Thanks to Prof. Stauffer for taking the time to write up such a thorough response to the recent criticisms of The State of Jones that can be found here and elsewhere. I would much rather move on from this controversy, but given the circumstances outlined at the beginning of his response I thought it was only fair to post it.
I rarely read blogs, and this summer I’ve had difficulty keeping up with the Internet: my wife gave birth to a boy, we’ve been without shower and kitchen owing to a house addition, and I’ve had to finish two 10,000 word essays on deadline. Sally Jenkins and I welcome debate, as we emphasized, and the fact that I was unaware of your tacit expectation that I should read and post responses on your blog should not be interpreted as a refusal to engage in public and scholarly conversation.
You may be right in suggesting that “the blogosphere is now shaping” academic debates and historiography. After all, the past forty years have witnessed an extraordinary democratization in academia, with scholars of the highest order having richly diverse institutional affiliations, from high schools, newspapers, and magazines to museums, educational institutes, the film industry, and colleges and universities of all ranks. The Internet, which has revolutionized access to archives and other repositories of knowledge, has accelerated the democratization. My hunch is that blogs will contribute to this process. In any event, let me try to address the major criticisms of “The State of Jones”
Jones County never seceded:
More than one critic has argued that our book’s subtitle, “The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy,” is wrong.
From Newton Knight’s perspective, neither he nor his fellow Unionists seceded from the Union, which means they were never part of the Confederacy. Knight insisted that since Jones County had voted against secession, it “never seceded from the Union into the Confederacy.”
But from the perspective of the Confederacy, Knight and his fellow Unionists did secede. Confederate officers wrote that Jones County was in “rebellion” against the Confederacy, and they referred to Knight and his men as “traitors.” These were the same terms Republicans used to describe Confederates.
It’s true that we legitimate the Confederacy in our subtitle and elsewhere in our book. But so do most scholars. Indeed, it’s rare to find a writer referring to Lee, Jackson, Davis, or other Confederates as traitors, even though Republicans did. So did the Supreme Court in Texas v. White (1869); it ruled that secession was unconstitutional, and it has never reversed its decision.
If secession was illegitimate, then secessionists were traitors taking up arms against their country. President Lincoln said as much of Confederates. President Davis said the same thing about Southern Unionists. Confederate officers understood the nature of their words when they described Jones County as being in a state of “open rebellion” and having “hung out the banners on the outer wall.”
Newton Knight was not an antislavery Unionist:
We tried to be clear in our use of evidence that Newton Knight was an antislavery Unionist. Here are the basic facts supporting it:
The men of Jones County voted overwhelmingly against secession, and Newton Knight led an attack against the Confederacy so effective that by the end of the war Rebels had lost control of the region. Confederate officers called Knight “a Union man from conviction,” referred to his men as “Southern Yankees,” “Tories,” and “Loyalists,” and reported that Jones Countians raised a federal flag over the county courthouse. It’s important to note that by 1863 every soldier who voluntarily fought for the Union was, in his very actions, antislavery. After all, the United States had proclaimed all slaves of Rebel masters forever free. In 1864 the Republican platform called for a Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery everywhere, which Congress passed in February 1865. In other words, fighting to preserve the Union meant fighting to abolish slavery.
It’s also important to view Knight’s activities during and after the war on a continuum. After the war, Knight lived with the ex-slave Rachel, and eventually he deeded her 160 acres and lived in a mixed-race community. He actively fought for black civil rights and gave Rachel’s children “advantages,” according to the ex-slave Martha Wheeler. He also helped build an integrated schoolhouse, a symbol of racial equality. He served as a political ally of Adelbert Ames, the Union hero from Maine and radical Republican governor of Mississippi, who appointed him captain of a black militia and championed his application for a Union pension. In no way was it personally advantageous for Knight to be a public ally of Ames in 1875; in fact it invited assassination. By the end of his life Knight became known as a “white negro” and was buried with his black family in a black cemetery, at a time when cemeteries were segregated. His epitaph reads: “He lived for others.”
What I find fascinating is that various critics and biographers of Newton Knight each interpret him quite differently, but I haven’t seen anyone discuss the contradictions between them. And yet in this blogosphere they are treated as right, and Sally and I as wrong– mainly for suggesting that Knight was antislavery.
In 1985 the Mississippi historian Rudy Leverett characterized Knight as an unprincipled deserter, as well as a common thief and murderer. Leverett’s indictment of Knight is understandable when you realize that he was the great grandson of Amos McLemore, the Confederate officer who Knight and his comrades executed.
The Mississippian Michael Ballard recently condemned Knight on similar grounds, but for different reasons. He refuses to award the Jones Countians credit for having convictions. Ballard has enormous respect for Jefferson Davis; he refers to him as “noble in adversity.” Lionizing Jefferson Davis and treating Newton Knight as a flawed hero who acted on his democratic ideals (as we do) are irreconcilable perspectives; they stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Knight’s career exposed the moral baseness of Davis and the Rebel cause.
Victoria Bynum argues that Knight was a Unionist but not antislavery. In her rendering, Knight hated Confederates more than he did Republicans. But she never explains how you can fight for the Union from 1863-65 without also, tacitly or not, fighting to end slavery. Nor does she explain how Knight could be proslavery (or neutral) on the subject during the War, yet a pro-emancipation, pro-suffrage activist just after it. He sustained these convictions for the rest of his life, during a period in which racism rose dramatically.
All of these views share one thing in common: they have difficulty accepting the facts laid out in our book that show Newton Knight was an antislavery Unionist. Why?
Newt Knight Was No Friend of Blacks:
We argue that Knight stood apart from most of his peers in his ability to live in a black community and treat blacks as equals under the law. We don’t say that he was an abolitionist before the war, because we don’t know. We do know that his immediate family was not slaveowning; that in 1863 he acted on an antislavery impulse by fighting to preserve the Union (and thus end slavery); and at some point he began to forge an alliance with Rachel Knight that deepened into physical intimacy. Rachel’s descendants and former slaves in Jones County all agree that Newton belonged more to Rachel than to his white wife Serena. “Rachel was considered his woman,” the ex-slave Martha Wheeler said, and at some point Newton’s white wife Serena left him for good. According to oral histories taken in Jones County, Newton “ran his wife . . . away from home and took a Negro as a wife.” Martha Wheeler phrased it this way: Newton’s loyalty to his black family “separated him from his white wife.”
To argue that Newton’s relationship with Rachel was common concubinage, as some of our critics have done, is to totally dismiss the oral testimony from the area, especially of ex-slaves, and black descendants of Rachel Knight, who acknowledge that Newton treated Rachel as his common-law wife, raised his black children as his own, lived in a black community, and acted on his belief in racial equality. It also ignores the critical fact that he deeded land to her and to her children, a fact that no other scholar has uncovered.
There is no evidence that Newton Knight was at Vicksburg:
We acknowledge in the book that Knight may not have been at Vicksburg. Instead we emphasize its plausibility. He was at Synder’s Bluff with his 7th Battalion and under arrest on February 28th, 1863. On May 18th his unit entered the Vicksburg trenches. After February 28th, Newton’s Confederate record is a void.
If Newton was not at Vicksburg, then he would have deserted from Synder’s Bluff. Now, anyone reading the Official Records of the War on Synder’s Bluff, and understanding its geography and the action there, realizes that it would have been immensely difficult to desert from the Bluff, especially someone under arrest. Add to this the fact that after Knight’s company went to Vicksburg, many of his fellow soldiers became Unionists with him, and the evidence adds up to the likely conclusion that Knight was at Vicksburg with all of his friends and relatives.
None of our critics has offered a credible argument for how Knight could have avoided Vicksburg. How exactly would he have escaped from Synder’s Bluff while under arrest?
Bynum is unclear on this point. This is understandable: the testimony from both Knight’s allies and his adversaries about when he deserted is full of uncertainty. Knight himself was exceedingly vague in his pension case. His commanding officer recalled that he deserted in “August 1862,” which was nonsensical, as Knight had just been inducted. The officer may have meant August 1863, but we can’t know for sure. Bynum cites testimony from some of Knight’s friends, who recalled in 1870 that Knight deserted in May 1863. However, these men did not serve with him and could not have known when he left the Rebel army. When in May? Bynum doesn’t say. If it was after May 18, then Knight was at Vicksburg.
Bynum also writes, in the context of discussing Knight’s desertion: “The horrors of Vicksburg once and for all destroyed the grudging allegiance of many men of the 7th Battalion to the Confederacy.” One implication is that Knight was among “the many men” who experienced the horrors of Vicksburg.
We spend 15 pages on Vicksburg because, as Bynum points out, it is relevant to what happened in Jones County, not just from the standpoint of Newton Knight, but the many men who went on to resist the Confederacy with him.
And yet Bynum accuses us of “myth-making” and writing fiction because we view Knight’s presence at Vicksburg as more plausible than his absence.
I should add that Knight’s presence or absence at Vicksburg is irrelevant to our larger argument about him being an antislavery Unionist.
The State of Jones is myth, not history:
For generations, scholars have denied Newton Knight’s opposition to slavery. In fact, attempts to interpret Knight as principled in his actions have usually been labeled “fiction,” “myth,” or “folklore.”
Such accusations are not new, or particular to Southern history. For almost 100 years, anyone using as evidence slave narratives and other African American voices to understand race relations was accused of mythmaking and relying on shoddy sources. As late as 1968, the Stanford historian Thomas Bailey, in his presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, attacked the entire field of African American history for contributing to the production of myth. Such work “may stimulate pride among Negroes, but it can win little support from true scholarship,” Bailey warned. And until the late 1990s, any writer relying on evidence from Sally Hemings, her family, and the rich black oral tradition to argue that Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’s children was accused of indulging in “fiction” or “folklore.”
My point is that definitions of history and myth get blurred particularly in stories focusing on race relations. Woodrow Wilson, a respected professor before entering politics, said the film Birth of a Nation was “writing history with lightning” and “all terribly true.” For almost three generations, the standard history of American slavery, taught in most universities and many high schools, was American Negro Slavery by U.B. Phillips, one of the preeminent historians of his day. The book is now, like Birth of a Nation, characterized as myth. Black writers from Frederick Douglass to Du Bois were for generations accused of producing myth; now their work is considered groundbreaking history. In other words, critics have all too often accused writers of indulging in myth when the story threatens the existing order.
Bynum accuses us of writing myth, says we rely too much on mythic sources, especially Tom and Ethel Knight’s biographies of Newton. It’s true that we draw on Tom and Ethel’s biographies: we cite them a total of 89 times in our notes. But Bynum cites them 105 times.
In fact, we treat Ethel Knight with the caution she deserves. As for Tom Knight’s account, we view it as credible. Much of the documentation about Knight discovered in the last few years “vindicates” Tom’s account, as Jones County Junior College history professor Wyatt Moulds puts it. Rudy Leverett also viewed Tom Knight’s memoirs as reliable, based on a meticulous comparison of Tom’s account with the Official Records of the War; he found only small “anomalies” such as misspellings of names.
Nevertheless, we rely much more extensively on the Official Records, coupled with documents from the National Archives and the Military History Institute, which scholars accept as very reliable sources. We cite from these records 117 times. Bynum? 16 times.
We also cite testimony from ex-slaves and other contemporaneous blacks 51 times. Bynum? Fewer than 15.
What exactly distinguishes myth from history? Richard Slotkin, the most astute scholar on the subject, has cogently summarized it: myths are stories, drawn from experience, which aim to reach a total understanding of one’s world. History is an interpretation of the past that refuses total understanding: it is ambiguous, contradictory, contingent, and ironic. By historicizing and contextualizing myths, we arrive at history.
I’m not accusing Bynum of indulging in myth. Her book is an important work of scholarship, and as Sally and I note in our book, “we have been deeply influenced” by it and are “indebted to her research.” The chief difference between her book and ours is not in interpretation or sources but in the manner of telling a story. Bynum wrote a scholarly monograph, not a narrative designed for a broad readership. Our chief aim was to write a popular history, building on new evidence as well as existing scholarship that would reach as many people as possible.
I think it is also important to emphasize the intellectual candor with which we distinguish in our book between what can be known, what might be surmised, and what is informed speculation. All three of these elements, when used properly, are orthodox ingredients of rigorous history. Bynum has had the opportunity to publish her interpretations of this strange and time-shrouded episode. It’s unreasonable to insist that others conform to them.
The State of Jones was inspired by a Hollywood screenplay, it must be bad history:
I’ve been amazed by the deep animosity that so many scholars display toward Hollywood. Anything produced in Hollywood that touches a historical topic stains the fabric of their hallowed discipline, they believe. Because our book was “inspired by” a proposed film project by Gary Ross does not mean that it was “based on” a screenplay or that it is “fiction.” Most historians are utterly blind to the fact that history films are an invaluable asset. Why? Because most Americans understand history through film, not books, teachers, and classes. And a Hollywood history film, regardless of its interpretation, will expose millions of people to the topic and inspire thousands to begin reading history and treating it seriously. It functions like a charismatic preacher, who can convert the multitude.
And that’s a very good thing, because history, literature, and the humanities in general are under siege. Fewer students major in the humanities than ever before; and history, English, and other humanities’ disciplines receive far less money than their counterparts in the sciences and “practical” disciplines. If the current trends continue, in a few generations history and literature departments as we know them will no longer exist. Most Americans can’t name our first three presidents, they don’t know when the Civil War began, and they lack the basic skills needed to read and understand Lincoln.
And so I think it’s important to act as an evangelist for the humanities, to try to convey to broad audiences that history and literature are vital to the survival of democratic society, and to build bridges with people in other professions who are also passionate about the past and have the talent to understand and promote it.
The State of Jones is not perfect. But no work of history–no book–is. It’s the nature of the beast. I’ve come across errors in my other books, including The Black Hearts of Men, which won three major awards; and GIANTS: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, which has so far received two book prizes. I’ll no doubt discover errors in The State of Jones. But based on past experience, this sobering understanding will come not from dismissive reviews, but from additional research, the honesty of friends, and sympathetic readers. I consider it a great honor to have been able to work with Sally Jenkins; she is a brilliant historian and journalist, and her work is a testament to the democratization of scholarship. And I am heartened that our book has made the bestseller list. Very few works of history do–a poor reflection on the state of our culture.