Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Book Review: State of Jones

Title: The State of Jones
Author: Stauffer, John
Sally Jenkins
Rating: ****
Tags: civil war, confederacy, unionists, mississippi, reconstruction, slavery, civil rights

This is a dark and unrelenting book about a dark and unrelenting time. All wars are brutal, but the Civil War was particularly so, and this book doesn't stint on making one understand its horrors.

One of the co-authors of the book, John Stauffer, wrote the book Giants: the Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed.

State of Jones is centered on the story of one man, Newton Knight, who was a poor farmer in Jones county, Mississippi. Knight's grandfather was a fairly wealthy slave owner, but his eldest son and all twelve of the son's children refused to own slaves. This may have come from being Primitive Baptists, who believed that all souls were equal.

Knight was not in favor of succession when it happened, but was conscripted into the Confederate army and fought, but deserted a couple of times. There were probably a couple of points that broke his will to fight... one was when the Confederate government passed a bill that those who owned twenty slaves or more were exempt from fighting. Another was the siege of Vicksburg, which he endured and survived. Moreover his family may have been in dire straits, as many of the wives of soldiers were close to starvation.

After Knight escaped for the last time and returned to Jones County, he was forced to live in the local swamps, which he knew intimately. He wasn't the only one. The swamps were full of soldiers who had deserted, and runaway slaves. They all helped each other, and Knight became the leader of a pro-Union band of soldiers who ran a guerilla operation for the rest of the war. At one time most of the lower third of Mississippi was out of effective Confederate control. The partisans of the free state of Jones were poorer yeoman farmers who didn't own slaves, and resented the slave-owning aristocracy. During the war, Knight met a slave named Rachel, and they were as close to married as they could be, given that he was already married. He continued to live with and have children with both women until Rachel's death. Sometime after that his white wife left him.

The Confederates lost the war, the land was devastated, but they determined they would win the peace, and they did. By the late 1879s the Northern populace, including President Grant, had become apathetic and no longer willing to fight. The Democrats took over by a reign of terror that didn't let up until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The Ku Klux Klan were the terrorists, and blacks and Republicans were murdered, including by lynching, for the crimes of voting, seeking social equality, or for speaking up for their rights. How Knight survived is a mystery, except that he always had a pistol and a shotgun with him and people knew it. He and his large mixed-race family became socially isolated, as even his former fellow soldiers couldn't abide his domestic arrangements.

The book takes one story and through it tells some difficult truths about Southern history. First of all, it explodes the myth of the solid South. There were many pro-Union Southerners. Moreover the Southern revenge and the regaining of power were not a win for democracy. The former slave owners won back power by terror pure and simple, like many of the worst dictators in history.

I have an odd reaction to books about the Civil War and the South. I am a white woman born in the South who has spent most of my life here, an for most of that time, I've hated the bigotry and despised Southern romanticism about the Old South... something my mother was prone to. This book in a way gives me a sense of coming home, knowing that there were Southerners who repudiated slavery and even a few who believed in the equality of all.

It also sheds an interesting light on General Sherman, Sherman's brutality in war was born of the conviction that making the war one of maximum destruction would shorten it. His opinion about war was summed up in the following quote: "Its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentation of distant families." (p. 166)

The book is as well written as I expected from Stauffer. It has good footnotes, not obtrusive, and a good bibliography. My copy was an advanced reader's copy, and is missing features I hope will be in the final book, including an index, maps, and photographs.

Excellent book of history about a brutal time and place whose effects still reverberate in our culture.

Other authors: Stauffer, John

Author – Stauffer, John
Publication Doubleday (2009), Hardcover, 416 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 0385525931 / 9780385525930

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