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Monday, Aug. 3, 2009

The Dixie Rebels of ‘The State of Jones’

Jenkins, Stauffer tell of ‘Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy’

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Nothing secedes like secession. At one point during the Civil War, the state of Georgia, having seceded from the Union, contemplated seceding from the Confederacy. Georgia didn't succeed in secondarily seceding, but Jones County, Miss., did, effectively if not officially, as Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer show in their exceedingly readable and informative The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy (Doubleday).

But then, Jones County—­or at least a sizable majority of its residentsnever wanted to leave the Union to begin with. They were Southern Unionists who, for the most part, opposed slavery. Furthermore, Jenkins, an author and Washington Post journalist, and Stauffer, an author and Harvard professor, show that the majority of all white Southerners opposed secession, and a significant number fought for the Union.

None, however, so fiercely as Newton Knight. From 1863 to 1865, Knight, an anti-slavery farmer from Jones County, led an insurrection against the Confederacy, to the extent that in the last year of the war, rumors circulated that he and his compatriots had formed a separate government, the "Free State of Jones." He fought for racial equality during the war, and for a long time had two large families, one with his legal wife, a white woman, and one with a black woman, a slave once owned by his grandfather's family, with whom he lived until her death and whose children he publicly acknowledged—breaking the strictest Southern taboo of all.

When the Confederacy imposed conscription in April 1862, Knight resisted serving. Class antagonism ran deep. He and his fellow yeoman farmers felt little in common with the merchants and slave-owning planters who ran the various levels of government and pressed them into military service and, once there, treated them as vassals. But dissent to the will of the "Bourbons" who governed Mississippi could be fatal, and professing loyalty to the Union was treason to the Confederacy.

The authors describe a manifestly unfair system. The Confederacy took men for soldiers and then impoverished their farms and families by outright commandeering of food and livestock. Little wonder that desertion continually escalated throughout the war.

Resentment really boiled over in October 1862 with passage of the "20 Negro Law," which stated that one white man on every plantation with 20 or more slaves was permitted to stay at home instead of fight in the war. Knight's attitude was the same as that expressed by an Alabama farmer: "All tha want is to git youto fight for their infurnal negroes and after you do their fightin' you may kiss their hine parts for o tha care."

Knight deserted. He and his followers and other dissidents and deserters from Jones and three surrounding counties hid in the dense Piney Woods swamps that Confederate forces found difficult to penetrate. From there they launched strikes. Black fugitives also took refuge there, and the two groups aided each other.

In October 1863 Knight's force swore an oath to aid the United States in putting down the rebellion. Calling themselves the "Jones County Scouts," they made contact with Union authorities and continually sought official status as a federal unit. By January 1864 the Scouts, not the Confederacy, were in control of the region. They fought, and won, their last engagement Jan. 10, 1865.

The last fifth of the book is devoted to the postwar shambles of Reconstruction and the subjugation of freed slaves and their descendants. Knight pulled back into his compound with his increasingly sprawling, mixed-race family, where he lived until 1922; his exact birth date is unknown, but it's believed that he was in his early 90s. By that time the U.S. Census had officially classified him as black.

Jenkins and Stauffer's larger purpose in writing is to explode the generally accepted notion that all white Southerners were fully united in a desire to form a new nation. The State of Jones is as interesting for its depiction of resisters' domestic and communal life—the Primitive Baptist, egalitarian, non-slave-owning farming society—­as for Knight's exploits.

Indeed, throughout the book the authors consistently use strong terms in referring to the Confederacy, calling them "treasonous states" (rather than, say, the more neutral "seceded states") and Jefferson Davis a "traitor." This could be out of their indignation at recent scholarly attempts to redeem the Confederacy, which they say "more closely resembled a totalitarian state than a democracy."

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