One of the weirdest adjustments I had to make when I moved down south last year was getting used to seeing Confederate flags. As the Boston-bred child of a man who considers anything below Pennsylvania to be the Deep South, I was totally unprepared to see these flags flying over houses and car dealerships. Nor was I aware that people who call the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression are not necessarily ironic hipsters. Even though I rarely brought my feelings on this (there’s something to be said about keeping your mouth shut, I recommend everyone tries it) some people still felt the need to lecture me on the glorious traditions of our Confederate South. When they realized I was came from the strange land above the Mason Dixon, they’d swarm around me like gnats to tell me that war wasn’t about slavery no ma’am, it was about state’s rights.
These people (and to be clear, they were nothing but a loud minority) were so proud of their damn traitor flags. Which is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading The Free State of Jones, about a Mississippi man and his community who fought the confederacy from the inside. Newton Knight was conscripted into the Confederate Army and thought it was pretty bullshit. He, like a lot of the soldiers, was too poor to own slaves himself, so why the hell did he have to be outside in miserable conditions, watching his fellow soldiers die from gunshots and infections and the cold, just so some rich guy who’d never see the battlefield could go on owning people? Not to mention, while these men were fighting, Confederate agents combed through the countryside and took whatever they could from those soldiers’ wives and children.
Newton Knight decided to desert from the army and go back home to Jones County, along with some others. When the Confederacy sent soldiers to bring them back and face punishment, Knight decided to fuck their shit UP. He and his men raided Confederate food storages to bring back enough to feed their families and neighbors. They hid out in the swamps alongside runaway slaves and got into firefights with the men tasked with bringing them in. They officially seceded from the Confederacy and declared themselves to be the Free State of Jones, and raised the American flag. And if that wasn’t enough, Knight was in a long-term relationship with a former slave and they basically had enough kids together to form an interracial town as the KKK was gaining power. Suck it, racists!
This was a piece of American history that I’d never heard about. Authors Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer do a decent job trying to separate fact from legend, although I’m sure we’ll never know the entire story. In a lot of ways this story is a bummer, but it’s not really their fault that history is a buzzkill some times. After devoting most of the book to Knight’s desertion and the town’s secession, we’re reminded that his family was still in Mississippi during the failed Reconstruction and the start of Jim Crowe. Even in Jones County, Knight essentially became a pariah for being with a black women and acknowledging their children. As the KKK roamed the state, Knight took up watch at his home, keeping his eyes open and rifle at the ready in case someone decided to make an example of his children. Generations later, Knights were still being punished for the sins of the father, including one white-passing great grandson who was arrested for miscegenation.
This book isn’t perfect. Although the authors draw on interview Knight gave at the end of his life, there’s a lot he didn’t want to talk about. And there’s not many primary sources from poor whites and former slaves because most weren’t literate. The Free State of Jones didn’t engage in record keeping, so we don’t really know how deep their commitment to the Union was. There’s a lot of holes, and I sometimes suspected Jenkins and Stauffer were sacrificing a complicated history in favor of a smoother, more Hollywood-friendly story (the story of Newton Knight is set to be a movie, but I don’t know if these authors are involved).
Historical concerns aside, I enjoyed this book. Although it dragged occasionally it’s still a story worth telling. When we talk about this war today, we like to look at it as binary. There were the Unionists and the Confederates. If you were southern, you supported secession. State of Jones is a reminder that history is always more nuanced than two sides.