revisiting a favorite book
A Q&A with Victoria Bynum
The saga of Jones County during the Civil War is one of the most intriguing and enduring sidebars of the era. Here, from the archives of the Civil War Forum, is the transcript of a Q&A with Dr. Bynum, professor of history at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, about her book, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). This conversation took place on-line, October 25, 2001.
Q. (David Woodbury): Welcome Dr. Bynum. Since this is probably a fairly obscure topic even among Civil War buffs, can you begin with an overview of Jones County, and what set it apart from the rest of Mississippi (e.g., the paucity of slaves there), and the events that gave rise to stories of the so-called "Free State," or Kingdom of Jones?
A. (Dr. Bynum): Jones County was founded in 1826, and it's part of one of the earlier-settled sections of Mississippi (because of Native Americans already being pushed out of that part of the state, but not out of the more fertile portions of Mississippi). Many of the earliest settlers were veterans of the War of 1812, especially. I won't go too much into it, but because it was the Piney Woods region, you didn't have a great many slaveholders there. Slavery was important—there were slaveholders—but not many big slaveholders. It had the lowest number of slaveholders of any county in the state, and almost 80 percent of those slaveholders owned fewer than four slaves.
So, just to leap forward to the Civil War itself, this was a region that was pretty ripe—by around 1862—for seeing the war as a "rich man's war" and "poor man's fight," because they were the poorest men in the state. I don't want to imply that they were landless, because they were small landowners, but in terms of slaveholders, they were the poorest in the state. [The county] voted almost 2-1 against secession.
Moving ahead to the 20th century about how all these stories got started—what made this story so legendary and why it has persisted so long is that the leader of this band of deserters crossed the color line. Now, it's not that crossing the color line was so unusual, it's the way that Newton Knight did it. He not only crossed the line, but two of his children intermarried with the children of the slave woman who was his chief collaborator (it was after the war that they intermarried—she was his collaborator during the war). And that resulted in a mixed-race community that's still very vibrant today—a very large mixed-race community that claims descent from Rachel the slave, and Newton, the leader of the deserter band.
. . . So you've had this ongoing battle—this is why I make the second part of the title, "Mississippi's Longest Civil War," because factions of this family have been debating the meaning of this uprising since the Civil War. And with the racial aspect, it has made the debate particularly volatile. Those who wanted to defend the Unionism of the Knight band generally just erased the story of the race-mixing, and those who were pro-Confederate . . . used the racial mixing as just further examples that these were deviant men who committed treason against the country, against the Confederacy, and against their race. That's why the story has lasted, [and] because there have been several books written, and a novel, and even a movie made from the novel.
Q. (David Woodbury): One of the fun things about reading your book is the spirit of investigation, or discovery, in unmasking the past. Can you recall any major breakthroughs during the course of your research, or any particular surprises you encountered upon digging deeper?
A. (Dr. Bynum): I believe some of the most delightful surprises were the ongoing discoveries I made about the Collins family—I believe that their story is one that was buried because of the notoriety of Newt Knight. The discovery that their ancestors were both Regulators back in the 1760s and Populists in the 1890s kind of gave me a whole view of Southern descent as represented by this family, in a way that just stood right out—and made them the core of the Unionist group there, rather than Newt Knight.
And I want to add that probably the biggest surprise was that the Collins' had brothers in Texas who were leaders of their own deserter band, so there were actually two deserter bands which existed simultaneously. It just showed the uncompromising nature of their Unionism, but not nearly all the deserters were as Unionist as the Collins. There was a core group of about five different families that I would call truly Unionist. Putting that together was very exciting, because I kept finding connections between the very distant past, and the Civil War era, and connections between the various families as well.
Q. (Margaret D. Blough): What was the reaction of the Confederate authorities? Was it as brutal as the suppression of the earlier East Tennessee Unionist uprising?
A. (Victoria Bynum): I'm not sure just how brutal that was, in terms of making an exact comparison, but the Confederacy did send two expeditions into Jones County to put down the uprisings there, and in the Official Records there is quite a bit of discussion of Jones County. The most important example is Colonel Lowry's raid on Jones County. In the space of a few days, they executed ten members of the Knight Company—the Knight Band. That was the worst experience that the Jones County group experienced. I imagine that it was probably worse in East Tennessee due to the geographic location. Jones County was still pretty remote, and there weren't as many raids.
Q. (Stevan F. Meserve): My question is about Unionist sentiment in Jones County. How many precincts of the county voted to remain in the Union? Here in Loudoun County, Virginia, for example, three of 16 precincts voted to remain in the Union. Overall, the county voted 2:1 to secede.
A. (Victoria Bynum): All I know—that I've been able to find—is that 166 people voted against secession, and I believe it was about 89 who voted for it . . . Let's see . . . Yes, 166 for the Cooperationist Candidate, and 89 for the Secessionist Candidate. In fact, neighboring Perry county (I don't have those numbers with me) was even more Unionist. So Jones County was not isolated in that respect. The Perry County delegate held out longer.
Q. (Margaret D. Blough): Did any of the Jones County Unionists articulate why they supported the Union? The pressure must have been intense in the Deep South for secession?
A. (Victoria Bynum): Yes, of course in their county they didn't feel that so directly—more so when the war began—but (after the war) they cited the 20 Negro Law [when] citing reasons for their desertion from the Confederacy. The only articulated Unionist statements are by the Collins family, who did not believe that the election of Abraham Lincoln was grounds for secession. And there's a quote of a certain Collins brother counseling men to try to get duty in the hospitals as nurses if they did join the service -- that they should not fight against the Union. And one more statement attributed to the Collins' is that while they didn't believe in slavery, they also did not believe that the federal government had the right to end it.
Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock): Early in the book, you describe rivers that were dammed to provide power for mills, but preventing fishing for those needing to do that. It seems such a conflict! I know the Jones County deserters were really against the 20 Negro Law, which was the objection to "government" in their era.
A. (Victoria Bynum): One of the things that I found, as you no doubt noticed, were that these were people who were very touchy about the government's role in their lives. And again to use the Collins' as an example, since they were always in the thick of it—as they moved across the frontier they continued petitioning the government to respect their rights as citizens and to provide them protection, not only against Indians, but against corrupt local officials. So this is a theme that runs throughout their history, and I think that's the point that you're making with your comment.
Q. (David Woodbury): It sounds like your research benefited nearly as much from elderly locals and descendants as it did from archival work. That is, they were able to show you things, like the grave sites of Newt and Rachel Knight. Could you have written this book 20 or 30 years from now, after many of these people are gone?
A. (Victoria Bynum): I agree that my personal contacts with descendants was really crucial to the book, and no I couldn't have written the same book. I could have written a book—a study—but in fact when I started writing this book I had no idea that I would achieve the kind of contact with local people that I did. It brought perspectives that I just don't think I could have pieced together from archival documents. In particular, I don't think I could have described the mixed race community if I hadn't spent a lot of time among the descendants of Rachel and Newton Knight. . . And I don't believe I could have written nearly the kind of study of their community without that personal contact. That was crucial.
Q. (Margaret D. Blough): To tie into what Terry asked, I've seen some opinions that many of the Unionists areas in North Carolina, etc., in the mountains had had no experience with the US government, except for the postal system and the first experience they had with an intrusive government was Confederate authorities enforcing the conscription and impressment laws? Is that what you saw?
A. (Victoria Bynum): I would say that in general that was true, once they settled in Jones county, that they had a lot of local autonomy. Some writers suggest there was no real government in Jones county before the war, but that just isn't true. But it is fair to say that they had very limited contact with state government at the top, or federal government. However, I would still point out that their frontier petitions do show quite an interest in the Federal government and its power. They have a long history of protest of corrupt local government, and I suspect that during the Civil War they developed a similar relationship with the Federal government, because they saw the Confederacy as another example of corrupt local government. That tradition goes all the way back to the Regulators.
Q. (David Woodbury): You include a photograph of the Leaf River in your book, "site of Deserter's Den—the Knight Company's Civil War hideout." Were you able to pinpoint the actual location, and what is there today (presumably private property)?
A. (Victoria Bynum): It is private property today. I took the photo myself and I was taken there by one of those local old-timers. Not very far from that river—the site of that river in the photograph—is the cemetery of Newton Knight's grandfather. That land is now in the hands of a private company, and we had to be escorted into the cemetery by someone who had a key... But all of those lands used to be owned by the core members of the deserter band.
Q. (Stevan F. Meserve): On the subject of "intrusive" government, how much intrusion did Jones County see during the war from officials on either side? The territory between Hattiesburg and Meridian was pretty much no man's land, wasn't it?
A. (Victoria Bynum): I think it was pretty much considered no-man's land between those areas. The Confederacy managed to have a Home Guard unit down in Jones County, headed by a local Confederate officer, and that was Amos McLemore, reputed to have been murdered by Newt Knight and his men. By April of 1864, when more and more reports were reaching Confederate officials elsewhere that Jones County was under the control of deserters, and they had murdered some of the tax agents, then they sent the two expeditions I mentioned earlier... Col. Maury, in March (1864), subdued the deserters a bit but they came back just as strong, so then they sent Col. Robert Lowry in April. Now that really did splinter the band. He executed ten of them, and that's when a number of them fled to New Orleans and joined the Union army. About 40—they weren't all members of the band—about 40 Jones County men joined the Union Army in New Orleans... And then about 15 men were captured and forced back into the Confederate army. That left about 20 more whom they never caught, including Newt Knight, still out in the swamps.
Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock): You describe the prominent role of women in the book. Using "polecat musk and red pepper" to throw off the scent of the men from the dogs was rather emphatic. How did that come to be known as the thing to use?
A. (Victoria Bynum): Well, according to Ethel Knight, who wrote the best known book (The Echo of the Black Horn), the white women learned it from Rachel, the slave. I don't know where she got her information from.
Q. (David Woodbury): When did you first hear of the legend about Jones County in the Civil War? And what first drew you to this as a subject of scholarly research?
A. (Victoria Bynum): I first learned about Jones County around 1976 when I was an undergraduate in college. I saw it in a footnote in the Randall and Donald—the old Civil War text [Randall, James G., and David H. Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction]. I did not hear about it from within my own family, even though my father was born in Jones County. What drew me to it as a subject of scholarship was writing my first book, Unruly Women. I have two chapters on the Civil War there, and one of those chapters centers on a county very similar to Jones County in many ways, and that's Montgomery County, North Carolina. . . .But I just became fascinated with the topic of Southern Unionism, and the way that entire families were involved in resisting the Confederacy. It was both the class element in it, and the participation of women and free blacks in North Carolina that made me then want to look at Jones County. So, it was only as I developed as a historian myself that I decided I would like to do a study of Jones County.
Q. (David Woodbury): Would you talk a little bit about the so-called "white Negro" community in Jones County after the war, the trial of Davis Knight in the 1940s, and why this is such an important part of the story of The Free State of Jones.
A. (Victoria Bynum): I think it's incredibly important because it reveals how 20th century race relations and segregation buried the story of the Free State of Jones beneath all these stereotypes about race-mixing, and then combined with the myth of the Lost Cause, which presented Unionists as treasonous. The story had just become so distorted. And so I began and ended the book with the trial to basically look at why race was such a volatile part of the story, and then to move from there to look at the story of a class-based uprising of white men that is an important story in its own right, and would not have been buried so deeply if it had not been for the obsession with Newton Knight's interracial relationship with Rachel. And so I was determined to tell both stories, and particularly to try to bring back the stories of all these other members of Knight's band who had just sort of been lost from the picture.