Saturday, June 27, 2009

The State of Jones

The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer.
Doubleday, 2009, 416 pages, $27.50.
For more information, click here.

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Since the guns of the American Civil War fell silent more than fourteen decades ago, there have been well over 50,000 books published that, in one way or another, focus on the four year, fratricidal struggle. To many, such a vast historiography lends credence to the argument that seemingly every aspect and every angle of the war has been ably and sufficiently covered. But this is simply not the case. Despite the books, the magazines, journals, documentaries, and so on, there still remain many aspects of the war that have remained in the shadows. Sally Jenkins, an award journalist for the Washington Post, and John Stauffer, professor of history at Harvard and author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, address one of these forgotten aspects of the American Civil War in The State of Jones. The story of Newton Knight and his band of followers--who, in 1863 displayed their loyalty to the United States by seceding from the Confederacy--appeared for the first time in 2003 with Victoria Bynum’s The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War, although, I am embarrassed to say, I have yet to read this work. When I thus read Jenkins and Stauffer’s work, the story of Knight and his supporters was, for the most part, new to me. It is an entirely fascinating story. Newton Knight was born into a slaveholding family but even from an early age, he displayed no inclination of ever becoming a member of slaveholding class nor the planter aristocracy, a goal for many white Southerners during the Antebellum years. Instead, Knight developed an antipathy toward the institution of slavery and, especially, the Slave Power. Adamantly opposed to both slavery and secession, Knight remained loyal to the United States after his native Mississippi seceded and civil war broke out. The following year, Knight was drafted into Confederate service and fought at several battles, including Corinth. Following this fight, Knight deserted. In the years that followed, he became a hero of sorts to many Mississippians who held no loyalty or connection with the Confederacy. Knight organized a company of like-minded individuals, who, in a display of loyalty to the United States, battled Confederate authorities all the while fighting for their own freedom. Jenkins and Stauffer do a good job in telling the dramatic and fascinating story of Newton Knight. Their research into this rather overlooked, rather obscure topic is impressive and their writing was effective. The story of Knight is, in itself, incredible enough and worthy of attention. But I believe the greatest value this book offers is its realistic portrait of the Confederacy during the Civil War. It was a land divided. Knight's story illustrates that not only were there thousands of Southerners who disapproved of secession as well as the instiutution of slavery, and who were perfectly willing to fight for the destruction of both, but also illustrates a different snapshot of the true Southern Confederacy; much different, but much more realistic than what we are force-fed with this Moonlight-and-Magnolias Lost Cause/Gone With The Wind nonsense. The State of Jones is a good book, well worth reading, which focuses on a laregely forgotten but important topic.

1 comment:

Jared Frederick said...

The story of Jones County is actually being made into a movie. The director of "Seabiscuit" is doing it.