possession of lands. Political and economic conflict rocked both colonies, driving people from one frontier to another until finally they headed to the Southwest. Baptist Separates, Regulators, Tories, and especially, land-hungry farmers fled from North Carolina into Tennessee and Georgia, but particularly over the border into South Carolina's districts of Camden, Orangeburgh, and Ninety Six. In 1766 tensions over taxes and lands culminated in North Carolina when farmers organized the Regulator Movement to overturn corrupt local governments dominated by elite planters, merchants, and lawyers. Regulators struggled to maintain their status as independent producers who enjoyed a "competency" based on both self-sufficiency and commercial exchange.[3]

Among these families were many ancestors of Jones County settlers who later shared a historical predisposition to view the Civil War as a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Still, traditions of civil disaffection among the Southern yeomanry did not in and of themselves cause later generations to oppose the Confederacy. Indeed, in Jones County as elsewhere, many white Southerners believed that rebellion against the Union was the ultimate act of principled civil disobedience against greedy tyrants. The local context in which a family encountered Confederate authority greatly influenced whether that family would be anti- or pro-Confederate, and branches of the same families frequently adopted opposite stances.[4]

Ethel Knight, raised to revere the American Revolution and slavery, as well as the supremacy of the white race, could not abide such a history for her ancestors. She assured her readers that although many early white migrants to Jones County were "without lands or money," or "simply adventurers and vagabonds," the founding families, including the Knights, were part of "the old aristocracy, bringing in slaves and finery from an older civilization." Historical records, however, do not bear out such aristocratic claims. As Street recognized, the ancestors of Jones County families were mostly plain folk who migrated to Mississippi Territory in search of elusive prosperity.[5]

In 1951, however, Street's images of racially mixed ancestors disturbed Ethel Knight more than his class-conscious characters and drove her to write Echo of the Black Horn. Street's creation of the Tap Roots character Kyd Fermat Dabney, a Cajun orphan adopted by Hoab and Shellie Dabney who secretly possessed "Moorish blood," seemed particularly to disturb Ethel. Although Kyd was not by birth a Dabney, Street's PUBCOMMENTS of her as an orphan suggested that she might be modeled after Mason Rainey Knight, Newt Knight's mother and Ethel's direct ancestor.[6]

The mysterious tales about Mason Knight, who was reputed to have been the "ward" of Jackie Knight before she married his son Albert, were tailor-made for Street's novel of adventure and scandal, and he may indeed have built on legends about her to create Kyd. In 1935 Tom Knight described his grandmother as an orphan whose surname was actually Griffin, not Rainey. He further explained that she was raised by Jackie and Keziah Knight alongside their own children. Around the same time, Martha Wheeler, a former Knight family slave, told Works Projects Administration (WPA) writer Addie West that "she had always been told" that Mason Rainey had "attached herself" to the Knights in Asheville, North Carolina, after her own people died of the flux. Strikingly similar to Wheeler's story was Street's PUBCOMMENTS of how a yellow-fever epidemic killed the parents of Kyd Fermat, causing her to turn to the Dabneys for sustenance.[7]

Kyd Dabney's resemblance to Mason Rainey disturbed some Knights because of her mixed-blood ancestry. "Those black eyes of Kyd's," mused Kyd's adoptive father, Sam Dabney, "ay they glow like bits of polished ebony in a tiny spoon of milk. And those full lips. And her happy nature. She's too unrestrained to be all white." Ethel Knight thus widened the distance between Street's fictional Kyd and her great-great-grandmother by expanding on Tom Knight's and Martha Wheeler's tales. She insisted that Mason Rainey's true name was Rebecca Griffith and that she and her brother were orphaned by their wealthy parents' death from the "bloody flux" during their move west. Shortly thereafter, she claimed, a group of Masons rescued the orphaned children and found a new home for the girl among the Knights. Ethel claimed that the Masons showed up on the Knights' doorstep on a rainy night—hence, the Knights renamed her Mason Rainey.[8]

To further counter any suggestion that Mason, like Kyd Dabney, might have had "black blood," Ethel described her as a "strange and beautiful" "Spanish-type lady." Since it was important to Ethel in 1951 that Mason's body contain not a drop of African blood, she explained her apparent lack of ivory skin and aquiline features by endowing her with an exotic (but European) ancestry. Because of Tap Roots and Davis Knight's trial, the racial identity of all Jones County Knights was openly in question at that time, and Ethel placed the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of James Street and Newt Knight.[9]

Although Ethel Knight's racial attitudes conformed to those exhibited by many white Southerners of her generation, these sentiments had evolved over a period of three centuries. By the 1840s, claims of Indian, Iberian, or Mediterranean ancestry defended one's whiteness against race-based laws and social harassment. But before the nineteenth century—and especially before slavery became firmly entrenched in the Carolina and Georgia backcountries—racial identity was more fluid, even negotiable in some cases. Nothing better exemplified its uncertain meaning in the era of the American Revolution than the prominent role played by Gideon Gibson, a light-skinned slaveholder of partially African ancestry, in South Carolina's Regulator Movement. As enforcement of race laws hardened, mixed people, including many of Gideon Gibson's descendants, migrated west in search of whiteness as well as fresh lands.[10]

Table of Contents

Sacred Wars: Race and the Ongoing Battle over the Free State of Jones1
Part 1.The Origins of Mississippi's Piney Woods People
1Jones County's Carolina Connection: Class and Race in Revolutionary America11
2The Quest for Land: Yeoman Republicans on the Southwestern Frontier29
3Piney Woods Patriarchs: Class Relations and the Growth of Slavery47
4Antebellum Life on the Leaf River: Gender, Violence, and Religious Strife71
Part 2.Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Struggle for Power
5The Inner Civil War: Birth of the Free State of Jones93
6The Free State Turned Upside Down: Colonel Lowry's Confederate Raid on Jones County115
7Reconstruction and Redemption: The Politics of Race, Class, and Manhood in Jones County131
8Defiance and Domination: "White Negroes" in the Piney Woods New South149
Epilogue: The Free State of Jones Revisited: Davis Knight's Miscegenation Trial177
1Selected Descendants of the Knight Family192
2Selected Descendants of the Coleman Family194
3Selected Descendants of the Welborn Family195
4Selected Descendants of the Bynum Family197
5Selected Descendants of the Collins Family198
6Selected Descendants of the Sumrall Family201
7Selected Descendants of the Welch Family202
8Selected Descendants of the Valentine Family205
9The "White Negro" Community, 1880-1920206

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

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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The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
MCBrennan More than 1 year ago
Professor Bynum does the seemingly impossible: she researches and analyzes like a good historian and writes like a popular novelist. Of course, it helps that the story she is detailing is fascinating in itself. By adding the background of the deserters and including the role of women and slaves, Bynum takes her book beyond the realm of pulp fiction to a gripping reality tale of love, betrayal, loyalty and family.
austin_scholar More than 1 year ago
For me, the best history books are ones that show us how the great movements in history affect (and bring out the best in) everyday people who are just trying protect their families, live by their guiding principles, and get by in the world. Dr. Bynum's book does a great job of explaining what actually happened in Jones County, who these people really were, why they did what they did, and what the consequences were. The book also challenges the stereotypical view of Southerners, which is very welcome. Anyone intrigued by the Free State of Jones story will find this a refreshing, factual account of what really happened.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is informative, interesting and a good lesson in the American Experience, but it primarily discusses for the most part the early family tree history of the main character, Newt Knight, and the family's slow westward migration from the Carolinas. In my opinion, that has very little or nothing to do with 'The Free State of Jones,' the reasons behind its inhabitants' defiance of the Confedracy or Newt's personal decisions about interracial relations. One can only speculate that what saved him from the 'evil offense' of miscegenation was his white skin, as some of the black men descended from him must surely have later discovered.