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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The Free State of Jones – A True Story of Defiance during the American Civil War by Victoria E Bynum (FP: 2001)

I suppose that it’s natural to assume that in a war between two groups that the members of Group ‘A’ generally support (or at least do not oppose) objective ‘A’ whilst those of Group ‘B’ likewise support objective ‘B’. I guess that such a supposition is normally based on a mixture of expectation, laziness and propaganda from both groups. Dissent within the ranks being seen, with some justification, as a sign of weakness. So it is all the more interesting to come across a rebellion operating within another rebellion and a reasonably well documented one at that.

Now I would be the last person to say that I was particularly knowledgeable about the American Civil War. Frankly most of my ‘knowledge’ comes from TV, Movies and novels of the period. Before the 2016 movie starring Matthew McConaughey came out I had no idea that such a double rebellion had happened or was even possible. The story itself seems to be hugely controversial, not least of all in the State of Mississippi itself. The double-rebels, which included a number of Confederate deserters, runaway slaves and those who simply refused to fight to maintain a deeply unfair system or rich slave owners and poor yeomanry, not only managed to survive deep in the Confederacy despite armed units being used against them but almost managed to hold territory, defeat or seriously embarrass Confederate soldiers and even petition for aid from Union forces with whom they were in periodic contact. The political and social fallout of this act of defiance extended long after the war had been lost by the South and well into the age of Segregation. For not only where the rebel leaders defying the power of the Confederate State but also the increasingly harsh laws and conventions against racial mixing. With attitudes prevailing that a single drop of Black blood (however that was defined) was enough to ‘taint’ a white person who henceforth should be regarded as Black no matter their physical appearance it was no surprise that the ‘rebels’ choice to often live openly in mixed race communities shocked and deeply divided families and territories.

As a descendent of a family on the edges of the rebellion the author had some stated interest in the story of the Free State. But knowing that she had ‘skin in the game’ was a necessary disclosure and helped distance her from the often heated debate surrounding the events of late 1863 to mid-1864. Both sides of the argument used whatever methods they could, or could get away with, to justify their standpoint. The heady mixture of race, gender and class politics, to say nothing of strongly held beliefs about the South and its place in American history, needed to be handled with some delicacy lest it spiral out of control into accusation and counter accusation. The author, I thought, continually teased out the middle ground (what was actually likely to have happened minus the patina of propaganda) to both plot the economic and social reasons for the inner rebellion happening at that particular time in that particular place involving those particular people as well as the messy outcomes post defeat and reconstruction. I did think that she was a little heavy on the decades before the events but, with hindsight, I can see why she did it. I did learn quite a bit of post-revolutionary American history that I was completely unaware of but honestly quite a bit of it went completely over my head. That could have been due to my level of ignorance plus the fact that I suspect that the author was intending her audience to already have at least some familiarity with the subject which was absent in my case. Overall though this was an interesting investigation of an inner rebellion that had probably passed most of us by. Recommended.


Stephen said...

I've read a bit into this area (Bitterly Divided, A South Divided) and so am curious about the Jones county affair. You may remember that when I visited Winston, it contributed as many people to the Lincolnite cause as it did the planters'. My own sympathies are a little mixed, of course....the devil with the planters' war, but the devil to Lincoln as well, for issuing a call to arms that provoked the rest of the south into seceding. If he'd been more diplomatic about South Carolina and the Deep South, things might have worked out peacefully....a re-entry on certain conditions. That's how the Constitution was adopted in the first place -- many states wouldn't until a bill of rights was adopted via the first ten amendments.

CyberKitten said...

From my, admittedly scant, reading on the subject it seemed that the War was a long time coming and was (maybe) even inevitable given the very different and diverging societies of the Northern & Southern USA. I would have to read a great deal more to put any flesh on those *very* bare bones though!

Stephen said...

The 19th century was filled with sectional conflict, and at one point some northern states were also threatening to secede -- over the War of 1812, I think, or an embargo on trade goods. I haven't read *The* history on that period yet, or otherwise I'd pass along a recommendation. Asimov has a book called "Our Federal Union" which covers the area exactly, but like most of his historical works it's long out of print and thus pricey.

CyberKitten said...

Pricey isn't the word! Ouch!

It's something I'll look into when I get the chance. The world would have definitely been a very different place if North America had split in half back then.... and not just as Turtledove imagined it to be!

I have some US History coming up with might touch on the subject a bit...

Brian Joseph said...

This is such an interesting story. I want to read this book. When this book was published it was the first I had heard of this.

I also can understand why the author spent a lot of time on the decades leading up to the war. The entire conflict was so intwined with what happened before.