The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War

The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War

The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War

The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War


Between late 1863 and mid-1864, an armed band of Confederate deserters battled Confederate cavalry in the Piney Woods region of Jones County, Mississippi. Calling themselves the Knight Company after their captain, Newton Knight, they set up headquarters in the swamps of the Leaf River, where, legend has it, they declared the Free State of Jones.

The story of the Jones County rebellion is well known among Mississippians, and debate over whether the county actually seceded from the state during the war has smoldered for more than a century. Adding further controversy to the legend is the story of Newt Knight's interracial romance with his wartime accomplice, Rachel, a slave. From their relationship there developed a mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended, and the ambiguous racial identity of their descendants confounded the rules of segregated Mississippi well into the twentieth century.

Victoria Bynum traces the origins and legacy of the Jones County uprising from the American Revolution to the modern civil rights movement. In bridging the gap between the legendary and the real Free State of Jones, she shows how the legend--what was told, what was embellished, and what was left out--reveals a great deal about the South's transition from slavery to segregation; the racial, gender, and class politics of the period; and the contingent nature of history and memory.


When I began researching the legend of the Free State of Jones ten years ago, I had little sense of the journey I was about to undertake. Fifteen years earlier my interest in the legend had been piqued by a Civil War history textbook which noted that Confederate disaffection ran so deep in Jones County, Mississippi, that during the Civil War the county had allegedly seceded from the state and created the Republic of Jones. I was attracted not only by the county’s bold actions but also because Jones County was the birthplace of my father. My memories of childhood visits to Jones County—which were few and far between—were vivid ones, especially because its rural setting so contrasted with my own experience of growing up in suburban Florida and California. Indeed, my lifelong interest in the Old South sprang from those childhood visits with my father’s kinfolk in Piney Woods Mississippi. Yet I had no idea before I began my research that my Bynum ancestors were deeply involved on both sides of the conflict over the Free State of Jones.

I was initially uncertain whether to write a full-length book since a courthouse fire had destroyed most of Jones County’s court records in 1880. I was also aware that many articles and a few books had already been written on the topic. Still, I believed, the story of this Civil War uprising should be retold from the perspective of its anti-Confederate dissidents and understood within the larger context of economic and political divi-

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