I read THE FREE STATE OF JONES: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by Victoria Bynum after seeing the movie, “The Free State of Jones,” which I liked, in order to see how much of the movie is based on fact.
The movie dramatized the true story of Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer led a guerrilla revolt against the Confederacy during the Civil War, and was never captured or defeated.
He took his grandfather’s slave as a lover and became the patriarch of an interracial community which continued to exist down tinto the middle of the 20th century.
Victoria Bynum’s book begins with the origins of the families who fought in the Knight Company. In colonial times, they lived in the backwoods of the Carolinas, and opposed rich plantation owners in the political struggles of those times.
Racial lines were not drawn so strictly in those days as later, and some sons of poor white indentured servants felt they had more in common with black slaves than with slave owners..
During the American Revolution, many wealthy planters such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were rebels, and many poor backwoodsmen were Tories.
After the Revolution, many backwoodsmen migrated into the lawless frontier region that later became the states of Alabama and Mississippi. They endured great danger, hardship and isolation, particularly the women, but rejoiced in being their own masters.
Slaveowners adopted, taught and enforced a rigid ideology of racism. to a degree previously unknown, Bynum wrote.
Anybody with “one drop” of Negro “blood” was considered black. White men had a duty to preserve the chastity of white women, lest white “blood” be contaminated. This was supported by a religious practice that condemned dancing, alcohol and sensuality.
No doubt the slaveowners sincerely believed in these things, but they served a function of keeping the black slaves isolated and preventing them from joining forces with whites.
But, according to Bynum, not all white people followed the accepted code. Some enjoyed feasting, dancing and drinking, sometimes among black companions. Some preferred charismatic, revival meetings, sometimes led by women, to the stricter and more authoritarian religion. There were those who became lovers across the color line.
Jones County, the home of Newton Knight, was part of the Piney Woods region of Mississippi. It was poor land, suited for the raising of livestock but not for large-scale plantation agriculture.
When the Civil War broke out, Jones County voted to remain loyal to the Union, but its delegate to the Mississippi state convention voted for secession.
Newton Knight, who owned no slaves, enlisted in the Confederate army, but became disillusioned.
The South had a rule that any slave-owning family could keep one adult male at home for every 20 slaves they owned, in order to prevent any possibility of a slave uprising. Hardly anybody in Jones County owned that many slaves, and many, including Newton Knight, owned no slaves at all.
To him and many others, that made the Civil war “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
The Confederate government had a policy of confiscating food and horses in order to feed the army, sometimes leaving families without draft animals to farm or food to get through the winter.
Newton Knight and many other Jones County men refused to serve at the front when their wives at home were being robbed, as they saw it, by their own government.
But when they came home, it was the women who had to protect and hide the men. Black people also helped them.
Knight’s accomplishment was to take the deserters who were hiding from the army and organize them into a fighting force capable of defending themselves and their homes.
They were fighting for the Union, not to make Jones County a sovereign state, as the title of the book and movie might imply.
When the South surrendered, Knight supported the Reconstruction government. He got little support from the U.S. government either when he was fighting in the field or afterwards.
Bynum thinks he was a victim of Northern prejudice. White Northerners, especially New England Yankees, see white Southerners, especially backwoodsmen, as ignorant, lazy and violent—not very different from the way whites see blacks.
Newton Knight was married to Serena Turner, and they had eight children who grew into adulthood. He also had five children who grew to adulthood by Rachel Knight, his grandfather’s former slave, and she had four children who grew to adulthood by other white men.
Some of her children had four, six, seven, nine and fifteen children respectively, and some of them, not fathered by Knight, married other Knight relatives. They became the nucleus of a community known as “white Negroes” who lived apart from their neighbors.
Bynum did not obtain much information about Rachel Knight. She said she had a reputation as a “conjure woman,” and that she made an agreement to supply food and information to Knight’s band.
After the collapse of Reconstruction and the reign of the Ku Klux Klan, the Knight followers and extended family formed their own community which lived apart from the rest of Jones County and Mississippi.
Segregation became law in the 1890s—not before. It seems to me that you don’t pass laws forcing people to keep apart unless you have some fear that they will get together.
The book closes with the account of Davis Knight, the great-grandson of Newton and Rachel Knight, who was accused in 1948 of breaking Mississippi’s miscegenation law by marrying a white woman.
Bynum said the appeals court decided to classify him as white, on the grounds that Rachel Knight was partly white, rather than risk a constitutional challenge to the Mississippi law.
The movie depicts Newton Knight as a supporter of racial equality. Victoria Bynum pointed out that, while he might well have been, he never stated his views. He may have simply considered himself and his progeny as white.
The only thing we know for sure is that he was a strong man who went his own way and looked after his own, regardless of what others thought.
Renegade South: histories of unconventional southerners, the web log of Victoria Bynum.