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Amazon Best of the Month, July 2009:Make room in your understanding of the Civil War for Jones County, Mississippi, where a maverick small farmer named Newton Knight made a local legend of himself by leading a civil war of his own against the Confederate authorities. Anti-planter, anti-slavery, and anti-conscription, Knight and thousands of fellow poor whites, army deserters, and runaway slaves waged a guerrilla insurrection against the secession that at its peak could claim the lower third of Mississippi as pro-Union territory. Knight, who survived well beyond the war (and fathered more than a dozen children by two mothers who lived alongside each other, one white and one black), has long been a notorious, half-forgotten figure, and inThe State of Jonesjournalist Sally Jenkins and Harvard historian John Stauffer combine to tell his story with grace and passion. Using court transcripts, family memories, and other sources--and filling the remaining gaps with stylish evocations of crucial moments in the wider war--Jenkins and Stauffer connect Knight's unruly crusade to a South that, at its moment of crisis, was anything but solid.--Tom NissleySally Jenkins and John Stauffer on State of Jones

Newton Knight is the most famous Civil War hero you’ve never heard of, because according to Mississippi legend he betrayed not only the Confederacy but his race as well. In 1863 Knight, a poor farmer from Jones County Mississippi, deserted the Confederate Army—and began fighting for the Union—after the battle of Vicksburg. It was rumored he even started a separate Unionist government, The Free State of Jones, and for two years he battled the Confederacy with a vengeance that solidified his legend. During his life Knight was hardly regarded as a proper soldier by either side, and after his death his Mississippi backwoods grave went unstrewn with flowers. Many southerners would have preferred to spit on it, and most northerners never recognized that such loyalty to the United States could exist in Dixie. But in truth, this lost patriot was a vital actor in helping to preserve the Union.

The recovery of the life of a Mississippi farmer who fought for his country is an important story. The fact that southern Unionists existed, and in very large numbers, is largely unknown to many Americans, who grew up with textbooks that perpetuated the myth of the Confederacy as a heroic Lost Cause, with its romanticized vision of the antebellum South. Some historians have even palpably sympathized with Confederate cavaliers while minimizing—and robbing of credit—the actions of southerners who remained loyal to the Union at desperate cost.

One would never know that the majority of white Southerners had opposed secession, and that many Southern whites fought for the Union. In Tennessee, for example, somewhere around 31,000 white men joined the Union army. In Arkansas more than 8,000 men eventually served in Union regiments. And in Mississippi, Newton Knight and his band of guerillas launched a virtual insurrection against the Confederacy in Jefferson Davis’ own home state.

“There’s lots of ways I’d rather die than being scared to death,” Knight said, and it was a defining statement. At almost every stage of his life this yeoman from the hill country of Jones County, Miss., took courageous stands. The grandson of a slave owner who never owned slaves, he voted against secession, deserted from the Confederate Army into which he was unwillingly impressed, and formed a band called the Jones County Scouts devoted to undermining the Rebel cause locally. Working with runaway slaves and fellow Unionists and Federal soldiers caught behind enemy lines, Knight conducted such an effective running gun battle that at the height of the war he and his allies controlled the entire lower third of the state. This "southern Yankee,” as one Rebel general termed him, remained unconquered until the end of the war. His resistance hampered the Confederate Army’s ability to operate, forced it to conduct a third-front war at home, and eroded its morale and will to fight.

Knight also burst free of racial barriers and forged bonds of alliance with blacks that were unmatched even by Northern abolitionists. He fought as ardently as any man for racial equality during the War, and after, during the terrifying days of Reconstruction, when his life was, if anything, even more in danger. He lived with an ex-slave named Rachel, fathering several children with her (but he never divorced his Caucasian wife, Serena), and worked on behalf of U.S. Grant’s Republican administration and against the nascent Ku Klux Klan, and envisioned a world that would only begin to be implemented a century later. Moreover, he operated in an inverted moral landscape in which fealty to country was labeled traitorous, and kinship with blacks was considered morally repugnant. He survived only because he could reload a shotgun before the smoke cleared.

As an Alabama Unionist told a Congressional committee in 1866 in testifying about the little appreciated service of southern loyalists, “You have no idea of the strength of principle and devotion these people exhibited towards the national government.” —Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer

(John Stauffer photo © Greg Martin; Sally Jenkins photo © Nicole Bengiveno)
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ISBN-10:  0385525931
ISBN-13:  978-0385525930
Author:  Sally Jenkins
Genre:  History
Publisher:  Doubleday
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review by . August 23, 2009
The events that followed the end of the American Civil War from 1865 through roughly 1900, known as Reconstruction, mark the darkest days and events in American history, because they revealed a cold-blooded racial hatred that was deep-seated in the hearts and minds of the majority of white Americans. The history of individual families, black and white, from those years who lived through the worst of the violence, particularly in the deep south states like Mississippi, is one of terror and violence, …
review by . June 29, 2009
First off, The State of Jones is extremely well written and exhaustively researched. That alone would earn it at least 4 stars in my estimation. The Civil War category of history books tends to get over crowded with dry academic readings and revisionist polemics that aim to bolster someone's modern agenda (with themes that range from "clearing the family name" to defending racial politics). The subject and storytelling here dodges the first bullet, making for an engrossing read that truly is "difficult …
review by . July 10, 2009
In his 1927 work Liberalism (Lib Works Ludwig Von Mises PB), Ludwig von Mises wrote, "The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state …
review by . June 23, 2009
This is one of the most fascinating historical accounts I have ever read, as it emphasizes some points of American history that are rarely emphasized. Furthermore, it also demonstrates how mindless patriotic fervor can be mishandled into catastrophe, something that the United States has unfortunately not been able to outgrow.    One terrible fact rarely mentioned is that if there had been an honest and binding vote of all white males of voting age in each of the states of the Confederacy, …
review by . June 16, 2009
In an era when everybody and his mother is writing yet another book praising Lincoln, The State of Jones by Harvard historian John Stauffer is a fresh and original history of the Civil War. Even if you've already read a lot about the Civil War, this book will radically change your understanding of Civil War history.    The book discusses a pro-Union insurrection deep in the heart of the Confederacy - Jones County, Mississippi. It begins with the horrors of war during the battle …
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