Thoughts about the Free State of Jones

In the “Free State of Jones” movie, Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer who rebelled against the Confederacy, takes refuge in an inaccessible swamp and is helped by fugitive slaves.

Victoria Bynum

Victoria Bynum

Such things happened in real life.   Many fugitive slaves fled, not to the North, which many of them couldn’t reach, but to places such as the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia where their pursuers couldn’t follow.

The Seminole Indians were never defeated because they retreated deep into the Everglades where the U.S. military couldn’t follow, where they were joined by fleeing slaves.

And, yes, some of them did shelter white fugitives (fugitives for good and bad reasons).


Jones County wasn’t unique as an example of white Southern unionism.  Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones, on which the movie was based, has written another book (which I haven’t read), The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies about white uprisings against the Confederacy in North Carolina, Mississippi and Texas.

I did know about Winston County, Alabama, and there were others.  The whole state of West Virginia was created out of a pro-Union section of Virginia.

Movies such as Glory remind us of the contribution of black troops to Union victory.  Loyal white Southerners also were important to Union victory,  Many of the Union’s best generals, such as George Thomas, were Southerners.


The version of history I was taught as a boy was that slavery was an inefficient system that would died out on its own.  Maybe so and maybe not.

The Southern planters were pioneers in what later was called Taylorism—the measuring and monitoring of worker output in order to maximize efficiency.

Cotton, for example, was planted in rows longer than football fields, which each slave working their own row.  Overseers could tell just be looking which slaves were able to keep up and which not.

And they didn’t need to bother with economic incentives.  They had the whip.


Some abolitionists thought that the end of slavery would be economically beneficial to the South, because free workers, responding to incentives, would be more efficient than slaves, working under the lash.

This didn’t happen.  Emancipation, in both the British West Indies and the American South, led to the collapse of the plantation economy.

It turned out that the former slaves didn’t want to work for white bosses.  What they wanted was “forty acres and a mule,” so they could live on their own land, grow their own food, trade with each other and participate in the money economy as little as possible.

The British solution was to import laborers from India and other Asian countries.  The white Southern solution was “compulsory free labor”.   Vagrancy laws and other laws compelled the former slaves to work for money and not just for themselves.


The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones’ by Richard Grant for  Smithsonian magazine.

Deep in the Swamps, Archeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom by Richard Grant for Smithsonian magazine.

Did Slaves and Deserters Make Common Cause During the Civil War? by Victoria Bynum on her Renegade South web log.

A conversation with Victoria Bynum about The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies.

Book review of Victoria Bynum’s The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies.

An Interview With David Williams, author of Bitterly Divided: the South’s Inner Civil War.

Book review of David Williams’ Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War.

The Slave Power, Slave Credit, Slave Labor by Lambert Strether for naked capitalism.

Renegade South: histories of unconventional southerners, the web log of Victoria Bynum.

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One Response to “Thoughts about the Free State of Jones”

  1. Bill Harvey Says:

    Thanks much for these 2 articles, Phil. Very nicely done.

    The links you give on the work of David Williams show the extent and depth of white resistance to the Confederacy. As one key indicator, Williams tells us that “In 1864, Jefferson Davis publicly admitted that two-thirds of the army was absent.”

    Here I add that the myths of the “Solid South” and the “Lost Cause” have had a devastating effect for a century and a half on US politics, especially in the South. And many “progressives” have tended to write off poor and working class whites as potential change agents, with Southern whites as Exhibit I as to why they believe this has made sense to them. Perhaps Newton Knight was ideologically committed to racial equality, perhaps not so much. But there’s no doubt that he was capable of recognizing a “Rich Man’s War, A Poor Man’s Fight.” Did we require ideological coherence toward the Vietnamese people on the part of the thousands of GIs and veterans whose resistance helped propel the anti-war movement and bring the war to an end?

    Thanks, Bill Harvey


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