Michael Ballard: Deep in Mississippi’s piney woods, Confederate deserters fought a different sort of war





The idea is beguiling: a ­region in the South during the Civil War where the inhabitants, disgusted by slavery and unwilling to support the Confederate cause, take up arms as Union loyalists. Better still, for storytelling purposes, would be a charismatic leader who organizes the resistance.

Such is the legend of what became known as the “Free State of Jones,” a county deep in Mississippi’s piney woods. The area was one of many pockets in the state where dissatisfaction with the Confederacy boiled for much of the war, but only Jones County was elevated by folklore, ­especially in the decades after the war, into a scene of noble rebellion. It helped that the anti-Confederate ­faction there was led by a tall, stern backwoodsman named Newton Knight.

The operative words here are ­“legend” and “folklore.” Although Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer labor mightily in “The State of Jones” to make the case for Newt Knight and Jones County as emblems of ­enlightened “insurrection” within the Confederacy, the truth, alas, is hardly as inspiring as the authors suppose. Far from being a haven for the ­high-minded, Jones County was a magnet for Confederate deserters. Their hostility to being executed, ­imprisoned or pressed back into the service of a lost cause was the men’s animating principle.

Even among Jones County ­residents who were noncombatants, an antipathy for the Confederate ­government did not automatically translate into pro-Union feelings: The Confederacy was so preoccupied with prosecuting the war, and its finances were so precarious, that the government was scarcely able to protect ordinary citizens, much less provide basic ­services. Anger at one’s own bureaucracy does not mean embracing the enemy’s.

Still, Ms. Jenkins, a journalist, and Mr. Stauffer, a historian, have brought fresh attention to a little-known and interesting sidebar of Civil War ­history. They freely acknowledge their debt to Victoria Bynum’s “The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War” (2001), which is the most scholarly treatment of the subject to date—though, as the subtitle ­indicates, Ms. Bynum was also rather taken with the romantic notion of the troubles in Jones County....


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