The Free State of Jones: A Roundtable

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Mississippi, United States on 2017-11-13 01:33Z by Steven

The Free State of Jones: A Roundtable

Civil War History
Volume 63, Number 4, December 2017
pages 400-420

Joseph Beilein (JB), Assistant Professor of History
Pennsylvania State University, Behrend

Margaret Storey (MS), Professor of History and Associate Dean
DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois

Andrew Slap (AS), Professor of History
East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tenneessee

Jarret Ruminski (JR), Freelance Writer, researcher, and Consultant
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Ryan Keating (RK), Civil War History book review editor; Assistant Professor of History
California State University, San Bernardino

The summer of 2016 saw the release of the first large-budget Civil War film since 2012’s critically acclaimed Lincoln. The Free State of Jones, directed by Gary Ross and starring Matthew McConaughey, is not simply, however, another film about the Civil War. Based on historian Victoria Bynum’s acclaimed book The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, this film marks an important shift in the popular depiction of America’s greatest conflict as it takes viewers inside the complex inner civil wars many Americans fought during this period. Long defined as a conflict pitting the north against the south, the realities of the Civil War were, as this film attempts to show, much more complex. Questions of loyalty and issues of patriotism have become an important part of the historiography of the Civil War era, illustrating the ways average men and women, North and South, struggled with the collision of national and local issues. Although the nuances of patriotism and loyalty have long driven the scholarly community, these issues have played a less important role in public, and especially Hollywood, portrayals of the war and the Reconstruction era. Certainly, past films have touched on the subject. Ride with the Devil, Pharaoh’s Army, and Cold Mountain, for example, all touch on patriotism and loyalty, as the main characters struggle with the consequences of the war on the home front. Based on a true story, Free State of Jones, is, however, the first to truly analyze this struggle through the lens of southern dissent. Following the experiences of Mississippian Newton Knight, a disillusioned southern soldier who returns home to lead a revolt against Confederate authorities in Mississippi, the film strikes at the heart of the complex nature of identity, patriotism, and loyalty during the Civil War and Reconstruction and gives viewers a rare glimpse into aspects of the war often overlooked by Hollywood film.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia by Eva Sheppard Wolf (review) [Padraig Riley]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2014-05-21 14:41Z by Steven

Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia by Eva Sheppard Wolf (review) [Padraig Riley]

Civil War History
Volume 60, Number 2, June 2014
pages 199-201
DOI: 10.1353/cwh.2014.0041

Padraig Riley, Assistant Professor of History
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Wolf, Eva Sheppard, Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012)

Almost Free is the story of Samuel Johnson of Warrenton, Virginia, a mixed-race slave who worked successfully to free himself and then purchased his wife and children in the early nineteenth century. Less successfully, he then struggled for many years to free his extended family, and to establish a legacy of black freedom in the heart of the slaveholding republic. Relying on a remarkable series of petitions Johnson sent to the Virginia state legislature from 1811 to 1837, Wolf reconstructs the man’s life and identity. This entails considerable speculation, but Wolf’s imaginings are balanced by a rich archival source base covering much of Johnson’s life. This accessible book is ideal for undergraduate instruction, and it is an important addition to scholarship on race and slavery. For Wolf, Samuel Johnson demonstrates that free blacks were not simply “slaves without masters” and that race in the antebellum South was a fluid concept, rather than a simple black-and-white proposition.

Wolf contends that race was not dictated by statute but rather was “something people themselves created and re-created in their multiple interactions with one another” (3). Samuel Johnson became free in 1812, well after an 1806 statute that compelled all freed slaves to leave the state within a year, under threat of being sold back into slavery. Because he wanted to remain in Virginia, he had to petition the state legislature. While most such petitions failed, Johnson’s succeeded because he was backed by both local whites and a few influential political figures. Thus, at the local level, whites did not simply act out the 1806 statute or Thomas Jefferson’s fears about the dangers of slave emancipation. They instead accepted Samuel Johnson as their neighbor, quite literally in the case of John and Maria Smith, who lived next door to him.

As a free man, Johnson saved money to purchase his wife and children, becoming, like many free black slaveholders, the master of his own family. He also owned land and sued white men in court. But, ultimately, the law left him and his family vulnerable. Despite numerous petitions to the state legislature, his family members were never allowed to remain in Virginia as free inhabitants. Had Johnson freed his family, they would have been legally bound to leave the state within a year; had he unexpectedly died, his family would have remained enslaved, subject to sale. In addition, Johnson suffered numerous other legal restraints as a free man of color, from restrictions on owning firearms to being unable to testify against a white man in court. He could be a white man’s neighbor, but he was very far from being his equal.

Why, then, did Johnson stay? Wolf poses this question quite poignantly by contrasting Johnson with Spencer Malvin, a free African American man who married Johnson’s daughter Lucy in 1826. Malvin, born free, knew the evils of slavery firsthand: as a teenager, he had been apprenticed to one Fielding Sinclair, who killed his adolescent slave. Sinclair was charged with murder, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence, perhaps because Malvin could not testify against a white man. After Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, Malvin openly attacked slavery, circulating antislavery papers in Warrenton. He left Virginia and his family in 1832, along with a fugitive named Sandy, eventually settling in Pennsylvania.

But Johnson and his daughter Lucy remained, even after white hostility to free blacks increased in the wake of Turner’s rebellion. Many of the local whites who had supported Johnson’s petitions in the past now requested that the state legislature support the colonization of all free blacks outside of Virginia. For Wolf, Johnson’s decision to remain under such circumstances suggests an act of resistance: “In staying, they rejected racial exclusion. . . . They challenged the notion that Virginia belonged to white people” (107).

On the one hand, this contention is clearly true. But in other respects, Samuel Johnson’s life was marked by deference, rather than challenge, and white support for his limited freedom was a sign of condescension rather than recognition. Thus Philip Pendleton Barbour, as Wolf shows us, one of the foremost defenders of slavery during…

Tags: , , ,

The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (Scarborough review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Mississippi, United States on 2013-03-11 04:26Z by Steven

The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (Scarborough review)

Civil War History
Volume 49, Number 1, March 2003
pages 72-74
DOI: 10.1353/cwh.2003.0026

William Kauffman Scarborough, Professor Emeritus of History
University of Southern Mississippi

The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War. By Victoria E. Bynum. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. 316. Cloth.)

For generations the so-called legend of the “Free State of Jones” has circulated throughout Mississippi and, to a lesser extent, beyond the borders of the state. Anti-Confederate elements within this piney-woods county in south Mississippi, so the story goes, actually seceded from the Confederacy and established a small independent republic. As previous historians have discovered, the story is entirely apocryphal. In actuality a band of Confederate deserters led by Newton Knight formed a company in the fall of 1863 that subsequently gained control over much of this predominately non-slaveholding county and engaged in a number of skirmishes with Confederate cavalry units over a period of more than a year. The Knight Company was pretty well decimated during what the author term’s an “infamous” Confederate raid into the county in April 1864 led by Col. Robert Lowery, later a two-term governor of Mississippi (115). By the time the skirmishing ended, ten of the Jones County deserters had  been hanged, and most of the remainder had either fled to the swamps, returned to the Confederate army, or joined the Union army in New Orleans.

Those expecting to read a detailed account of the Civil War activities of Newt Knight and his intrepid band of dissident warriors will be disappointed with this book. Only two of the eight chapters (thirty-four pages in all) are devoted to the war. Instead, the author concentrates primarily on the background of the families that settled in this rural piney-woods county and on the interracial liaisons that resulted in the so-called community of “white Negroes” after the war. Indeed, as the dust jacket proclaims, this is actually an account of the “origins and legacy” of the legendary Jones County rebels from the American Revolution to the twentieth-century civil rights movement. With a heavy emphasis upon the currently fashionable theme of race, class, and gender, Bynum traces the movement of such families as the Knights, Collinses, Welborns, Bynums (the author’s father was a native of Jones County), Sumralls, Welches, and Valentines from their antecedents in the Carolinas, where they were allegedly influenced by the Great Awakening and the Regulator Movement, to their settlement in south Mississippi during the first third of the nineteenth century. It was these independent-minded nonslaveholding yeomen who opposed secession in 1861 and ultimately took up arms against the Confederacy, aided in no small measure by the female members of their families.

One of those women was Rachel Knight, a mulatto slave who had supported the Knight Company during the war and who later had a long-term intimate relationship with Knight, apparently bearing him at least two sons. Whatever the true relationship between Newt and Rachel, it is clear that the older children of the two intermarried beginning about 1878, thereby giving rise to a mixed-race community in Jones County that endures to this day. The ambiguous racial identities in the county were illuminated in 1948 when Davis Knight, a great-grandson of Rachel Knight, was convicted of violating the anti-miscegenation laws then on the books in Mississippi because he had married a white woman two years before. Although his conviction was overturned by the state supreme court, the case illustrates the complexity of the family relationships that resulted from the interracial unions inaugurated by Knight and his black paramour.

Bynum, who clearly sympathizes with Knight and his company of anti-Confederates, contends that the Civil War dissident has been stigmatized unfairly by his postwar defiance of racial customs. If he was not quite the Robin Hood figure depicted by his son, Thomas J. Knight, in a 1935 biography, he was certainly not the villainous traitor described by his segregationist grandniece, Ethel Knight, in what…

Tags: , , , , ,

A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2013-01-09 20:40Z by Steven

A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (review)

Civil War History
Volume 52, Number 2, June 2006
pages 180-182
DOI: 10.1353/cwh.2006.0034

Michael A. Morrison, Associate Professor of History
Purdue University

A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic. By Bruce Dain. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. 321.)

A Hideous Monster of the Mind is a closely argued, nuanced, and sophisticated study of the intellectual history of the construction of race in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War. Bruce Dain positions this fine study in multiple contexts. Dain first broadens his analysis by demonstrating that the intellectual construction of race took place as part of a transatlantic dialogue among European naturalists and philosophers on the one side and American theorists—politicians, religious figures, and scientists—on the other. Thus Dain’s consideration of the multiple and plastic meanings of race reflect and extend evolving Anglo-European theories of humankind and the differences with in it. Finally in what is the most significant contribution of an important book on race, Dain integrates black theorists and writers such as Phyllis Wheatley, Prince Saunders, David Walker, Hosea Easton, and James McCune Smith into his description of “black people’s own sense of blackness” (ix).

Dain is careful not to allow his analysis to collapse into neat “black” and “white” polarities of racial thinking. Nor does his narrative of a developing understanding—or more precisely misunderstanding—of racial differences move along a straightforward, linear path. Theories of the origin and meaning of racial differences were various, inconsistent, and often at odds with one another, and they moved along interconnected lines of communication among white elites, black activists, naturalists, physicians, philosophers, abolitionists, and apologists for slavery. Central to their considerations and definitions of race and racial differences was “whether slaves and ex-slaves were capable of citizenship in a republic?” Implicit in this broad proposition was the impact of slavery on the enslaved, the plasticity or immutability of human nature, and underlying questions of reproduction, heredity, history (natural and human), and race mixing.

Thomas Jefferson provides a point of departure. He believed that blackness was a God-given natural entity (a “distinct race”) and that, accordingly, American slavery was an intractable problem: blacks—free and freed—”were too inferior and resentful to be citizens of Virginia” (31). Not only would blacks not have a place or role in the republic, according to Jefferson and others of his mind they posed an internal threat to its harmony. White reaction to the Haitian Revolution, which constitutes one of the strongest and most original chapters in the work, broadened those concerns and fears to encompass free blacks and mulattos.

Nineteenth-century African Americans who engaged race theory begged to differ. As their writings emerged in the 1820s—primarily in the African-American newspaper Freedom’s Journal and David Walker’s Appeal . . . to the Collective Citizens of the World—they dilated on blacks’ “enduring redemptive Christianity and sense of race as defined by exploitation and suffering in the modern Atlantic world” (113). Aware of the white authors, their writings were both informed by and a reaction to those racial theories. Stressing the mutability of the human condition, an author writing in Freedom’s Journal, concluded that race was a category that was a function of white prejudice. The author turned Jefferson’s argument on its pointed head, rejecting any relationship between skin color and intelligence or its obverse skin color and degradation. David Walker went further damning New World slavery as the worst form of debasement and insisting that there were only two racial entities: “blacks and whites, the two poles of human virtue and venality” (144).

Building on but taking a slightly different trajectory from Walker, Hosea Easton began with the assumption that monogenism was a given and that any perceived differences among humans were a heritable variation in response to the environment. Slavery, he concluded, not skin color or immutable racial differences produced prejudice. Thus as a disease of…

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The Miscegenation of Richard Mentor Johnson as an Issue in the National Election Campaign of 1835-1836

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2012-10-09 20:52Z by Steven

The Miscegenation of Richard Mentor Johnson as an Issue in the National Election Campaign of 1835-1836

Civil War History
Volume 39, Number 1, March 1993
pages 5-30
DOI: 10.1353/cwh.1993.0043

Thomas Brown

White American men of the antebellum era abhorred few, if any, things more than the danger of an “amalgamation” of their race with African Americans through interracial sexual relations. But their concerns about miscegenation between whites and blacks were usually not a major factor in national politics. However, in the election of 1836, the Democratic candidate for vice president was Representative Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, who was revealed to be a “practical amalgamator.” The opposition to the Democrats—an assortment of Antimasons, Whigs, and disaffected Democrats supporting three presidential candidates in different parts of the country—exploited Johnson’s candidacy to make the menace of amalgamation into a national political issue. Its attacks compelled the Democrats, in turn, to deal with the issue of Johnson’s private life in a manner designed to minimize the damage to their party, and perhaps even make an asset of a liability. The positions taken in the controversy over Johnson’s miscegenation are of great value and interest, for the spokesmen of the opposing sides had to grapple with…

Tags: , ,