- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

By Victoria E. Bynum
University of North Carolina Press, $29.95, 316 pages

This book, which chiefly concerns the American Civil War, reveals many aspects of the internecine warfare that bloody and divisive conflict entailed. Its principal revelations concern elements about which most readers are understandably ignorant. In the recent past the only comparable book that occurs to me is Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain," but Mr. Frazier, of course, has written a work of fiction, one laid in Virginia and North Carolina, not Mississippi.
"The Free State of Jones" is a scholarly study devoted to a dark area of Southern history for which few records exist. Virginia Bynum is to be saluted not only for her profound scholarship but for her evenhanded accounts of matters that remain volatile and controversial desertion from the Confederate army and other acts of rebellion, religious differences, mixed marriage, drunkenness and promiscuity (especially so far as women are involved), sympathy for the Union cause in the Deep South, and much else.
At the heart of what the author is considering, which she describes as the inner civil war, is her limning the Civil War as a revolutionary experience in which families and neighbors fought among themselves and feuds persisted despite the overwhelming urgencies of total war. Readers of "Cold Mountain" will recall how the protagonist often falls afoul of home guards, roving bands of deserters and other outlaws, and still other lawless groups, some of them operating under legal authority, most of them not, and all of them willing to prey upon the helpless including women and children. The most chilling passages in this novel turn on the depredations of such marauders.
Long ago Frank Owsley pointed out in "State Rights in the Confederacy" that the war was lost in part because Southern states retained large numbers of men and armaments for home defense. Andrew Lytle, in his first novel, "The Long Night" (1936), shows the persistence of a murderous feud being a driving force among the families involved that was far greater for them than the war itself.
William Faulkner, in the greatest of his novels, "Absalom, Absalom!" (another book submerged by the publication of "Gone With the Wind" in 1936), explores the tremendous impact of miscegenation in the family of Thomas Sutpen, a man who raised a company to fight for the South and who later lost everything, including his life. Anyone pursuing these themes and wishing to consider their factual bases would do well to read "The Free State of Jones." Of course the parallels are not exact.
"On July 12, 1864," writes the author, "the Natchez Courier reported that 'the county of Jones, State of Mississippi, has seceded from the State and formed a Government of their own, both military and civil.'" As we learn, this self-declared "free state" refused to heed the laws of the Confederacy and attempted to support the Union. But the various constituencies of this free state were far from being in agreement about nearly any subject one can mention, and the state of Jones was in near-anarchy toward war's end. Most of its inhabitants were against fighting further in the Confederate army (in which many had served), and many were for actively supporting the Union and made every effort to do so. Indeed, they fiercely resisted Confederate troops sent to suppress them.
The story begins well before the Civil War and ends with a trial for the charge of miscegenation in the late 1940s. This account is complicated and hard to follow, chiefly because it involves many figures, most of whom are shadowy. The records, including WPA interviews, are sketchy and fragmentary at best. The principal family is descended from John Knight, and the essential person in that family connection is Newton Knight. Other families include the Colemans, the Welborns, the Bynums, the Collinses, the Summeralls, the Welches, and the Valentines.
For the most part the author is able to give the reader a fairly sharp notion of the principal figures in this bizarre history, but even the most alert reader will have to consult the index and the appendixes to refresh his or her memory of most of these ghostly people.
Victoria Bynum writes very well in general, but she and her copy editor fall into some current academic misusages of grammar and diction (such as "more crucial" and "most importantly" for "most important"). The ultimate term gender is flourished unnecessarily. On the whole the book should be praised as an original and cogent piece of scholarship on a devilishly complicated and demanding subject. It might well win a prize; certainly it would receive my vote.

George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review, often writes about the South.

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