These days in Mississippi, the Civil War-era story of the Jones County rebellion is but a vague myth. The young aren't taught it, and many old-timers still speak of it with mild disparagement. In The State of Jones, our latest summer reading pick, journalist Sally Jenkins and historian John Stauffer resurrect this fascinating story, which has been distorted, disclaimed and covered up by generations of proud and defeated Southerners. This popular treatment will thrill and surprise and possibly frustrate some modern readers with its depiction of a Mississippi that was anything but unified behind the Confederate cause.
The book really got us thinking about that certain type of Southerner, predominantly older, who isn't afraid to admit their tired, lingering sympathy to the Confederate cause, as if it were some idyll never achieved. But could there be a losing cause less worthy of a century's old devotion, even for today's most petulant racist? Do any old Germans still give a damn about the Nazis?
Reading The State of Jones brings home what the Civil War was all about, not states rights or any other blustery excuse brought up by Confederate apologists. It was slavery, plain and simple, which if not the only cause of the War was certainly the driving symbol for a host of grievances.
The hero of this saga is Newton Knight, a yeoman farmer from Jones County, Mississippi, who despised the incompetent Confederate leadership and, according to Jenkins and Stauffer, was deeply averse to slavery and secession. (This is the central point in a hotly contested and current debateamong amateur and professional Jones County historians.) He fought under the Confederacy before ultimately turning against them, leading a guerrilla war in the forests, villages and swamps of his home in the Piney Woods region of lower Mississippi. A true radical of the time, Knight's extended family included mixed-race children he proudly fathered with a former slave.
The authors take us through the horrors of battle at Corinth and Vicksburg, illustrating the excruciating conditions and incompetent leadership that led to the Confederacy's great retention problem. In droves, the poor, exhausted soldiers laid down their arms and walked away from the rich planters' war, only to return to their modest farms back home which had been raided and exploited by their own army. Knight was among those deserters, and with the help of kinsfolk and fellow Unionists, established the "Free State of Jones." At its height, the movement made southeast Mississippi hostile territory for Confederate bands and earned the regard of Union generals.
The scope of this anti-Confederate movement upsets popular notions about the war and will likely divide history buffs. But it's just this sort of ideological quarrel that provides as much drama as the brisk narrative with its memorable set pieces and host of colorful personalities, from incompetent generals and rogue militants to tough women and local everymen drawn into and made exceptional by the high drama of the time. The authors have broadened the story with rich context, and casual readers of history may find this broad-scale treatment in line with such favorites as Rising Tide and 1776.
Ultimately, of course, even Knight's fiery campaign against the Confederates withers in the face of Mississippi's Reconstruction-era horrors. It will be hard but necessary for many fair-hearted Southerners to revisit these atrocities, which we've tried to live down (or stubbornly ignore and sometimes refute) our whole lives. The reprehensible treatment of black Americans by the white establishment in Mississippi, along with the silent complicity of otherwise good folks, is a hard enough history to swallow without the occasional fool still waving his disgraced Confederate banner and braying that the South will rise again.
Whether readers find The State of Jones to be convincing new history or Yankee propaganda, the sentiments ring true, the story is thrilling, and the depiction of this dark and troubled time leaves the reader relieved to know that, though times here may be tough, there's every reason to be grateful that we weren't living in Mississippi during and immediately following the War.