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The State of Jones

A book by Sally Jenkins

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Deconstructing reconstruction

  • Aug 23, 2009
  • by
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, fear and death, with a twisting of politics, history, culture, language, and geography so intensely tangled that it was easy to forget, or hard to remember, who had won the great Civil war and why it had been fought.

I found Sally Jenkin's and John Stauffer's retelling of Union loyalists in the Deep South during the Civil War and how these loyalists fared during the war a let down for two key reasons.

1. The title promised a tale it didn't deliver. Indeed, there is a body of evidence, that Jenkins and Stuaffer mine, that secession was not universally supported even in slave-owner controlled Mississippi. Small landowners and poor laborers who did not own slaves and in fact were politically and economically disadvantaged by the slave economy sometimes had the courage (and it took much) to stand against secession and for the Union. But there was no "state of Jones", but rather a small core of men and women who acted on their convictions to stand loyal to the Federal government during the Civil War. By applying the title "State of Jones", the authors' imply a solidarity and success for a quixotic effort that was more short-lived, spatially limited, and literally shot down than successful. Indeed the story of this lost cause of Lost Causes would be better told from the standpoint of its impossibility in light of the odds and the eventual outcome of Reconstruction. This small point of light was quickly expunged by lynching, Jim Crow, and the Klan.

2. By deciding to focus on one county in Mississippi, and primarily on one family in that county, the authors' left themselves too little documentary evidence to craft a narrative, so they constructed one from a broader pool of data. This kind of constructed narrative is frustrating to read because of the authors' attempted telling of the titled story results in too many "could have beens" or "events like this". This dilutes the impact of the narrative, and leads the reader to question how much of the evidence really applies to the narrative and how much is brought in to artificially construct it.. I would guess that less than 20% of the documentary evidence Jenkins and Stauffer cite is directly related to Jones County or the Knight family.

Given that percentage of direct versus constructed narrative, I think an author might need to make a decision to abandon a narrative type approach based on a single location or family, and instead write a broader survey history of Union loyalists in the Deep South during the Civil War and how these loyalists fared during the war and influenced the postwar Reconstruction. Or, while I am not normally a fan of historical fiction, the author who wanted to sustain the narrative approach might decide to write a historical fiction based on a county and family, and provide an afterward documenting the historicity of the novel to the extent that it exists.

Either approach would have been preferable to me than the approach actually taken.

Still, I rate this book three stars because while not agreeing with the approach the authors took to tell the story, I found the story well worth the telling. The history of Union loyalists in the Deep South during the Civil War and how these loyalists fared during the war and influenced the postwar Reconstruction is a story that needs to be read.

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More The State of Jones reviews
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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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #37
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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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 ...

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ISBN-10: 0385525931
ISBN-13: 978-0385525930
Author: Sally Jenkins
Genre: History
Publisher: Doubleday
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