Jul 18, 2016
The Free State of Jones is about a little known revolt against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi during the Civil War. Some small farmers, deserters of the Confederate army and runaway slaves banded together and fought a guerilla war. Newton Knight, a poor white farmer and Confederate deserter, was one of its leaders.
After surviving the Battle of Corinth, Newton Knight, who served as a battlefield medic in the Confederate Army, deserted and hid in the swamps. He was befriended by Rachel, a slave woman who secretly learned to read. Many factors led to Jones County becoming a haven for deserters. Many were outraged by the passing of the Twenty Negro Law, allowing wealthy plantation owners to avoid military service if they owned twenty slaves or more. There were also horrific tax collections where families had most of their crops and livestock stolen by the Confederacy – and were basically left to starve to death. The fruits of their labor were literally used to feed Confederate soldiers.
Knight’s guerilla army vowed to resist capture, defy tax collectors, defend each others’ homes and to do what they could to aid the Union. Women also fought in the guerilla company.
Why did this rebellion occur in Jones County? The whites in Jones County had voted overwhelmingly not to secede from the Union. Many were pro-Union, and anti-slavery, and anti-secession, precisely because they were small family farmers.
The class nature of the Civil War is touched on in the film. Slave owning planters led Mississippi to join South Carolina and secede from the Union in January 1861. Secession reflected the planters’ interests in its first sentence of their petition to secede: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery….” Small farmers and cattle herders had no interests in slavery.
Jasper Collins, Knight’s second in command, echoed many non-slaveholders across the South when he said, “this law [The Twenty Negro Law] ... makes it a rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.” He rightly believed the poor were dying for the desires and greed of the rich. There was one scene where Knight makes a populist plea, imploring his followers to remember: “No man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. No man ought to tell another man what he’s got to live for and what he’s got to die for. What you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest, and ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you.”
The film also touches on Reconstruction, showing Freedmen’s schools, black politicians, and the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. The writer/director of Free State, Gary Ross (The Hunger Games), made some interesting comments on Reconstruction in an interview about the movie: “Reconstruction didn’t fail, it was killed. It ended for many reasons, but probably the most prominent one was a counter revolution on the part of white supremacists that struck back at the freedmen. The reign of terror that eventually led to the advent of the Jim Crow era. To say that Reconstruction perished somehow under its own weight is a myth. Reconstruction is a part of history that is sadly ignored.” These ideas are conveyed in the film.
The story is interspersed with the trial of a descendant of Newton Knight, Davis Knight. He was arrested under Mississippi’s miscegenation law 83 years after the end of the Civil War. The prosecutors argued he descended from a common law marriage between Rachel (former slave) and Newton. The prosecution argued he was black – one drop rule – and that therefore his engagement with his white sweetheart was illegal in Mississippi at that time. While Davis Knight was convicted in 1948, the court of appeals overturned the conviction arguing that the prosecution failed to prove Davis descended from Rachel and not Knight’s white wife, Serena. This was one of Ross’ attempts to bring the past into the present or at least closer to the present so that film goers could connect the dots.
The Free State of Jones will likely be the first exposure to the history of Reconstruction for many movie goers. The film is a good starting point for many discussions not just of the Civil War and Reconstruction but how this history relates to the present day.