Update: Click here for Victoria Bynum’s third and final installment of her review of The State of Jones
A few days ago I posted a link to Victoria Bynum’s two-part review of the new book, The State of Jones, by John Stauffer and Sally Jenkins. I did so because of her published work on the subject and a belief that there is no one more qualified to evaluate a new study that professes to add to or alter our interpretation of the relevant issues involved. I stand by that decision. That said, historical debate is never static, but is a continual process or dialectic and it is in that spirit that I share this response by Stauffer and Jenkins.
In response to your recent post about The State of Jones:
Debate is one thing; we welcome that-indeed we would be happy to debate Victoria Bynum (or a disinterested scholar) on your blog or any other venue. It’s quite another thing for Bynum to try to discredit our book, The State of Jones, as part of her effort to trumpet her own book and remain the only source on the subject. We hope to have an equal forum to defend our work and respond to the criticism of it. We wrote the book The State of Jones because the historical record about the Unionist guerilla Newton Knight and Jones County, Mississippi was incomplete, and inaccurate. We spent four years sifting through the evidence and writing with painstaking care for historical context and accuracy, and it was a labor of love and devotion. Our book was commissioned by the legendary publisher Phyllis Grann of Doubleday Books, and it is firmly documented in every respect. You state, citing Victoria Bynum, “there is no evidence” that Jones County seceded from the Confederacy. We will quote directly from the wealth of primary source evidence below.
First, a factual correction: the cover of Bynum’s book on Jones County contains an error: she misidentifies an image purportedly of the ex-slave Rachel Knight. Examination reveals it is not of the right era, and is off by two generations. Members of the Knight family believe the picture to be of Rachel’s granddaughter. We published an image they believe to be of the “real” Rachel. Though Bynum now concedes the misidentification, she has yet to credit us for publishing the more credible image. Previous work about Knight falls short of full understanding, because critical sources were either missed, or ignored. The last historical examination of Knight, Bynum’s, was written in 2001. It is now 2009 and time for a new appraisal. New documents have turned up that illuminate who Knight really was — thanks in part to superb research by Jones County historian Jim Kelly, currently at work on his doctoral dissertation.
The evidence from primary sources is overwhelming: Knight was an antislavery, pro-Union dirt farmer who opposed the Confederacy morally, politically, and militarily. The Confederate officer who arrested Knight for desertion testified under oath that he was a Union man “from conviction.” We have the transcript. Not one but two of Knight’s children wrote memoirs in which they attested to his beliefs. Knight was a Primitive Baptist, a distinctly pre-War branch that flourished in Mississippi from the 1820s on, as Randy Sparks and other scholars have documented, and a central tenet of which was the equality of souls.
Our identification of Newton as a Primitive Baptist stems from multiple sources, including the fact that it was the dominant religion in the area and that both his father and grandfather were Primitive Baptists. Bynum tries to discount our interpretation by referring to the biography of his son Tom Knight, who said that Newton joined the Primitive Baptist Church around 1885. Tom Knight got the religion right but the date wrong, for conversion to Primitive Baptism was rare during the post-war period. The most accurate way to understand Newton Knight’s religious worldview is through the prism of Primitive Baptism.
Knight deserted the Rebel Army after Corinth, was forcibly re-impressed and deserted again either just before or after Vicksburg – the evidence suggests after, as he was under arrest prior to it. He launched an insurrection against the Confederacy so effective that by the end of the war Rebels had completely lost control of Jones and surrounding counties. If the people of Jones did not officially “secede” from the Confederacy, they most certainly declared their independence from it. The reports in the Official Records and other documents are perfectly clear on this point, and to suggest the evidence doesn’t exist is absurd. Jones Countians raised the Federal flag over the county courthouse in mid-War, and from March 1864 on they flatly refused to pay Rebel taxes, and shot any officer who tried to collect them. Beg pardon, but if flying the stars and stripes and resisting taxation with a gun barrel isn’t evidence of withdrawal from the Confederacy, what is? It does not require any special expertise to read the documents. To quote from just some of them:
On March 21, 1863, Gen. Leonidas Polk reported to President Jefferson Davis on the widespread revolt in Jones and neighboring areas encountered by Rebel Colonel Henry Maury: “He found them, as reported, in open rebellion, defiant at the outset, proclaiming themselves ‘Southern Yankees.’”
On March 29, 1864, a CSA Captain named W. Wirt Thomson wrote to James A. Seddon, the CSA Secretary of War, with an eyewitness account of the circumstances in The Piney Woods and Jones in particular:
“The whole southern and southeastern section of Mississippi is in a most deplorable condition, and unless succor is sent speedily the country is utterly ruined, and every loyal citizen will be driven from it or meet a tragic and untimely fate at the hands of those who are aiding and abetting our enemies [our emphasis]. It is a matter of great personal danger and risk for an officer or soldier of the Confederate army to make his appearance in the country Government depots filled with supplies have been either robbed or burned. Gin-houses, dwelling-houses, and barns, and the court-house of Greene County, have been destroyed by fire. Bridges have been burned and ferry-boats sunk on almost every stream and at almost every ferry to obstruct the passage of troops; their pickets and vendettas lie concealed in swamps and thickets on the roadside. They have colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants; boast themselves to be not less than a thousand strong in organized bodies, besides what others are outsiders and disloyal citizens (of whom I regret to say there are many). They have frequent and uninterrupted communication with the enemy and I was told that they boast of fighting for the Union “Gentlemen of undoubted veracity informed me that the Federal flag had been raised by them over the court-house in Jones County, and in the same county they are said to have fortified rendezvous, and that Yankees are frequently among them. The country is entirely at their mercy” [our emphasis].
On March 21, 1864, Jones County Clerk E.M. Devall wrote to Mississippi Governor Charles Clark declaring the loss of Confederate authority in the county and stating that the resistors had organized a public meeting in which they “resolved not to pay any tax neither state, county, nor confederate.”
On March 31, 1864, James Hamilton, CSA Major and Controlling Quartermaster for Mississippi, reported that his agents in Jones and adjoining Covington County had been driven from the region and he could no longer collect taxes or conduct any other official business there on behalf of the Rebel state. “You will perceive that under these circumstances we cannot discharge our duty,” he wrote.
In November of 1864, a Union major named Eli Lilly of the Ninth Indiana cavalry was captured and imprisoned at Enterprise, Mississippi. During his imprisonment he heard rumors that Jones County had declared its independence. “After investigation we found that there existed in Jones County, about thirty miles Southwest of us, an organization called “The Republic of Jones” which held supreme control over Jones County and the surrounding country,” Lilly recalled years later.
Finally, the Confederate commander in Mobile, Dabney Maury, also recalled the specifics of the Jones insurrection in his memoir. “It was reported to me that the people of that county had declared their independence of the Southern Confederacy” [our emphasis]. Newton Knight was interviewed by journalist Meigs Frost in 1921 and asked if Jones had actually seceded. His reply was perfectly truthful, and showed the depth of his Constitutional beliefs. Jones didn’t have to formally secede from the Rebel state, he averred, because it had never been disloyal to the federal government in the first place. “Fact is, Jones County never seceded from the Union into the Confederacy,” he insisted [our emphasis]. Jones County had voted against secession, Knight pointed out.
This is just a bare sampling of what can be found in the Official Records and various Mississippi archives. To ignore these documents – out of sheer defensiveness — is to willfully distort the record. It is simply not good scholarship, or history.
If there is a real problem with scholarship on Newton Knight and Jones County, it lies in the fact that previous scholars failed to recognize the extent of Knight’s courageous dissent during the war and especially after it during Radical Reconstruction. Knight’s war against the Confederacy did not cease with the surrender. In the immediate aftermath in 1865 he rescued a black child held by recalcitrant slaveowners at the behest of occupying Union officers. Local blacks specifically told the occupying federal troops that Newton Knight was the man who would help them, indicating the extent to which they viewed him as their protector.
The extent of Knight’s relationship with Adelbert Ames, the Union Medal of Honor winner and Governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction, has been particularly overlooked. Knight was one of the few white Mississippians who stood loyal to Ames as a postwar campaign of terror eventually returned control of the state to ex-Confederates, and drove Ames out of office. During the Redemption bloodbath campaigns, when blacks were slaughtered merely for trying to vote, Ames deputized Knight as a captain of a black militia, a stunning commission for him to accept, and for which he risked his life, given that Ames could hardly find a loyal white man in the state to lead a militia. Furthermore, a fragment of a letter from the black Lt. Governor A.K. Davis to Knight survives, asking him to raise a unit. Both of these documents apparently escaped notice of previous writers.
Ames also championed Knight’s attempt to win a Union pension. Correspondence and a roster of Knight’s men can be found in Ames’s personal papers at Smith College – yet another cache of evidence missed.
Nor have scholars previously known that Newton Knight deeded 160 acres of land to the former slave named Rachel Knight, with whom he lived and fathered children. He also deeded land to Rachel’s son Jeffrey. We have copies and can provide them for your viewing.
Bynum accuses us of “exaggerating claims” of Newton’s principled stance against slavery and white supremacy. We acknowledge that the vast majority of Southern Unionists did not embrace racial equality. But we also provide extensive evidence showing that Newton stood apart from almost every other white Southerner of his day in his actions, which reflected his principles. For instance, he became more loyal to the United States after Lincoln declared, on January 1, 1863, that all slaves of rebel masters were “forever free,” thus making the war an explicitly abolition war. He became even more loyal to the federal government after it ratified the Reconstruction amendments of the Constitution, which outlawed slavery, guaranteed citizenship and equality under the law for all persons, and granted suffrage to black men. In his actions, he resembled a Radical Republican far more than a Southern Democrat. How many white Southerners do you know who, in 1868, named a son after Ulysses S. Grant? Newton’s closest friend and comrade, Jasper Collins, did-another fact that has not been properly emphasized previously.
Knight’s collaboration with the Republican abolitionist Governor Ames especially reflects his belief in black freedom and equality under the law. So does his service as captain of a black militia: virtually every known Union white man who commanded a black militia or regiment was fervently antislavery.
We offer extensive evidence showing that Newton treated the ex-slave Rachel as an equal and common-law wife, raising their children as his own without embarrassment, and effectively living in a black community. Newton’s willingness to honor, respect, and love Rachel prompted his white wife Serena to leave him, according to the testimony of ex-slave Martha Wheeler. And deeding Rachel 160 acres at the end of Reconstruction gave substance to the idea of “freedom”: it gave blacks a means to become self-sufficient and independent of white oppression, and was a policy that radical Republicans and blacks had long been advocating.
There is also evidence from more than one source, including the ex-slave Martha Wheeler, that Newton helped build an integrated schoolhouse, a symbol of racial equality, which then was burned down. Bynum herself acknowledges that Newton became known as a “white negro.” Anyone who takes the time to walk to Newton’s gravestone will realize that he was buried with his black family, effectively in a black cemetery, at a time when cemeteries were segregated. And they would read Newton’s epitaph: “He lived for others.”
Taken together, this evidence is powerful testimony of Newton’s belief in universal freedom and equality under the law for all persons. After all, how many white abolitionists chose to live in a black community? We know of three: Albert Morgan, an Oberlin graduate and Union officer who moved to Yazoo, Mississippi after the war and lived with blacks; John Brown, who lived in a black community at Timbucto in the Adirondacks; and to a much lesser degree Gerrit Smith, who helped transform his village of Peterboro, New York, into a model interracial community. None of the canonical white abolitionists-Garrison, Phillips, Sumner-lived among blacks. The only other abolitionist who fell in love with a former slave and treated her as a social equal was Albert Morgan. While abolitionists in theory believed in universal freedom and equality under the law, few of them realized these ideals. Newton Knight was one. He did not espouse abolitionist sentiments, because he lived in the South-a region that from the 1830s to the 1960s revoked the constitutional rights of freedom of speech, debate, petition, assembly, and due process as they related to race relations. He was a man of action, which reflected his ideals-a man of deeds rather than words.
Bynum accuses us of using “parallel stories” to “take fanciful journeys into what ‘might’ have happened, or what Newton ‘likely’ would have thought or done.” Parallel stories, she suggests, result in “pure conjecture” rather than “documented history.” It’s true that we employ parallel stories — because to ignore parallel stories, as Bynum does, is to distort or omit context. In constructing parallel stories to enrich our context, we follow such preeminent scholars, whose work and methods have influenced us, as: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, John Demos, Jill Lepore, Annette Gordon-Reed, Stephen Greenblatt, and other eminent biographers of people who left slim records of their lives.
We do not “claim” that Newton Knight served at Vicksburg; we offer an assessment based on the available sources and acknowledge that any interpretation is necessarily speculative, given the paucity of evidence. And we also make clear that whether or not Newton was at Vicksburg is ultimately irrelevant to our larger argument about his Unionism. And yet you and Bynum assert that our interpretation is a major problem, without explaining why.
Conceptually, there is a basic divide between Bynum and us: We view scholarship as a shared and diverse community of multiple perspectives and interpretations, which together adds to our understanding of the past. Bynum sees scholarship as a form of turf warfare, with only one valid interpretation of the past, which effectively renders history useless. Hopefully, this summary will disabuse you and your readers of the notion that our work lacks firm documentary basis. Or that there can only be one authority on the subject. We hope we have corrected at least some of the record.
John Stauffer, Chair of the History of American Civilization, Harvard University, and Sally Jenkins, The Washington Post