Book Review: 'The State of Jones' by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer

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By Stephen Budiansky
Sunday, September 27, 2009


The Small Southern County That Seceded From the Confederacy

By Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer

Doubleday. 402 pp. $27.50

By the end of the Civil War, more than 100,000 men had deserted from the Confederate Army. Nearly all were from the poorest class of non-slaveholding yeomen farmers, and they bitterly resented the aristocratic disdain of their officers, the plight of families left to wrest subsistence from hardscrabble farms, and a war that increasingly seemed only to serve slavery and the wealthy planter class. As one Alabama farmer put it, "All tha want is to git you . . . to fight for their infurnal negroes and after you do their fightin' you may kiss their hine parts for o tha care."

Above all, the poor Southerners resented the law passed by the Confederate Congress in October 1862 that exempted from the draft one able-bodied white man on every plantation with 20 or more slaves. "I'm through," declared one Mississippi infantryman when he heard of the "Twenty Negro Law." He then uttered a phrase that, as Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer observe in "The State of Jones," echoed through the South for the rest of the war: "This . . . makes it a rich man's war and a poor man's fight."

Thousands of deserters returned to their homes in the upcountry of northern Mississippi and Alabama, east Tennessee and western North Carolina, determined not merely to sit out the war but actively to oppose the Confederacy. Ten thousand men in western and central North Carolina formed the "Heroes of America," carried out raids on Confederate sympathizers and helped fellow Unionists escape to join the federal army. And in the backwoods of Jones County, Miss., a band of deserters and other Unionists became a virtual law unto themselves for the last two years of the war, organizing an infantry company, declaring their allegiance to the United States and assassinating Confederate cavalry officers sent to round them up. The captain of these "Jones County Scouts" was a hard-bitten farmer named Newton Knight, and his story forms the centerpiece of Jenkins and Stauffer's occasionally engrossing but uneven book.

As the authors rightly emphasize, the very existence of such men as Knight poses a challenge to the Lost Cause mythology that the defeated South embraced. In many ways the Confederacy won the war for memory for a century to come, making heroes of its leaders, expunging from school textbooks and battlefield monuments any mention of slavery as the cause of the war, elevating the fight to a noble crusade whose defeat was not a repudiation but merely a tragic failure.

And so the story of Southern Unionism and its internal opposition to the Confederacy largely vanished from the narratives of the war and its aftermath. Southern Unionists were dismissed as a few "tories," "low scoundrels" or "traitors." Knight committed an even more unpardonable sin when he and a former slave named Rachel lived as man and wife. That gives his story both a poignancy and a strange power that reverberated through the following century of racial tribulations. In 1948, Knight's great-grandson was arrested and tried for the criminal offense of marrying a white woman: The state of Mississippi alleged that since his great-grandmother was black, he had one-eighth negro blood, which made him black under the state's miscegenation laws.

That as many as one-third of white Southerners opposed the Confederacy has been well known to historians of the Civil War for at least half a century. But their stories have yet to penetrate popular consciousness, which is why rescuing the biographies of men and women like Newton Knight and Rachel remains an urgent and compelling task. "The State of Jones" contains much that is moving and powerful. It also suffers from many flaws, some of which are avoidable and others not.

The unavoidable problem is that the historical record of poor Southern whites and African Americans of 150 years ago is full of holes. The avoidable flaws arise from the authors' questionable decision to fill those holes with many imagined descriptions of scenes. The authors note that a filmmaker who had written a screenplay about Jones County introduced them and suggested they collaborate on a book. Sally Jenkins, a staff writer for The Washington Post, is the ghostwriter of memoirs by Lance Armstrong and other sports figures. John Stauffer, a professor of American studies at Harvard, is the author of "Giants," a superb linked biography of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass -- and clearly a writer who does not need assistance in producing vivid and finely crafted prose. But many of the recreated scenes in "The State of Jones" are not only unconvincing but overwritten and full of false notes that betray an unfamiliarity with the details of farm life, nature and the weapons and battle the authors purport to convey. It is absurd to suggest that a man like Knight needed to be "taught" how to avoid water moccasins while hiding out in the swamp; a grain mill is not a "gin"; a ramrod is not used to "prime" a gun "for reloading"; shotgun blasts are hardly likely to either "bleach" or "blanch" the night or twilight; mud snakes are not brown.

There are other problems. A quotation from a white Mississippian describing sexual exploitation of black women by "our hot-blooded youth" as a necessary outlet to protect the purity of "the white ladies" is misattributed to an old-guard Yazoo County planter. In fact, the words were uttered by a northern Mississippi Unionist, a careless error by the authors but reflective of their tendency to gloss over the often virulent racism of the anti-Confederate, native white Southerners whom they romanticize in their book. And in several places the authors overstate the notion that Southern Unionism was, and remains, a dark secret. Noting that Knight sought compensation from Congress for his wartime service, they write, "The claims were denied -- Northern politicians were skeptical that any Southerners could have been loyal to the federal side." In fact, in 1871 Congress established the Southern Claims Commission, which paid out $5 million to thousands of Southern claimants for their aid -- and loyalty -- to the Union during the war.

Still, this is an important story that personalizes what remains abstract and counterintuitive in much of our received history of the Civil War, even as we approach its 150th anniversary.

Stephen Budiansky is the author, most recently, of "The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War."

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