The romanticized version of the Civil War has noble Southerners united in a battle to preserve states’ rights and a genteel way of life. The reality is that the South was anything but unified, and there were any number of Southern abolitionists opposed to slavery, the true underlying issue of the war. Consider the residents of Jones County in southern Mississippi, the subject of The State of Jones. They were hardscrabble farmers too poor to own slaves. They were recruited by the South to fight in some major battles, including the siege of Vicksburg. But they ultimately became disenchanted, determining that they weren’t fighting for freedom, but to preserve slavery for wealthy plantation owners. They ended up deserting and returning home to establish their own independent government called “The Free State of Jones.” This ragtag band opposed slavery, declared their allegiance to the Union and fought unending waves of Confederates who tried to quell the uprising.
The State of Jones, by best-selling author Sally Jenkins and Harvard historian John Stauffer, is a colorful account of this defiant group of Southerners, led by a strong, fearless farmer named Newton Knight. A survivor of several Confederate assassination attempts, Knight also killed many of his enemies who came down to Jones County to hunt him down. But The State of Jones isn’t just about violence and war. It is also a love story—albeit a salacious one. Knight fathered close to a dozen children with two women: his white wife, Serena, and a freed slave named Rachel. He then tried unsuccessfully to enroll his mixed-raced children in an all-white school.
The State of Jones is an entertaining, informative book about a courageous group of Southerners clearly ahead of their time. It offers a refreshing look at the issues surrounding the Civil War, and some delightful surprises for even the most knowledgeable history buff.
John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.