John Stauffer Responds

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.

John Stauffer

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38 comments… add one
  • curtis payne Dec 4, 2010 @ 8:35

    My interest in the “State of Jones” comes from a point that I had decided to write and record a civil war song collection of my own material and some songs selected from orginal sheet music, for the 150th. anner. of the war. I decided to focus on songs about little known incidents of the war, and have found many interesting topics.
    That is when I came across the book that has generated this discussion.
    I think it will fit in well with my other selections.

    I have only read 50 pages, but I can see a song coming from it. I do wonder why no maps were included of the area?

    I will also be visiting the books this one relied upon before I write the song.

    curtis payne

  • drlavahnmoss Nov 16, 2009 @ 1:54

    I live near the Leaf River and Soso where Newt Knight is said to be buried. I have also scanned your book. I study history and have been in the field of education for 40 years. Your book isn't a history book but is a combination history and what you think happened. Too much story telling is in between the so-called facts. I agree 100% with Dr. Bynum. I personally know many of the Knight Family members. I've lived here all my life. Newt Knight ,after he deserted, got by the best that he could. It wasn't uncommon for white men to have relations with Black women. Some white men used Black women but the Black women also got something in return-better treatment. Sex isn't always romance. If Newt Knight helped the Union cause as much as you think, then he could have been easily assassinated. He was merely a local community member who didn't feel like he should sacrifice himself in war because he didn't own slaves. Probably 75% of the confederates didn't own slaves. The U.S. was a young nation in 1861 that was formed solely for defensive purposes. Most of the country was very sectional politically speaking. The confederates were fighting for family, home, and their land. Most southerners could have cared less about slavery. Many union soldiers fought for the union but not for the slaves. This argument will never cease. The great southern generals left high ranking positions in the U.S. Army for a more harsh life in the confederacy with little provisions. They refused to fight against their homeland, the south. I know that you as a learned Harvard professor will never understand this. Slavery was wrong but the causes of war were not as simple as your so-called prize winning journalists think. By the way, I heard your speech at Jones County Junior College. My daughter graduated that day. I served with northerners in Vietnam and was good friends with many. Many Jones Countians see you as just another carpetbagger being assisted by a few scallawags at J.C.J.C. Another movie trashing the south is in the works. If you are searching for the truth it is somewhere in between. I realize that professors must publish or perish. Newt Knight wasn't an abolisionist. He deserted his country,the CSA and afterwards reaped the rewards given him by a Yankee Governor. Of course he helped a few Blacks but so did Robert E. Lee. Newt Knight lived a life on the run because he had nowhere to go. He lived with people that could help him stay alive. He was only a character with a minute part of twbts but left a legacy in “the Free State of Jones “via DNA.

  • drlavahnmoss Nov 15, 2009 @ 19:54

    I live near the Leaf River and Soso where Newt Knight is said to be buried. I have also scanned your book. I study history and have been in the field of education for 40 years. Your book isn't a history book but is a combination history and what you think happened. Too much story telling is in between the so-called facts. I agree 100% with Dr. Bynum. I personally know many of the Knight Family members. I've lived here all my life. Newt Knight ,after he deserted, got by the best that he could. It wasn't uncommon for white men to have relations with Black women. Some white men used Black women but the Black women also got something in return-better treatment. Sex isn't always romance. If Newt Knight helped the Union cause as much as you think, then he could have been easily assassinated. He was merely a local community member who didn't feel like he should sacrifice himself in war because he didn't own slaves. Probably 75% of the confederates didn't own slaves. The U.S. was a young nation in 1861 that was formed solely for defensive purposes. Most of the country was very sectional politically speaking. The confederates were fighting for family, home, and their land. Most southerners could have cared less about slavery. Many union soldiers fought for the union but not for the slaves. This argument will never cease. The great southern generals left high ranking positions in the U.S. Army for a more harsh life in the confederacy with little provisions. They refused to fight against their homeland, the south. I know that you as a learned Harvard professor will never understand this. Slavery was wrong but the causes of war were not as simple as your so-called prize winning journalists think. By the way, I heard your speech at Jones County Junior College. My daughter graduated that day. I served with northerners in Vietnam and was good friends with many. Many Jones Countians see you as just another carpetbagger being assisted by a few scallawags at J.C.J.C. Another movie trashing the south is in the works. If you are searching for the truth it is somewhere in between. I realize that professors must publish or perish. Newt Knight wasn't an abolisionist. He deserted his country,the CSA and afterwards reaped the rewards given him by a Yankee Governor. Of course he helped a few Blacks but so did Robert E. Lee. Newt Knight lived a life on the run because he had nowhere to go. He lived with people that could help him stay alive. He was only a character with a minute part of twbts but left a legacy in “the Free State of Jones “via DNA.

  • Sherree Tannen Aug 30, 2009 @ 6:39

    Understanding how the culture and history of the south can vary from one mountain to the next, and from one valley to another, in my own area, I will not venture any thoughts or comments on the culture and history of the Piney Woods people of Mississippi. This observation might be helpful to historians of the south who may not know this, however, as well as to potential future film makers researching the history. The history of the south can change dramatically within a small geographic area.

    Part of the democratization of history that the Internet is indeed providing, is that the men and women whose history is being examined have the opportunity to question the history being examined and portrayed. In the 1970s, the entrance to universities of African American men and women, and of women period, had a profound and positive impact upon how history was studied and written. Now, other voices are starting to be heard as well, and these voices provide an even further, and broader, understanding of American history.

    On this blog, there is a truly diverse group of readers, all of whom are attempting to understand our past. The virtual stranglehold that Lost Cause mythology has had on our collective memory of the Civil War is astounding. To this day, many arguments are still framed, to a large extent and out of necessity, by the parameters of the legacy of the Lost Cause. Perhaps we can begin to break that stranglehold here. Perhaps that is too much to hope for. I will be audacious and hope however, with the permission and indulgence of our moderator.

    One of the readers commenting on this post said that the history of Newt Knight might provide a microcosm of sorts. I think that that is a fair observation. I also think that that microcosm has to be carefully defined, and that it has been by many historians who have studied southern dissent for years. Victoria Bynum is at the top of any list of historians who have studied southern dissent, and particularly southern dissent in Jones County, Mississippi. The authors of the State of Jones, themselves, acknowledge their debt to Bynum. They do not acknowledge that a history and legacy of southern dissent exists, however, to my knowledge, nor do they examine the complexities of this history. Thus, the book is fundamentally at odds with Bynum’s book, on this point alone, in my view, and takes an interpretative approach that negates the essence, and importance, of the history.

    In order to understand the legacy of southern dissent as one person experienced it–me–a step outside of the American south, and outside of American history, altogether, is instructive, and I offer an analogy to another culture by way of explanation–an analogy that underlies some of the thinking behind much relatively recent theory: the comparison of the Confederacy to Nazi Germany.

    I understand very well the potential danger involved in even a minute deconstruction of part of the history of either the Confederacy or the history of Nazi Germany. The analogy I am offering is not offered to deconstruct either history, however, only to bring to the forefront what has been forgotten by many, or that is completely unknown.

    Long before the movie, Valkyrie (which I have not seen and am not anxious to see) the legacy of the German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a legacy that had a tremendous influence upon my life. In fact, the Lutheran pastor who conducted my mother’s funeral quoted Bonhoeffer. That was right before a young black woman from our community sang. This was not by accident, but by design. Bonhoeffer’s stand against the Nazis (which resulted in Bonhoeffer’s execution) inspired my mother to take the stand against racism that she took during the civil rights era. But even more importantly, my mother’s lifelong work to fight racism was inspired by the actions of members of her own family, and by the black community, of which my family was, and is, a part, and grew from within the south itself, as I stated above. Thus, my mother’s admiration of Bonhoeffer was a logical consequence of her own experience.

    Our family was not the only family in our area that stood with the black community against racism. There were other families who did the same, along with the Lutheran congregation. It would seem to me that to ignore a history such as this history (which parallels the history of the Civil War era in striking ways when it comes to race) along with other histories like it, is to do a disservice to history itself, since to fight not only against overwhelming odds, but against your own race, culture, and family, is a fight, the intricacies of which, are worth learning. To cast the narrative of southern dissent within either a “neo confederate” or “neo-abolitionist” framework, is, therefore, simply not accurate. The men and women in the south who stood up against the Confederacy, and those who later fought racism, as well as the men and women in Germany who defied the Nazis, were small in number, but quite large in courage, and they had neither the luxury of being part of a movement that helped them define what was right and what was wrong, nor the security of having the backing of an institution, army, or government when they acted on their beliefs. They had to decide for themselves, and act by themselves. In addition, as an added moral dimension to the measure of courage that these men and women exhibited; the option existed for white southerners in the south during the Civil War and civil rights eras, and for German men and women in Germany, not to take a stand–an option painfully not available to black men and women in the south, or to Jewish men and women in Nazi Germany. The appalling silence of the good people is, unfortunately, too often the voice that prevails. Those who are not, and were not, silent, deserve, at the very least, recognition.

    I do not know of a white southerner in either the Civil War era, or the civil rights era, of Bonhoeffer’s stature. I do know of some very courageous people, both white and black however, who fought racism. Parts of this history have been preserved, and other parts have not. Again, this is a history worth remembering, and it is a history unique to the south, and very much a part of the south. Thanks, Kevin, as always, for the insight you provide, and for providing this forum. Also, thanks to your readers for their observations and insight as well. Ed, come back out of the swamp. There are others like you, searching for answers. Perhaps many more than you know. I enjoyed your comments. Sherree

  • Ed Payne Aug 29, 2009 @ 11:57

    A thin thread of DNA links me to the Collinses of Jones County. Jasper Collins–who Dr. Stauffer now would have leading a campfire sing along of “John Brown’s Body” because, well, it’s a possibility–was my gr-gr-gr-gr uncle. His sister Sarah Collins Walters Parker was my gr-gr-gr grandmother. She owned a couple of slaves and had a son and son-in-law fight in the Confederacy. Nevertheless she provided shelter to the Knight Band–which included Jasper and two other brothers and several nephews. To me “Aunt Sallie” Parker epitomizes the difficult decisions the Civil War forced upon the people of Jones County. I recently published an article about her in which I attempted to describe this complexity as truthfully as my skills as a not-brilliant, non-historian allow.

    There is much I would like to say, but what is the point? Dr. Stauffer describes his role as that of an evangelist and I learned the uselessness of attempting to discuss theology with the fervent believer. Whenever Dr. Stauffer grinds his academic axe a little too sharply, both Ms. Jenkins and he rush to say no, no, we misunderstood them. They concede no errors of fact, of conjecture, or of scholarly conduct. They are, as Faulkner would say, immutable.

    The events that took place in Jones County 150 years ago seem still too hot for many to handle in a dispassionate way. I feel the scholarly approach taken by Dr. Bynum is the most factual and emotionally neutral of the many accounts I have read. After five years of study I have come to see the Piney Woods renegades as strong-willed independent men, many having kinship connections, who lived in an area with no significant stake in the cotton / slave economy. Like others in similar areas of the South, they came to feel it wasn’t their war. If Newt Knight had given voice to opinions about the abolition of slavery or social equality for African-Americans, I am convinced (not proudly) that he would have quickly found himself leading a band whose membership could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. I believe an objective reading of the surviving records shows Newt to have been a man of action, not a thinker. If anyone supplied Newt with a philosophical justification for his Civil War actions, it was Jasper Collins. And, much as I might like to, I can find no indication that Jasper’s progressive views (he joined the Populist Party and the Universalist Church late in life) carried over into the area of race relations.

    So it distresses me to see these events once again stretched to fit someone’s agenda. Historians over the past 50 years have made substantive efforts to scrape away the thick coats of “Lost Cause” bias that encrusted older Civil War narratives–even if this meant strong, clear narratives had to give way to more judicious and ambiguous renderings. In the end, history is either about being scrupulously accurate or it is about attempting to uplift (and achieve big sales) through simplified narratives recast to suit a newer cultural agenda. I favor the factual approach whereas Dr. Stauffer has stated his commitment (at least with regard to the book under consideration) to the mythic. Since we’re never going to come to a consensus, after lodging this modest protest I will follow the Knight Band tactic of retreating into the swamp when confronted by a superior force.

  • Sally Jenkins Aug 28, 2009 @ 10:34

    Ralph, I think you mischaracterize John’s argument — and James McPherson’s. Newton Knight’s pro-Union activity in Jones County got unmistakably stronger after the Union cause became explicitly antislavery. By the end of the war in 1865, he was reported to have liberated slaves, and we know he aided federal troops in rescuing black children from slaveholders and returned them to their parents. The traditional Confederate treatment of Jones County Unionists was to label them “ignorant” dirt farmers, and the “worst class of persons” with no convictions other than self preservation. But we know Knight and his friend Jasper Collins were literate, and informed about why they fought — as were 80-90 percent of the men on both sides. As McPherson says in What They Fought For, in 1863 it was very difficult for any soldier on either side to remain indifferent about slavery, and emancipation “intensified a morale crisis” in the Union armies. “The contest is now between slavery and freedom and every honest man knows what he is fighting for,” one Union soldier wrote. John was not using syllogism, but addressing the complexity and evolution of soldiers’ motivations, including Knight’s.

  • Ralph Poore Aug 28, 2009 @ 8:57

    In his original post, Mr. Stauffer shows the kind of syllogistic gymnasitcs used all through the State of Jones.

    In the post above, Mr. Stauffer wrote: “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.”

    Here is his syllogism:

    The Union proclaimed all slaves of Rebels to be free.
    Therefore, soldiers who fought for the Union were antislavery.
    Newt Knight fought for the Union, therefore he was antislavery.

    To see why this conclusion doesn’t hold up, take Mr. Stauffer’s reasoning back one year. Here is that syllogism:

    The U.S. Constitution sanctioned slavery in 1862.
    Therefore, soldiers who fought to preserve the Union were proslavery.
    Newt Knight sought to preserve the Union, therefore he was proslavery.

    This is obviously absurd. But Mr. Stauffer and Ms. Jenkins draw similarly absurd conclusions throughout their book. Readers are left wondering just how much is fact and how much is fancy.

  • John Stauffer Aug 27, 2009 @ 9:21

    On White Southerners Singing “John Brown’s Body”:
    In her book, Echo of the Black Horn, Ethel Knight says that Newton’s close friend Jasper Collins led the company in singing Union songs, including “John Brown’s Body.” Given the contextual evidence, we believe her account is plausible. According to other oral histories in Jones, Jasper Collins indeed led Unionist meetings, and on two occasions he was dispatched by Knight to contact the Union Army, meeting with Sherman’s officers in Vicksburg and Memphis. “John Brown’s Body” was the most popular song among Union troops, according to Henry Steele Commager and Franny Nudelman. Nicolay and Hay’s biography of Lincoln describes Sherman’s army singing “John Brown’s Body” while marching through Mississippi. And we know that Newton Knight established enough of a reputation with Sherman’s men that just after the war, in July 1865, he had a personal interview in Meridian with General William Linn McMillen, one of Sherman’s favorite subordinates. The Mississippi Unionist John Aughey, who was a fugitive at the same time Knight was, also invoked “John Brown’s Body.” And the historian Walter Fleming described Union League meetings in 1867-68, in which white Southerners and blacks sang it.

    On Newton and Rachel Knight:
    Bynum contests our interpretation that Newton treated Rachel as an equal. But their descendants make it clear that he did. For instance, one of Rachel and Newton’s grandchildren, (Vermell Moffett) described Rachel as his “second wife,” in an interview with the Jackson Clarion Ledger. The details in Moffett’s account – such as the fact that Rachel had “come to Mississippi from a plantation in Macon, Ga., where she had been a slave,” — lines up with what we know from records. Moffett thus appears to be reliable. Also, Moffett noted that two of Newton’s white children married two of Rachel’s children. Specifically, Newton’s white son Mat married Rachel’s daughter Fanny, and Newton’s white daughter Mollie married Rachel’s eldest son Jeffrey. Given that Newton endorsed the marriage of two of his white children to two of Rachel’s children — and even rewarded those unions with deeds of land — it would seem that he regarded Rachel, and her children, as equals.

    On Vicksburg:
    We don’t argue that Newton was at Vicksburg “a few days.” The most plausible scenario, we argue, is that he experienced Vicksburg until Pemberton’s surrender, just as his closest relatives and friends did. And we don’t “assume” he was at Snyder’s Bluff. A quick glance at Knight’s company record shows he was “present” as well as “in arrest” on February 30, 1863. The circumstances at Snyder’s Bluff were tense, to say the least, as the entrenchments there were the northern defense point for Vicksburg, toward which Grant was continually maneuvering. Sherman bombarded Synder’s Bluff on May 1
    (as a feint). By May 16 Grant was encircling Vicksburg and the 7th Battalion was marching into Vicksburg’s trenches. Had Newton deserted from Snyder’s Bluff, or while marching toward Vicksburg, he would have had to swim the Yazoo River and cross through two active armies. And this after escaping arrest. Even if he was able to do so, it’s difficult to see how he could have gotten back to Jones County in May. We include in our book the recollection of Newton’s acquaintances that Bynum cites; but those men didn’t serve with him in the Rebel Army or in the guerilla band, and their recollection was naturally vague, given that they didn’t have firsthand knowledge and were trying to recall events eight years earlier. The weight of plausibility (it seems to us) is therefore in favor of Knight’s presence at Vicksburg rather than his absence.

    To Paul Harvey:
    Thank you for your comment and for your balanced assessment of the debate on your blog (“Jones vs. Jones”).
    You raise an excellent question: to what degree does Primitive Baptism lead someone to become antislavery? None, if it’s the only evidence one has. After all, countless Primitive Baptists, Northern Baptists, and Methodists were not antislavery.
    Our aim was to try to understand the interaction between ideas and material forces that make up a worldview. In the case of antislavery, multiple causes led people to that conviction.
    As Sally and I have noted, we’re not certain that Newton Knight was a Primitive Baptist. We surmise he was based on these facts: Primitive Baptism was the dominant religion in Jones County; Newton’s grandfather helped found a Primitive Baptist church; family members, including Newton’s father, were Baptists; Newton’s son said Newton was a Primitive Baptist; and the company Newton joined in July 1861 was nicknamed “Hardshells,” signifying Primitive Baptism.
    As Randy Sparks notes in his terrific book, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks, many Primitive Baptists in Mississippi espoused antislavery views for theological and class reasons until the 1820s, when the gatekeepers of slavery effectively silenced these views. But as I said, Primitive Baptism alone does not lead to antislavery.
    Other sources point to the emergence of Newton’s antislavery views: his parents never owned slaves; according to his granddaughter, he “did not believe in slavery”; he opposed secession and disliked the planter class; and he had great faith in the Union—-in essence, he was an American first, a Southerner second.
    Additionally, in the cauldron of the War, it was common for whites and blacks to unite in order to survive and vanquish a common enemy (the Confederacy), a point wonderfully developed by Philip Klinkner in his book, Unsteady March. In any event, when Knight affirmed his loyalty to the Union in 1863, he sought through his actions to end slavery.

    To Brooks Simpson and Ingrid Leverett:
    I have enormous respect for Michael Ballard and Rudy Leverett. Indeed, I think the greatest respect one can accord writers is to build upon their work and cite them in their notes; and Sally and I relied heavily on Ballard, Leverett, and Bynum.
    I have no idea where Ballard was born. I know that he is a distinguished scholar at Mississippi State, the author or editor of a number of excellent works, including his superb book on Vicksburg (which Sally and I cite frequently), and a terrific edition of Chickasaw, a Mississippi Scout for the Union; and that he is the editor of the Grant papers.
    Brooks, you seem to imply that I’m biased against white Mississippians. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m on record as saying that there are more integrated communities in Mississippi today than in Massachusetts. We dedicate our book to Jim Kelly, a white Mississippian and brilliant scholar. And in it we sing the praises of many other white Mississippians, including the dazzling genealogist Kenneth Welch, Charles and Bunny Windham, and the extraordinary history teacher Wyatt Moulds.
    My main point was to express my perplexity about why no one has addressed the differences between Bynum’s and Ballard’s interpretations of Jones County.
    Ingrid, I did not mean to attack Rudy Leverett’s book. It’s beautifully written, I have great respect for it, and we relied heavily on it, even though we disagreed with its conclusions.
    Disagreement does not mean disrespect.
    Rudy Leverett’s lineage helped me better understand his book and my disagreement with it. Why? Because our own personal history often shapes the history we write. To deny this is to ignore the humanistic aspect of the discipline.
    Let me give you an example. I consider C. Vann Woodward one of the greatest historians of the South; and yet I totally disagree with his interpretation of abolitionists. Granted, he wrote comparatively little on them, but what he did write was pejorative. I’ve written extensively on abolitionists, and like most scholars I try to approach my subjects with historical empathy. I thus wondered how such a brilliant scholar could be so dismissive of the abolitionists. I found my answer after reading a glowing review of Woodward by his friend and colleague David Davis, himself the preeminent scholar of slavery and abolition (full disclosure: Davis was my mentor). In his review, Davis drew attention to Woodward’s background as a white Southerner: “Woodward shares his ancestors’ distaste for Northern abolitionists, with their ‘Roundhead earnestness’ and uncritical worship of fanatics like John Brown.”
    In other words, we bring to our scholarship some of our own history, biases, and blind spots, even though we do our best not to.
    That leads to your query, Ingrid, about the genesis of our book. I was hired as an unpaid consultant to Gary Ross. He wanted his fictional screenplay to ring true—-poetically and ideologically–to the history of the era, and I tried to help him achieve that goal. Why did I agree to advise him without pay? Well, because I like him a lot: he’s extremely smart and curious, is a beautiful writer, has read deeply in the Civil War era, and he wanted to write a screenplay that, given the constraints of the genre, would be faithful to the history. I also felt that his film, if produced, would get a lot more people interested in the Civil War era and the dilemmas of interracial alliances. I should add that neither Sally nor I have received any money from anyone in Hollywood for our work. Of course Gary’s film, if produced, would boost sales of our book—-but also of Bynum’s, Ballard’s, Leverett’s, and many others’.
    Ingrid, I disagree with your distinction between “recording history” and “creating drama.” History is a narrative interpretation of the past. Without narrative, there is no history. And as Sally mentioned, there’s inherent drama in the story of Jones County.
    Finally, I’ll confess one of my blind spots: As a student of abolitionists, I would have difficulty writing about Jefferson Davis with the rich sensitivity and nuance that Ballard does in A Long Shadow. I find Ballard totally convincing in arguing that Davis, as a statesman, was “noble in adversity.” But it would be hard for me to look beyond the moral baseness of the cause he presided over.

    John Stauffer

  • Craig Aug 26, 2009 @ 19:35

    Having consulted a few Google maps I see now that Jones County is situated a little north of Hattiesburg, about halfway between Jackson and Mobile, further south and much closer to Louisiana than online discussions of the ‘controversy’ had previously led me to suppose. Union troops moving to eastern theatres from Vicksburg and Jackson proceeded up the Mississippi to Cairo and from there south on the Tennessee River to Huntsville, Alabama enroute to Georgia. The Tennessee River forms the stateline of Mississippi in the far northeastern corner of the state, near Corinth, but a very long ways from Jones County. Union troops would have had access to Jones County comparable to their access to Mobile.

    One additional note concerning Banks, his arrival in New Orleans in relief of Butler coincided with the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 and his first order of business was putting it into effect. The Proclamation did not take effect in Texas until June 1865, a month after the war had officially ended. My impression is that Jones County represents a microcosm of sorts, reflecting a broader sweep of events that are difficult to grasp without a clear sense of the outline.

  • Craig Aug 26, 2009 @ 9:40

    One of the points that Banks made in his 1500 pages on Banks is that the Red River Campaign (convergence on Shreveport from three directions) was largely a fool’s errand dictated more by the desire of speculators to profit from confiscating cotton than by acheiving real strategic objectives. Banks had to appease a broad range of interests gathered under the Union banner; he had to keep enough forces close enough to New Orleans to ensure that the city didn’t revert to Confederate control, he had to keep enough forces at the mouth of the Rio Grande to prevent French forces supporting Maximillian against Juarez from encroaching on Texas sovereignty, he had an island on Galveston Bay occupied by Union forces in dire need of reinforcements and naval support, he had engineering issues on the Mississippi itself to keep it navigable for the Union navy, particularly after the fall of Vicksburg, and he had critics faulting his inability to mount an assault on Mobile. He also had a large, severely impoverished, African-American former slave population all the way up to Vicksburg and beyond in a state of limbo brought on by the siege and fall of Vicksburg and an economy at a dead standstill triggered by his predecessor’s declaration of martial law. On top of that he had military obligations to fulfill, particularly with regard to the state capital in Baton Rouge, for which he had to rely on military men whose experience far exceeded his own and whose loyalties and interests were often questionable. The Red River enters the Mississippi at Baton Rouge, flowing southeast from Shreveport and it furnished a haven for an endless supply of rebels who no longer felt welcome in Arkansas and for Texans eager to take part in the fray. Getting the economy moving meant re-establishing the cotton trade in Union hands and that meant that whatever policies Banks put in place affected not just Louisiana, but the entire cotton belt, extending from east Texas to Arkansas, northern Louisiana, all of Mississippi and much of Alabama. Union control of New Orleans meant that all of these states depended for their livelihood on some degree of cooperation with the Union or on taking considerable pains to work around it. I would suspect that the ‘state’ of Jones County in northern Mississippi was very much a part of the Union’s cotton kingdom. I don’t know how much federal presence there was in the ‘state of Jones’. I think when the 12th Wisconsin veteranized after Vicksburg they took a long furlough, disposed of their copperheads, added a big contingent of new recruits, met up in Memphis, took a boat ride on the Tennessee River to Alabama and marched from there to Georgia, so I would guess there was a steady stream of federal troops flowing from the trans-Mississippi to northern Georgia for the push to Atlanta in the spring of 1864. Banks had considered himself a candidate for the Republican nomination in1860 and he wasn’t immune from thinking his party might nominate him if it determined in 1864 that Lincoln wasn’t up to the task. Steele’s Camden Expedition may have been ill-fated by design. Without it, Banks’ push up to Shreveport could easily have been not just an inept bungle, but a full scale disaster. As it was it succeeded in keeping substantial numbers of Confederate troops occupied west of the Mississippi, effectively an orchestrated diversion.

  • victoria bynum Aug 26, 2009 @ 7:30

    My thanks to Rebecca, Paul Harvey, and Sherree Tannen for pointing out some of the complexities of southern religion and antislavery views.

    Brooks Simpson and Ingrid Leverett identify a pernicious habit of Jenkins and Stauffer: implying that the worth of an author’s historical analysis can be summed up by his or her biological roots. Hence, their identification of Michael Ballard as a [white] Mississippian and Rudy Leverett as the grandson of Major McLemore with no mention of either author’s professional credentials.

    I have had a similar experience at their hands. In Jenkins and Stauffer’s earliest interviews, they identified me as a “local” descendant of Newt’s associates (I’m related to several but descended from none), and a “homegirl” (although I have never lived in Mississippi), rather than as a historian or professor of history.

    Mr. Rasmussen, this debate is not simply about “genres,” although Jenkins and Stauffer would like people to think that it is. Nor is it simply about responsible scholarship. It is also about how historians treat the work of scholars who have preceded them, and how honestly they respond to those who dare to criticize them publicly, as Michael Ballard and I both have done.

    My point about Ethel Knight was not so much that that she attributed the Civil Rights Movement to communists–and let me say that Glenda Gilmore’s analysis of communists’ support of civil rights is just a tad more sophisticated–but that Ethel’s 1950s’ fears about challenges to racial segregation and the Cold War inspired her to write Echo of the Black Horn, and thus permeated her entire work.

    I am pleased that Ms. Jenkins does not wish to “belabor” her and Prof. Stauffer’s insistence that Newt Knight’s religious views–whatever they were–influenced his stance on slavery. I’ve said all I care to say on that subject as well, and vote we let readers decide for themselves if the evidence is there.

    Victoria Bynum

  • Mark Cheathem Aug 26, 2009 @ 6:48

    Dan Rasmussen wrote:

    “Why use this example? Glenda Gilmore has amply demonstrated the links between the Communist Party and Civil Rights: this just doesn’t seem like a great example of distortion.”

    I think Prof. Bynum’s point was that some individuals at the time (and even now, I suspect) believed that Communists originated, or stirred up, the civil rights movement as a weapon in the Cold War, one intended to undermine unity in the U.S. No one would question that American Communists were important and influential members of the civil rights movement.

  • Craig Aug 26, 2009 @ 6:17

    To the “other” Craig:

    Those are all points to consider at the strategic level. I think though the interaction between Grant and Banks (and to some degree Sherman) in the late summer of ’63 was largely governed by logistics. Two concurrent siege operations had served to draw in the manpower of the west along a section of the Mississippi River. That said, the commanders spent some time reorganizing and recuperating from those operations. Sherman’s operations in Mississippi, even beyond the actions at Chattanooga, might be called “busy work.” Certainly were more to keep the Confederates off balance, and retain the initiative more than focused at any strategic objective. I don’t want to hijack a thread, but let me simply say the inability for Banks to move was partly due to those aforementioned operational considerations. Now if you are saying the lack of Federal presence in the “Free State of Jones” is an issue for discussion…

  • Sherree Tannen Aug 26, 2009 @ 5:27


    Again, your blog is at an intersecting crossroads for discussion of some of the most important issues of our day, in my opinion, and I will clarify that rather grandiose statement in my remarks. I came back from Rome fresh with impressions of an ancient city and how remembrance of the past is dealt with in that city, and determined not to comment on your blog, as I feel I have taken up too much of your bandwidth already. Quite honestly, though, in order not to comment from time to time, I would have to either disable the comment option (which some of your readers might applaud, lol) or simply not read your blog, which I can’t seem to do for the aforementioned reason. So, thank you in advance for maintaining this blog and for all of the work that goes into maintaining it. Also, thank you for being an active and engaged voice on the other side of this blank computer screen.

    Historians have a daunting task. For, it is the historian who, in large part, shapes our national narrative. Our national narrative then, in turn, helps to shape our national identity and our reality. Thus, it is truly of the utmost importance that history be written as accurately as possible and with as little bias as possible. The rigors and discipline required of an academic historian would seem to me to be in place for these very reasons. On the other hand, every profession has its strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes the insular nature of an academic community can stifle thought. That is when interdisciplinary studies become critical, and also perspectives from outside of the academy. Still, writing history is a discipline, a skill, and a profession. With all due respect to Professor Stauffer and Ms. Jenkins, blurring the lines of the professions of historian, journalist, and Hollywood script writer could conceivably lead to the creation of myth, and in the case of memory of the Civil War, more myth is exactly what is not needed, and if created, would further complicate an already incredibly complex subject.

    I am not an historian. Neither am I a journalist or screen writer. I am just an individual whose ancestors’ history parallels, in some respects, the history of Newt Knight. I again want to take this opportunity to thank Victoria Bynum for her groundbreaking and truly brilliant book on this subject. The book has answered questions that I have had all of my life. In saying this, I am in no way implying that John Stauffer and Sally Jenkins’ book is not brilliant as well. I simply do not find many premises upon which the latter book is based, as well as some of the conclusions reached by the authors, to be true. I do not attribute this to any underlying motivation on the part of the authors, but to the interpretative approach taken. I have read only parts of Professor Stauffer and Sally Jenkin’s book, so I am basing my observations on comments made here and elsewhere by the authors. I have read all of Bynum’s book, and the book rings true to the end, as well as Bynum’s interpretative approach explored here and on her own blog. I understand that to critique a book not read in its entirety, negates the critique. Thus, I do not presume or pretend to critique The State of Jones. Also, even if I had read the book in its entirety, I would not consider myself qualified to critique it. I am, instead, offering examples from my own experience in which the ideas discussed by the authors do not fit the culture examined, as I experienced that culture. Also, the distinctions I am attempting to make are very difficult to articulate and grasp.

    For instance, the premise that Newt Knight was perhaps antislavery because he was, perhaps, a Primitive Baptist is extremely difficult for me to understand. Having grown up in an isolated community in the mountains of Virginia, in which the Civil War was still very much alive (and in which the many unresolved legacies of the war were still very much alive, too, particularly when it came to race); the idea that a man who was a Primitive Baptist was antislavery is jarring. I understand that, in the early history of this denomination, some of the members of the denomination were antislavery. I further understand that many members of this denomination changed their views as slaveholders became dominant in congregations. From the history concerning this topic that I have read, by the time the Civil War started, the slaveholding members prevailed in most Primitive Baptist congregations. This conclusion supports much subsequent history concerning the denomination. Again, at least as I experienced that history. I do not want to offend the authors, or any reader who is presently a member of a Primitive Baptist Church, because I am speaking of another generation. In my experience, however, the members of Primitive Baptist congregations did not lead the way in joining the members of both the black and white communities in demanding justice for black men and women during the civil rights era. Of course, in the case of Jones County Mississippi, we are talking about the Civil War era, and not the civil rights era. It is difficult to believe that the disconnect between generations would be that great, though. To respectfully borrow the title of another scholarly monograph that deals with southern dissent–Bitterly Divided–the southern population, both black and white, has been bitterly divided for centuries now. As an example of what I will call a legacy of dissent handed down through my own family, when I was in the second grade, I was called upon by my mother and my grandmother to take a stand. In this case, the stand had to do with compulsory religious training in a public school. The issue was whether or not baptism by immersion was necessary in order for a man or woman to be granted entrance to heaven, and we–seven year old children–were required to take the Bible class. Not so for me. My mother forced the school to excuse me from the class. That is what we did in my family, and what we were expected to do: take a stand, particularly when it came to issues of religion, and issues of race, as I have shared instances of, here on this blog. And that is what some of my ancestors did, too, while others did not, thus leaving my own family bitterly divided.

    This culture of dissent that I am describing, and that has been defined and explored in depth by historians who know much more about its broad implications than I do, grew from within the south itself, and was not adopted from, or imposed upon, the communities in question from the outside, as Bynum indicates of Jones County, Mississippi, if I am reading Bynum’s book correctly. In addition, this tradition grew from the intermingling of black, white, and Indigenous communities, and is very much a history of the south and a history of America, as opposed to a version of northern abolitionist history, which is also very much a history of America, and a part of American history that decidedly deserves the special place that it occupies.

    Thank you , Kevin. Thank you Professor Bynum. Thank you Professor Stauffer and Ms Jenkins. And thank you readers of this blog. I hope these comments are helpful, Kevin. I do not want to create further controversy, only offer observations. My unfortunately standard apology for the length of my comment. Sherree

  • Shane Christen Aug 26, 2009 @ 4:09

    All that I know from this exchange is that I will wait to read either book when it is easily available through my local library. I know I will not waste my coin on either. A war of authors is unbecoming and frankly immature.

  • Sally Jenkins Aug 25, 2009 @ 11:47

    I’d like to respond to Ingrid Leverett: though I obviously disagree with the conclusions in The Legend of The Free State of Jones, and some of the logic in it, the book was tremendously interesting and helpful, and I enjoyed it. People interested in the subject should include it in their reading. I don’t think John meant to use the McLemore lineage to “attack” the book. As for the genesis of our book it’s certainly fair to ask about it. But while we look forward to seeing Gary Ross’s proposed film project some day, it’s not a motivation to create drama. I’m not a trained historian, I’m a journalist, but the jobs aren’t dissimilar in the emphasis on trying to write faithful accounts of things, and to get them right, factually and contextually. As John has pointed out, his role as a consultant to Gary Ross is to help him be more historically accurate, not less. By the way, if you’ve seen Seabiscuit, you’ll know how much Ross appreciates and tries to film good history. Finally, I don’t think the Jones County material needs any help being dramatic.

  • Paul Harvey Aug 25, 2009 @ 9:39

    I have enjoyed both books in question here, genre differences and substantive differences aside. My question is the degree to which viewing Knight through the lens of Primitive Baptism leads to understanding his being anti-slavery. Believing in the equality of souls, as did (in theory) Southern Baptists and Methodists, was not incompatible with a pro-slavery stance, of course. I’ve followed up this question a bit more here:

  • Dan Rasmussen Aug 25, 2009 @ 9:27

    Professor Bynum writes:

    “Ethel’s book is a classic example of “history” being distorted to support an author’s present–day political views—she begins her book by blaming the civil rights movement on “communistic elements.” ”

    Why use this example? Glenda Gilmore has amply demonstrated the links between the Communist Party and Civil Rights: this just doesn’t seem like a great example of distortion.

  • Dan Rasmussen Aug 25, 2009 @ 9:22

    I just finished Stauffer and Jenkins book, and I tend to see Professor Bynum’s criticisms as stemming from genre differences – not from substantive problems in the book. Stauffer and Jenkins were attempting to tell a story, not “deconstruct” sources or produce a scholarly monograph – things I am sure Bynum has done excellently.

    The problems the two authors faced are similar to those facing any journalist or historian: gaps in the evidence. So what do you do when facing such gaps? You make a case using the available evidence while being careful to spell out what is proven and what is reasoned conjecture.

    Throughout the book, the authors took care to highlight when they were using parallel stories (a very justifiable method, just look at the way lawyers use precedent or detectives use past case histories) and when they were using archived sources about Knight. They took care to use words like “might, “would have,” and “probably” – and, most significantly, admitted when they just didn’t know.

    They were by no means misrepresenting or skewing the evidence. They were interpreting it in order to tell a story. And this is what any good writer should do.

    I applaud Stauffer and Jenkins for providing an excellent and readable book that both shares his story with a wider audience and clearly has provided a substantial basis for scholarly debate.

  • Mike Aug 25, 2009 @ 9:12

    And I thought only Baptist Theologians got fired up over the interpretation of the Facts. This has been quite interesting to follow.

  • Brooks Simpson Aug 25, 2009 @ 9:05

    “The Mississippian Michael Ballard recently condemned Knight on similar grounds, but for different reasons.”

    It is unclear to me why Dr. Ballard’s place of birth is critical to all this. Indeed, implicit in this description, given what follows, is the silent implication that what should have been said is “Michael Ballard, a [white] Mississippian …,” as many Mississippians are African American (surely a historian of Newt Knight would know this). Now, if I added to the description “and currently associate editor of the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant,” where would that leave us?

    Let’s just assess people’s views and arguments based upon the merits of their views and arguments, shall we? Is that so hard to ask?

  • Ingrid Leverett Aug 25, 2009 @ 8:45

    I will leave the historical debate to the historians. I will point out, however, that the relevance to the debate of the screenplay from which Jenkins and Stauffer’s book developed is not that it’s bad to expose the general public to history but that it suggests a motive to create drama rather than to record history. If my father’s lineage, and thus his motives, may be used to attack his views on Newt Knight — with no discussion of the evidence he presents, I might add — then it is equally fair to examine the genesis of Jenkins’ and Stauffer’s book.

  • Sally Jenkins Aug 25, 2009 @ 4:52

    Hi Rebecca, that Knight made many references to the Lord in an interview is not the sole suggestion that he was religious, merely one interesting strand. According to his son he was a Primitive Baptist, and according to his granddaughter he “did not believe in slavery,” which is a discussion that we’ve had before, I just didn’t want to belabor it on this site. Tom Knight’s memoir also contains several references to his father’s religious feeling, and very much jibes with Knight’s account of himself. Also, Knight’s first wife Serena was buried in a Primitive Baptist cemetary. Prof. Bynum’s book contains a lengthy description of the Knight family’s deep involvement in the Baptist churches of Jones County. We believe he was what was known as a “Hardshell.”

  • Victoria Bynum Aug 25, 2009 @ 2:45

    Professor Stauffer says he did not accuse me on July 11 of failing to use the O.R. records. Here is what he wrote then:

    “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.”

    His statements that he and Jenkins don’t suggest by their subtitle that Jones County seceded from the Confederacy, with all that that implies, or by their text that Newt Knight was a religious abolitionist, are disengenuous examples of the shifting targets both authors continually erect.

    In regard to the use of “parallel stories,” it remains my opinion that the examples cited by Prof. Stauffer go well beyond the practice of “informed speculation,” and instead obscure the history of Newt Knight.

    Of course whites believed that Newt lived in a “black community;” they abided by the “one drop” rule. It’s what Newt considered the community that is at issue here.

    I did not state that southern white men’s bestowal of property on black women was a “common practice,” only that it was more common than State of Jones postulates. Also, the facts that Stauffer recites about Newt’s treatment of his multiracial family are NOT “largely absent” from my work. And no, they do not indicate that he treated Rachel as his “equal,” only that he openly provided for his multiracial descendants, a fact that I discuss at length in my own book.

    My comments about insults to readers’ intelligence, and the need for truth in popular as well as academic histories, are independent of the number of book sales generated.

    Victoria Bynum

  • John Stauffer Aug 25, 2009 @ 1:32

    Let me respond to Bynum’s remarks:

    1. Our subtitle in no way implies that we “restore the myth that Jones County had written its own constitution, formed its own government, and declared itself an independent ‘Republic of Jones.’” We never say this and in fact emphasize Newton Knight’s statement that Jones never seceded from the Union.

    2. We do not depict Knight as a religiously-inspired abolitionist. Rather, we compare him to abolitionists. He formed bonds of interracial alliance unmatched by white abolitionists in the sense that at some time during the war, he became intimate with Rachel Knight; and after the war he deeded her land and risked his life fighting for racial equality. The only abolitionist who resembles Knight in his actions is Albert Morgan, the Northern abolitionist who moved to Yazoo, Mississippi after the war and married a former slave.

    It’s not our imagination that Knight recited the Lord’s prayer after his raid on Paulding. Our endnote cites three sources: Meigs Frost’s 1921 interview with Knight; Tom Knight’s Life and Adventures; and the interview with Andrews, Strickland, and Edwards in Miscellaneous Records of Jones County. Though I don’t have the sources in front of me, I can easily find out which one says that Knight recited the Lord’s Prayer.

    We do not assert as fact that Knight escaped Corinth with the aid of numerous slaves. Rather, we use parallel stories to suggest what Knight’s escape from Corinth might have looked like. In other words, we offer informed speculation, an orthodox ingredient of rigorous history. We rely on the writings of John Aughey, a fugitive who stole across the same section of countryside at the same time as Knight. Aughey’s account, we suggest, “sheds light on the extent to which slaves aided Unionists and sought their own liberation as well.” And his experiences “probably reflected Newton’s.” We also draw on the account of Wallace Turnage, a fugitive slave who fled through Northern Mississippi at the same time as Knight and Aughey. We’re very clear about not confusing Knight’s with Aughey’s or Turnage’s experiences.

    3. From the perspective of whites in Mississippi, Newton did live in a black community; they said as much.

    Giving property to black women was not a “common practice,” contra Bynum. It was rare. Newton deeded Rachel 160 acres (a considerable amount) at the end of Reconstruction. This was extremely rare. So were Newton’s efforts to build a schoolhouse for Rachel’s children. He thought the schoolhouse would be integrated, but the teacher refused to instruct black children. According to the ex-slave Martha Wheeler, Newton “had a complete break with the whites because he undertook to send several of his Negro children to a white school he had been instrumental in building.” Newton was buried alongside Rachel in his black family’s cemetery. These facts, most of them absent from Bynum’s book, persuaded us that he treated Rachel as his equal.

    4. On Vicksburg: The men Bynum cites in her book and response did not serve with Knight, and the testimony about when and from where he deserted is filled with uncertainty. We don’t know where Knight was while under arrest, and it was quite common for soldiers under arrest to be with their battalion. The issue here is that we offer one plausible explanation, Bynum another. That’s historiography.

    5. We never said Bynum “ignored the Official Records altogether.” What we said was that she ignored certain documents from the Official Records.

    In no way did I intend to “arrogantly insult the intelligence of non-academic readers,” as Bynum accuses. But there’s a fundamental difference between sales of popular histories and scholarly monographs. The State of Jones has sold over 50,000 copies in two months. It’s rare for a scholarly monograph to sell 10,000 copies in ten years. I know: I’ve published scholarly monographs and know numerous editors at university presses.

    6. Bynum is right in noting that our book will not correct “the deep-seated problems in our nation’s educational system.” But we can try to make a small dent. Our book has generated a lot of interest in Southern Unionism. And it has boosted sales of Bynum’s book! I think that’s a good thing, because the more history people read, the better off we as a society will be.

    John Stauffer

  • Craig Aug 24, 2009 @ 19:30

    While I haven’t read Professor Bynum’s monograph nor the popular history produced by Professor Stauffer and the journalist Sally Jenkins, I have recently been thumbing through excerpts of an online publication of a book called ‘King of Louisiana’ by Raymond Banks that was published in 2005 in what looks like manuscript form. The book is a biography of Nathaniel P. Banks, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and governor of Massachusetts, who became a Major General and was assigned the task of relieving General Butler, who had placed New Orleans under martial law following Farragut’s capture of the city. I didn’t see any specific indication that Raymond Banks is or is not a descendant of Nathaniel Banks, but from what I’ve read I can’t imagine that he isn’t simply because he manages to find so much order in such an abundance of often confusing detail. The picture he presents is one of amazing complexity, politically, economically and militarily. I can’t help but wonder if some of the passion and intensity fueling the debate over ‘The State of Jones’ isn’t a product of so many generals going opposite directions at once, due in some measure to the elaborate and often highly nuanced maneuverings of Banks. I found it interesting that Banks is presented as the first Union general to deploy United States Colored Troops in battle and that the experiment was not one he saw fit to repeat. While it may or may not be clear if Newt Knight was or was not at Vicksburg, I’m fairly certain that both Grant and Sherman were, and how long they stayed in that vicinity after the fall of Vicksburg depended to some extent on whether and how much Banks moved on Mobile, Shreveport and Galveston with the resources he had on hand. A large part of the strategy seemed to involve keeping people guessing. Could haves, would haves and should haves seem to have been his stock in trade, and it’s hard to imagine that that uncertainty wouldn’t have been prevalent throughout the entire cotton kingdom. One thing that’s very clear in Banks on Banks is that people’s personal political convictions and espousals were always being tested by their individual circumstances. I’d be interested to know to what extent the State of Jones authors view comprehending Banks as an integral part of understanding Jones. Personally, I’m inclined to the view that the war ended when Mobile fell, which just happened to coincide with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and Mobile fell after Grant replaced Halleck and Canby replaced Banks, allowing the war to take a much more decisive turn once the election of 1864 was concluded. If Banks had developed more military efficacy in his tenure it’s certainly questionable whether Sherman would have been free to join forces with Grant at Chattanooga, opening the door for his drive to Atlanta and from there to the sea. I’m not a Civil War scholar or a historian, just someone whose great great grandfather spent the last six months of his life as a German speaking private in a blue uniform. During that six months he spent time in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Missouri. Nathaniel Banks was back in Washington by the time my great great grandfather entered the war, but my ancestor’s tour of duty is incomprehensible without an understanding of what it means to call Banks the king of Louisiana.

  • Rebecca Aug 24, 2009 @ 18:34


    This has been an interesting discussion. I’ve been watching from afar. My speciality is *not* the Civil War so I cannot judge either Jenkins’ and Stauffer’s book or Bynum’s book. I don’t know the sources or the historiographical issues. However, I can say it is extremely difficult to extrapolate what someone believed from evidence that he recited the Lord’s Prayer. Many Christian denominations, mainstream and otherwise, abolitionist and proslavery, used the Lord’s Prayer or versions of it. Even folks with no denominational affiliation or particular religious feeling might have used the prayer, common as it was, after a traumatic event. So, even if our protagonist said the prayer in the context Tom Knight claimed he said it, it doesn’t tell us very much about what Newt did or did not believe. It merely indicates he was familiar with common mid-nineteenth-century Christian practice.

    Kevin, this has been an interesting discussion. Thanks for publishing it.

  • victoria bynum Aug 24, 2009 @ 17:37

    Let’s assume that Newt Knight was returned to the 7th Battalion after being imprisoned in February 1863. Jenkins and Stauffer are left to argue that he was in Vicksburg for a few days before making his escape to Jones County, where he was reported to be during the month of May. It is, I repeat, an argument that has no corroboration from any person or any record.

    In his 1921 interview with Meigs Frost, Newt makes a few references to the Lord (certainly not “repeatedly”), but his stated reason for deserting in that interview was the Twenty Negro Law, which convinced nonslaveholding farmers like himself and Jasper Collins that this was a “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.”

    As for Tom Knight being the sole source for the authors’ assertion that Newt said the Lord’s Prayer after his raid on Paulding, I rest my case–there is no compelling evidence that Newt Knight opposed slavery on religious grounds. Despite the authors’ exaggerated claims, their work is highly derivative of my own, neither original nor groundbreaking.

    I, too, hope that this can be wrapped up; I’m weary of repeating myself, and I know that readers are weary of it, too.

    Victoria Bynum
    Professor of History
    Texas State University

  • Sally Jenkins Aug 24, 2009 @ 13:09

    Hi, I don’t intend to flame here, merely to add a couple of small things to the discussion. There actually is a good deal of evidence that Newton was religious, and the notion that he recited the Lord’s Prayer at Paulding is contained in Tom Knight’s memoir. In Newton’s own account of himself to the journalist Meigs Frost in 1921, he repeatedly invokes the Lord, and his belief that the Lord directed him. He even says that on one occasion he aimed his shotgun, saying, “Lord God direct this load.” I would also like to add something on the matter of Vicksburg: Knight’s 7th Battalion service record for February 30 1863 lists him as “Present,” as well as “In Arrest.”

  • James F. Epperson Aug 24, 2009 @ 12:38

    Kevin, I can’t speak to broad science conferences, but most math conferences are civil. (How excited can one get arguing about algebraic topology?) I, too, appreciate your opening your blog up to this discussion (both now and before). I think I have learned a lot. And I apologize if my previous post offended anyone.

  • Barton Myers Aug 24, 2009 @ 12:08

    I would like to thank Kevin for allowing his blog to be the home for civil academic discourse in the Civil War field. If this debate had been forced to play out in a major historical journal, the merits of the unionist scholarship and this topic’s importance might never have come to light for many engaged readers outside the academy. Furthermore, it would have probably taken an eternity to see both sides of the debate. Thanks again, Kevin

    Barton A. Myers
    Postdoctoral Fellow in Military History
    Cornell University

  • James F. Epperson Aug 24, 2009 @ 11:48

    I’ve been participating in Civil War discussion groups (of one form or another) online now for 15 years or so. I’ve seen my share of “flame wars” and, alas, participated in and even precipitated a few. So I can imagine what is going to happen to Kevin’s blog now. If I may be so bold, I would suggest that both principals give it a rest. Both have had their say, each with certain advantages. Neither one is going to convince the other, you are just going to provide the other with more excuses to respond. You’ve both made your points. Obviously, it is Kevin’s blog, so it is his call; I’m just making a modest plea for peace and civility, and now I’ll go back to reading mathematics, where the arguments are only slightly less heated.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2009 @ 11:58


      Thanks for your input. Actually, it seems to me that the tone of this debate from the beginning has fallen well within the boundaries of civil discourse. Of course, it is relative compared with other disciplines. My wife tells me that science conferences are medieval.

  • victoria bynum Aug 24, 2009 @ 11:17

    I will try not to unduly digress in my response to Professor Stauffer’s remarks.

    1. Jones County never seceded:

    Stauffer defends State of Jones’s subtitle, “The Small Southern County that Seceded From the Confederacy,” as consistent with the Confederacy’s description of Newt Knight and the Knight Company as “traitors.” Such a simplistic view of secession-within-secession—particularly as it applies to Jones County—distorts the history of this important insurrection. For many years, as Jenkins and Stauffer well know, the myth that Jones County had written its own constitution, formed its own government, and declared itself an independent “Republic of Jones,” was perpetuated by newspaper editors, folklorists, and even a few historians. To restore that myth in the form of a subtitle (when what is described within is an insurrection) I consider indefensible.

    2. Newton Knight was not an antislavery Unionist:

    My book, The Free State of Jones, argues strenuously that Newton Knight led a Unionist uprising against the Confederacy, and I have no conflict with that aspect of Jenkins and Stauffer’s argument. In fact, I, too, cite evidence that “suggests” that Newton Knight opposed slavery. On p. 64 of The Free State of Jones, I point out that his parents appear deliberately to have avoided owning slaves, and that they may have opposed the institution. On p. 145, I quote Anna Knight, likely his daughter, who described Newt in 1952 as “one of the younger Knights who did not believe in slavery.”

    But Jenkins and Stauffer claim much more: they insist that Newt Knight “fought for racial equality during the war and after” (p. 3). After the war, yes, such an argument can be made. On p. 144 of The Free State of Jones, I myself state that “Unlike the vast majority of his friends and neighbors, Newt Knight defied the racial order imposed under the ‘redeemed’ governments of the late nineteenth century.”

    What cannot be justified, and what I strenuously object to, is the authors’ depiction of Newt Knight as a religiously-inspired abolitionist who “forged bonds of alliance with blacks that were unmatched by even Northern abolitionists” (p. 4). There is no concrete evidence that Newt Knight ever even attended church, much less a church that encouraged antislavery views, and his only documented slave alliance was with Rachel Knight. Lack of evidence, however, does not deter Stauffer and Jenkins. In their imagination, Newt recites the Lord’s Prayer after raiding the supply house in Paulding (p. 178), and escapes Corinth with the aid of numerous anonymous slaves during the long trip back to Jones County (pp. 88-91). Plausible? I’ll leave that to readers. Supported by evidence? Not a shred.

    3. Newt Knight was No Friend of Blacks:

    Since I neither argue that Newt Knight was anti-black, nor that his relationship with Rachel Knight was one of “common concubinage,” I have no idea who Stauffer is criticizing here—he does not say. I would also point out that all of ex-slave Martha Wheeler’s statements are quoted in my own book, and they are certainly not original to State of Jones.

    The fact that Newt Knight lived openly among his multiracial descendants is not the same as choosing to live in a “black community,” as a few radical abolitionists such as John Brown did. There is documented evidence that many of Newt’s descendants did not consider themselves to be “black,” and some oral evidence that suggests Newt did not consider them “black,” either. Scholars of race have made great strides during the past decades in providing a more nuanced understanding of racial identity among people of African ancestry in the Old and New South. Scholars of race and gender have likewise provided much more complicated analyses of interracial relationships than readers will find in State of Jones. Newt and Rachel Knight may indeed have loved one another deeply, and they certainly carved out a space in Jim Crow Mississippi that deserves our attention, but there is no evidence that justifies the authors’ claims that Newt treated Rachel as his equal. To make such a claim simply because Newt openly embraced his multiracial family, and left them property (a much more common practice than Jenkins and Stauffer seem aware of), is naïve at best and shockingly ahistorical at worst.

    4. There is no evidence that Newton Knight was at Vicksburg:

    Since I have already stated my case in regard to whether it is plausible that Newt Knight was at Vicksburg. I will add only a few additional remarks here. Stauffer argues that Newt was likely at Vicksburg based on military records showing that he was “under arrest” in February, 1863. Newt Knight’s military record does indeed report him as “in arrest” during that month and year. His record does not, however, report that he was returned to the 7th Battalion, which was ordered soon after to Vicksburg. Here is what John Mathews, H.L Sumrall, Allen Valentine, and Madison Herrington (all of whom were close kin to at least one member of the Knight Company) had to say about Newt’s arrest by Confederates in their sworn letter of 1870:

    “. . . finally they got holt of him and they tyed him and drove him to PRISON [emphasis mine] and they cruelly treated him for some length of time. Finally he got away from them and came back home in the month of May 1863. . . .”

    Perhaps the question should not be, as Stauffer states, whether Newt could reasonably have deserted Snyder’s Bluff, but whether he was returned to his unit after his arrest, or imprisoned as the above testimony states. Stauffer ends this section by remarking that the question of Vicksburg is “irrelevant” to his and Jenkins’ larger argument that Newt Knight was an antislavery Unionist. Granted, but it is certainly relevant to larger questions about the authors’ responsible use of evidence.

    5. The State of Jones is myth, not history:

    As the authors know full well, I do not treat the Jones County uprising as a myth in any of my works on the subject. Yet, there are many myths that surround this true story that they have borrowed and expanded upon.

    I dispute Stauffer’s statement that he and Jenkins “treat Ethel Knight with the caution she deserves.” A perfect example of their uncritical use of her book is their acceptance at face value of her description of the Knight Company sitting around the campfire singing “John Brown’s Body” (p. 141). In their accompanying footnote, the authors’ “caution” is expressed in the following words: “Ethel Knight was one of those neo-Confederates who tended to characterize the Knight band as criminal rather than political, so it’s interesting that she asserts the men sang Union songs.”

    “Interesting?” I’d say so! In 1951, the year Ethel Knight published Echo of the Black Horn, the singing of “John Brown’s Body” would have been “criminal” to an avid segregationist and neo-Confederate such as herself. Characterizing Newt and his men as abolitionists is entirely consistent with Ethel’s effort to paint Newt Knight as a traitor to his race as well as the Confederacy. Ethel’s book is a classic example of “history” being distorted to support an author’s present–day political views—she begins her book by blaming the civil rights movement on “communistic elements.” Many descendants, black and white, have chronicled this book’s myriad untruths and racism, and no responsible historian would accept Ethel’s uncorroborated stories as fact.

    Tom Knight’s book also contains true stories, partly-true stories, and untrue stories. It’s up to the historian to approach those stories with a critical eye to determine which can reasonably be used, which must be modified to fit the facts, and which are simply unreliable. Rudy Leverett, for example, wrote a military history of the Free State of Jones in which he used those stories of Tom’s that could be corroborated, more or less, by military records. Jenkins and Stauffer take no such care, and use Tom’s stories wherever they amplify their portrayal of Newt Knight’s heroism.

    Professor Stauffer offers countdowns of how many times our respective books cite certain sources, pointing out that I cite Ethel and Tom’s books 105 times, while they cite them only 89 times. Such a comparison of citations is meaningless and, at its root, dishonest. Anyone who has read The Free State of Jones knows that I deconstruct both books throughout (as they do not), and that my citations are a fundamental part of that critical assessment.

    Then there are our citations of the Official Records, where Jenkins and Stauffer beat me 117 to 16. Of course, The Free State of Jones is a home front study that includes two chapters on the Revolutionary and frontier origins of Jones County, while theirs is much more narrowly focused on Civil War battles. Thus, the difference in the comparative number of citations is hardly surprising. I would also remind readers that on July 11, Stauffer and Jenkins accused me on this blog’s “Stauffer and Jenkins Respond” post of ignoring the Official Records altogether, out of “sheer defensiveness,” in order to “willfully distort the record” of Jones County’s insurrection. Stauffer appears now to have abandoned that canard in favor of a count-the-citations game.

    Similarly, since I only occasionally engage in the use of “parallel stories,” my citations of ex-slave narratives and autobiographies are far fewer than theirs. I make no apology for my decision to use only the most relevant of those narratives to shed light on the history of Newt Knight and the Jones County uprising.

    Stauffer refers to my book as a “scholarly monograph, not a narrative designed for broad readership.” While I understand very well the importance of “popular history,” I believe he rather arrogantly insults the intelligence of non-academic readers, many of whom continue to read and enjoy The Free State of Jones. I have no problem with Stauffer and Jenkins writing a book about the Free State of Jones. Indeed, I have provided evidence from my own research files to literally every researcher who has ever contacted me. My objection is to the authors’ misuse and distortion of evidence, period.

    6. The State of Jones was inspired by a Hollywood screenplay, it must be bad history:

    I have never made the above claim. However, I will comment on Stauffer’s remark that “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.” I seriously doubt that the addition of “popular” histories such as State of Jones will correct such deep-seated problems in our nation’s educational system. Rather, with State of Jones, we now have a “history” that encourages readers to believe that a southern John Brown-style abolitionist named Newt Knight convinced an entire southern county to secede from the Confederacy, then “virtually” married a black woman and treated her as his equal. Again, the authors insult the intelligence of many American readers, who deserve the truth in trade-published popular histories as well as in university press publications.

    Victoria Bynum
    Professor of History
    Texas State University, San Marcos

  • John Stauffer Aug 24, 2009 @ 7:43

    Dear J.L. Bell: Thanks for your comment; I appreciate it. Obviously Sally and I feel the same way as you do. Best, John Stauffer

  • J. L. Bell Aug 24, 2009 @ 7:21

    In reading the comments about The State of Jones on Amazon, I was struck by how people criticized the book for stating so often what “might have” or “probably” happened in the absence of solid evidence. One commenter even implied that such statements turned the book into fiction.

    I think entirely the opposite is true: acknowledging levels of uncertainty is what distinguishes historical writing from fictional writing. Popular history does so less often than scholarly history, and I’m pleased to see Prof. Stauffer emphasize how he and Jenkins “distinguish in our book between what can be known, what might be surmised, and what is informed speculation.”

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