“The State of Jones – The Small Southern County That Seceded from the Confederacy,” by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, 2010
1862. Starving, exhausted Confederate soldiers ordered by pompous, aggressive plantation aristocrats into frontal assaults against fortified union positions at Corinth. 1862. A frightened, wet, cold, dirty deserter from the Confederate army, hiding in Mississippi’s Piney Woods swamp, waiting for a slave woman to bring him a plate of food. 1863. A prominent businessman and Confederate tax assessor shot through his own open window in Jones County, Mississippi. 1864. A 6’4” long-haired Mississippi man with a triple-loaded, double-barreled shotgun, standing on the edge of the woods with his relatives and neighbors, waiting for a group of Confederate cavalry to pass and meet their doom.
Welcome to the class war in the Confederacy. Contrary to the myth of the Confederacy promoted by reactionaries, the majority of southerners opposed the war when it started, but were not allowed to directly vote. Resistance to the vote for secession, the subsequent war initiated by the slave-holders and the draconian policies of the failing Confederacy against their own people far surpassed anything in the North. And until recently it has been a well-hidden secret – especially to southerners. The only glimpse we have seen of it in popular culture is the film “Cold Mountain,” set in North Carolina. After the Confederacy passed the "20 Negroes Rule" (which allowed planters with 20 slaves to avoid the draft) many class-conscious and non-slave owning southern men became deserters.
This book, a well-written and almost novelistic history, takes you inside the Mississippi resistance by poor yeoman farmers in 6 counties in central Mississippi, lead by a Confederate deserter named Newton Knight. It really answers the question of why Jeff Davis’ slave-holding class lost the Civil War. What would happen if you gave a war and people stopped showing up?
Knight hated the rich people in his county who stole from poverty-stricken farm wives, to both line their own pockets and to ostensibly feed the Confederate Army. Knight, like his fellow farmers, had nothing in common with large plantation owners who owned hundreds of slaves, and who continued to produce profitable cotton while the population starved. He refused to own slaves himself, and actually lived with a black slave / freedwoman named Rachel during and after the war, while also being married to a white woman, Serena. Knight, his neighbors and relatives, took control of six counties in south-central Mississippi, and ran the Confederate authorities out through carefully-planned guerilla violence. In the process, they were helped by black slaves and runaways who thronged the swamps that were a favorite hiding-place. His group, the Jones County Scouts, declared their allegiance to the Union Army. They met with union officers when Sherman's generals marched just south of Jones County, and also along the rivers, as some supplies were delivered by union boats. They defeated every Confederate incursion into the area, even by the most well-trained and violent Confederate units, mostly by knowing when to fight, and when not to. Newton claimed his troops were in 16 large engagements, and many smaller ones.
After the war, Newton later applied for a pension from the Union Army, but was denied because thick-headed northern legislators could not believe a southern man would fight for the North.
After a short period that can actually be called ‘reconstruction,' the violent racist businessmen of Mississippi and the demobilized Confederate Army (now known as the Ku Klux Klan), with help from northern racists like president Andrew Johnson, made the lives of black people and southern Unionists a living hell. In this few years of true Reconstruction, the vote and the Union army allowed black people and Unionist southern whites to hold democratic power, and begin to institute education, infrastructure improvements and democratic rights.
During Reconstruction, Knight had been an officer of the Mississippi government, as an officer of the peace and as a tax collector. He built a school for black children, but when black children were not allowed, the school mysteriously burned down. Later one of his nieces came back to Ellisville and started a school for black children, which was discovered by racists, and also burned down. He fathered many mixed children before his second ‘wife’ Rachel died. Serena eventually left him as well.
Because they could not actually win an election, the Klan and the prominent citizens of Mississippi used killings, burnings and terror to change the tide. Even U.S. Grant refused to call out troops in Vicksburg in the 1975 elections. In Vicksburg, neo-Confederate Klansman and “White Liners” killed dozens, ran the Unionist mayor out of town, and controlled the ballot box. So Grant lost the city he had so well-won in 1863. The famous Adelbert Ames, the Unionist governor of Mississippi (and probably the best governor that benighted state has ever had…) was threatened and lost the election, after making the mistake of disbanding the armed black militia. The “Black Codes’ were reintroduced, and black people faced up to 90 years without the right to vote, to own land or a business, or to an education. They had the ‘right’ to be poorly paid sharecroppers, and to be killed at will. It was slavery without the name.
Because of their history, and the failure of Reconstruction, the many members of the Knight family were shunned by local whites, and grew apart from the larger community, eventually inter-marrying. At some point the mixed family members, even the ‘white’ Newton, were declared all “Negroes” by the Mississippi census. They were known as the ‘Knight Negroes” to their deeply racist neighbors. Even some of the men Newton fought with could not stand against this tide, and shunned him too. Newton died in 1922, and in 1948, one of Newton’s nephews was put on trial for the ‘crime of miscegenation,’ as he was partly black. Since the evidence was so old, they could not convict. However, it shows you the vicious lengths the racists went in their crusade.
If there is anything this book teaches, it is that the divisions reflected in the civil war are still at the heart of the present struggle between the working class and the rich. It also teaches Knights lesson – that the only thing these people understand, ultimately, is a well-packed shotgun.
This story will soon be a film by Gary Ross, to be released in 2012.
And I bought it at Malaprop’s Books, in Asheville, North Carolina
Red Frog, 3/9/2011