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Historians' Roundtable on The Free State of Jones

Discussion in 'Book & Movie Review Tent' started by Pat Young, Nov 13, 2017.

  1. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    There is an interesting Historians' Roundtable on the movie The Free State of Jones in the new issue of the scholarly journal of Civil War History [Volume 63, Number 4, December 2017]. I am going to summarize and excert some of the discussion.

    The participants are:

    Joseph Beilein (JB) is assistant professor of history at Pennsylvania State University Behrend, where he teaches classes on Civil War and Reconstruction. He is the author of Bushwackers: Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Missouri (2016) and coeditor of The Civil War Guerrilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History, Memory, and Myth (2015).

    Margaret Storey (MS) is professor of history and associate dean at DePaul University. She is the author of Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (2004) and the edited memoirs of Tennessee unionist Thomas Jefferson Cypert, Tried Men or True, or Union Life in Dixie (2011).

    Andrew Slap (AS) is professor of history at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republican Movement in the Civil War Era (2006) and coeditor of a number of collections on the Civil War Era, including, most recently, Confederate Cities: The Urban South during the Civil War Era (2015). He is also the editor for two Fordham University Press series: Reconstructing America and the North’s Civil War.

    Jarret Ruminski (JR) is a freelance writer, researcher, and consultant living in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi (2017), which examines ordinary lives in Confederate-controlled Mississippi to show how military occupation and the ravages of war tested the meaning of loyalty during America’s greatest rift. He writes regularly about history, politics, and culture at That Devil History.com.

    Ryan Keating (RK) is the Civil War History book review editor and assistant professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino. He is the author of Shades of Green: Irish Regiments, American Soldiers, and Local Communities in the Civil War Era (2017) and the editor of letters of Col. Thomas and Margaret Cahill, The Greatest Trial I Ever Had: The Civil War Letters of Margaret and Thomas Cahill (2017).
     

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  3. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    The first issue discussed was that of loyalty in the movie:

    RK: First is the issue of patriotism and loyalty with regard to southerners and the Confederacy. Recent studies have significantly broadened our understanding of the nuanced issues of patriotism and loyalty that existed among the southern population. In what ways does this film contribute to our understanding of these issues—or, perhaps, why do these stories need to be told?

    JB: Competing loyalties is an important theme running through the film Free State of Jones. In dealing with issues both big and small, the central character— Newton Knight—navigates overlapping and conflicting loyalties between the Union and Confederacy, the Confederacy and his kin, the white and black races, and so on. At the outset of the film, Knight—played by Matthew McConaughey in the most McConaughey role of his career as the rough-and-tumble white southerner with politics that are almost inexplicably progressive— is serving the Confederate army as a stretcher-bearer and nurse. Following the opening battle scene, Knight begins to question his participation in the war when he reads about the Twenty Negro Law. After a young relative dies in battle, he decides to take the boy’s body back to Jones County, cutting ties with the Confederacy forever. With the idea that this rich man’s war, so obviously fought over slavery, had become a poor man’s fight, Knight looks to his kin and the struggle the poor whites were enduring at home. The film’s major conflict comes from this one man remaining loyal to his kin, class, and community against the Confederacy and the politics of white supremacy
     
  4. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Margaret Storey responded:

    MS: The film significantly contributes to the popular representation of white dissent in the Confederate South, simply because this facet of southern history has only rarely, and incompletely, been integrated into the popular understanding of the war. But equally important is the idea that the Civil War created opportunities for slaves to resist and rebel in ways they had not been able to before. The film also brings popular understanding more closely into line with scholarly consensus in other ways. First, it asserts that all white southerners did not necessarily have the same interests, which is a welcome counterpoint to un-nuanced, as well as actively neo-Confederate, versions of southern history. By showing a story from the Deep South, it also challenges the idea that white resistance only occurred in non-slaveholding areas in the upland South, like the Appalachian regions of East Tennessee (one of the other significant modern treatment of dissent, Cold Mountain, was set in the mountains of North Carolina on the Tennessee border). Second, historians of the period largely agree that the Confederate state struggled to maintain itself in the face of ongoing, frequently violent or paramilitary, resistance from white male unionists/anti-Confederates, white women, and slaves... It’s important that the popular understanding include the idea that the Confederate effort was always internally contested, by both whites and blacks.
     
  5. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Andrew Slap is critical of how the film deals with questions of loyalty:

    AS: The film shows white southerners not being loyal to the Confederacy but does a poor job of reflecting the nuanced understanding of patriotism and loyalty that historians have so well analyzed in recent studies. Part of the problem is that the issue of disloyalty is presented as a binary choice rather than the more complex web of competing interests... Another difficulty is that to understand the nuances of loyalty and dissent, many different views need to be considered, which the film did not do. The Confederates are portrayed as villains and not allowed true voices, compared to the heroic Newton Knight making grand, uplifting speeches explaining why he is resisting. This may be good filmmaking and storytelling, but it is poor history
     
  6. Bee

    Bee 1st Lieutenant Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017

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    I very much appreciate you taking the time to do this, Pat. This publication has fantastic articles that are not universally distributed. You do us a big favour.
     
  7. ikesdad

    ikesdad Private

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    This
     
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  8. mofederal

    mofederal 2nd Lieutenant Member of the Month

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    This is very interesting to me. I have seen the movie a couple of times, and it is interesting to see what Civil War Scholars have to say about the movie. I was particularly interested in what Joseph Beilein had to say as he has written two very good books about the guerrilla war in Missouri.
     
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  9. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    From Jarret Ruminski:

    JR: ...Recent scholarship has revealed the Civil War’s myriad complexities regarding patriotism, but most Americans do not read that scholarship. This is why a movie like Free State of Jones is so important, because films still reach more people than do books and pay-walled articles. More than any other previous cinematic depiction of the Civil War, this movie shows the very serious ramifications inherent in otherwise common American celebrations of unflinching patriotism and national identity.

    The film opens with the October 1862 Battle of Corinth. Newton Knight is working as a medic in the Confederate army, a job that places him knee-deep in blood and bile. The movie holds nothing back in its depiction of the reality of Civil War combat: soldiers’ bodies litter the field, their heads caved in by mortar fire, while severed limbs dot the landscape like broken twigs. During the fight, Knight loses a young relative, named Daniel, to sniper fire. When fellow soldier Will Sumrall tries to tell Knight that Daniel “died with honor,” Knight wearily responds, “No, Will, he just died.” This is sobering tonic for audiences familiar with Civil War battles via a popular culture soaked in banal flag-waving and bloodless reenactments that emphasize heroism and sacrifice over caved-in skulls and dead teenagers.

    The catalyst for Knight’s and other Jones County men’s eventual desertion from the army (beyond the carnage of battle) is the infamous Twenty Negro Law of October 1862. Passed only months after the Confederate Conscription Act, this law exempted from military service owners of twenty or more slaves, the rationale being that slave owners would be better off at home quelling potential slave rebellion than they would be on the battlefield fighting Yankees. To non-slaveholders like Newton Knight, the odious law appeared an example of blatant class privilege that epitomized the idea of a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” As in any Hollywood production, Director Gary Ross takes artistic liberty with some of the historical nuances. Most impressive about this movie, however, is just how accurately Ross manages to depict the hell of war, the complexity of competing loyalties in wartime, the intertwining of race and class in the slaveholding South, and how all of these issues were inextricably wound together
     
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  10. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    The next question asked how the film raises questions of Confederate identity and whether Newt Knight would be seen by viewers as such an exceptional character as to be unrepresentative of anyone other than Newt.
     
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  11. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    JB: This film is an exercise in rewriting popular conceptions of the Civil War South. From its very outset, the story makes clear to the audience that this war was fought over slavery, as opposed to the long running Lost Cause mythology that claimed that southerners went to war in defense of states’ rights. With a gruesome battle scene to begin the film and bloody racial violence sprinkled throughout, the film removes much of the romance of the war. Women play an integral role in this story, not only as lovers but also as supporters of the formal and irregular wars. Altogether, the reintroduction of these components of the war to the traditional narrative not only bolsters the film’s credibility, but adds new dimensions to the story that make it dynamic and pertinent to this country’s persistent social issues. Because this is a relatively new turn on the Civil War in film, it may very well be marginalized, because it does not fit the story that quite a few Civil War buffs expect and apparently like to see (over and over again).
     
  12. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    MS: It’s important that the popular understanding include the idea that the Confederate effort was always internally contested, both by whites and blacks. The tricky element is that viewers of the film may universalize its story...The dissent depicted in the film is tied closely to dissent over slavery and to the preservation of one man’s interracial alliances, both political and personal. But we know that the majority of white southerners who resisted the Confederacy did not dissent from the white supremacist foundations of their culture or society...
     
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  13. Pat Young

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    AS: For the last generation, historians have vigorously argued over the extent and effects of conflict among white southerners during the Civil War. The popular conception of white southerners during the Civil War era, though, seems to be of a united people. The Free State of Jones thus may be viewed as more of an outlier by general audiences, but if it is part of a new wave of such films it could start to change public perceptions of the time. Whether it accurately represents history is almost irrelevant in determining whether a wide audience will believe it. Remember that Gone with the Wind was one of the most influential films to shape public ideas about the Civil War era and that much of what it showed was false...
     
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  14. Pat Young

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    JR: In Civil War Mississippi, hardcore Confederate nationalists claimed that the only acceptable type of patriotism was a total, all-encompassing dedication to the cause of the Confederate States of America. This type of “protective nationalism” linked body, mind, and soul to the nation and left little room for dissent. Mississippi senator Albert Gallatin Brown, for example, called for “an all pervading and universal patriotism” that “lives only for the cause.” In depicting the trials of Newton Knight and his band of deserters, Free State of Jones shows why Brown’s exhortation was so problematic—and dangerous.

    The film’s primary theme is loyalty. There is a sizable culture of romanticized Confederate apologia in modern America, epitomized by groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Central to this movement are the notions that the Confederacy had little to do with slavery and that Confederate soldiers and commanders such as Gen. Robert E. Lee epitomized valor, patriotic virtue, undying loyalty, and other like sentiments.

    On the Mississippi home front, however, patriotism wormed its way into the very fabric of everyday life, turning the most mundane of daily activities into a potential test of national loyalty. In this über-patriotic environment, Confederate provost marshals arrested and imprisoned civilians on suspicion of colluding with Union forces for merely traveling the state’s roadways....

    This was the embodiment of compelled loyalty, and it did not stop with suspicion of espionage...In a state of war, where scarce food and supplies went to the armies first, civilians were forced to conduct trade with the Yankee enemy, much to the consternation of Confederate patriots who deemed such behavior the highest level of treason. Said patriots tried to squelch this trade at every turn by imprisoning traders and confiscating their goods....

    The film depicts this conflict dramatically during the scene in which the Knight Company defends its right to grow corn without having it confiscated by Confederate authorities...Newton Knight...saw this type of coerced patriotism as tyranny in disguise. This is an aspect of dissent within the Civil War South that popular audiences are still largely unfamiliar with.
     
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  15. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    The next question was whether Newt, as portrayed in the film, stood for other Southern resisters. His resistance has a class element of the division between wealthy slave owners and poorer farmers.
     
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  16. Pat Young

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    JB: Class is critically important to this film and is representative of the history of Jones County, Mississippi, during the Civil War. This theme is one of the most obvious places in which the filmmaker remained true to Victoria Bynum’s path-breaking work on the subject, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (2001). Bynum proves quite convincingly, with an overwhelming abundance of evidence, that class politics worked to cleave a divide between wealthier whites in Mississippi and their yeoman neighbors. It is hard to know just how prevalent these divisions were across the South, but mountainous regions that were the home to mostly poorer, freeholding whites were rife with unionist sentiment.

    ...Knight’s class consciousness has far-reaching implications. His awareness came from not just farming before the war but soldiering during the war... Soldiering in the formal army of the Confederacy (or the Union, for that matter) was a form of unfree labor. Knight’s ideas about class may have already existed in a latent form, but it took war to bring them to the surface. The filmmakers are trying to show us that it took being lorded over by officers for Knight and his kin to be radicalized and see their similarity with enslaved black men and women.
     
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  17. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    MS: I find the notion that some white men might cast themselves as slaves to the Confederacy believable enough, but the idea that they saw themselves as sharing a common, equal-rights-based cause with actual slaves in that effort is more ahistorical. This is not to say that it didn’t happen—just that the egalitarian sentiments that undergird this development in the film are harder to substantiate in the historical record...
     
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  18. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    AS: ... Many studies, like those by James McPherson have shown that Civil War soldiers were very aware of national politics and even if they did not agree about what started the conflict had a broad understanding of the causes and consequences of the war. It would be fair, though, to assert that this more sophisticated Civil War soldier rarely makes it to the silver screen. It is even less common to see a southern yeoman critiquing the Confederacy.

    Similarly, internal resistance to the Confederacy is seldom seen in film, despite the amount of attention scholars have paid to the topic in the last couple of generations. Class and slaveholding certainly played a role in resistance to the Confederacy in southern Appalachia, though not always in the way people think. As historian John Inscoe and others have shown, many white southern Appalachians wanted to maintain slavery and thought that the best place to do it was within the Union...
     
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  19. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    JR: in Free State of Jones, the Knight band’s struggle against Confederate authorities reveals the complex nature of loyalty in the Civil War South. It is one thing to tout your ancestors’ supposed devotion to the Rebel cause, but it is another thing entirely to ask what such devotion actually meant in light of the Confederacy’s most controversial policies.

    The type of patriotism advocated by Confederate nationalists in Civil War Mississippi dealt in totalities, and it put utmost faith in the justness of the cause it served.... For [Jefferson] Davis and others like him, patriotism meant giving up everything for one’s country, but if you happened to be one of the thousands of southerners who heartedly disagreed with the Confederate experiment, then your patriotism had to be enforced by law, gun, conscription—by force. In this respect, Free State of Jones does an exceptional job of depicting resistance to enforced patriotism.

    Did loyalty to the Confederacy entail forced military service? Did loyalty to the Confederacy mean letting Rebel forces confiscate private property in the name of the greater cause? Did loyalty to the Confederacy mean you ought to fight to keep black people in chains? Newton Knight did not think so. The Knight Company’s fight against the Confederacy was part of the inner Civil War, a conflict that raged throughout the South between unionists and ordinary white and black southerners who actively or tacitly resisted the slaveholders’ power. The inner Civil War made the political personal by thrusting multiple loyalties into conflict, by pitting a totalitarian vision of nationalism against allegiances to self, kin, and community.
     
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  20. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    The next question repeated the question of whether Knight was an anomaly or whether he represented broader trends among Southern Unionists. The question also asked if the Knight narrative was harmful or helpful for popular understanding of Civil War history.
     
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  21. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    AS: I think showing an alliance between whites and blacks in the South is typical of many Civil War films—the difference is the orientation of the alliance. Gone with the Wind is still considered one of the top Civil War movies, and it portrays most blacks loyally supporting southern whites and the Confederacy. More recent movies, like Gods and Generals, have continued the loyal African American theme. The Free State of Jones reverses the orientation, where whites and blacks band together to resist the Confederacy. The film would be useful in showing people the broader range of black and white alliance in the Civil War South.

    One way The Free State of Jones was traditional regarding the alliance was making a white man the leader and central figure. There has been much debate among historians and others about whether this is an example of the white savior complex, which is similar to the heated arguments about the movie Lincoln focusing too much on Abraham Lincoln and not enough on African American contributions to emancipation. I give Lincoln somewhat of a break because, as the title clearly indicates, it is a movie about Lincoln. Just as historians should review the book written and not the one we wanted someone to write, we should review the movie the filmmaker made. The Free State of Jones, though, does not seem sure whether it wants to focus on this interracial alliance or Newton Knight.

    There are also numerous instances where the film goes out of its way to make Knight the savior of black people. The scene where Knight frees Moses from the neck collar is powerful, though clearly positions Knight as the person with the power to free an African American. There is also the implication that Moses and the other runaway slaves in the swamp could not have figured out how to free Moses before Knight arrived. Similarly, it is striking that Knight is the one giving the speech at the founding of the Free State of Jones and declaring “every man is a man” with African Americans standing behind him. And there are the many scenes of black women running to Knight, a white man, for help. While Knight was the leader of the Free State of Jones and is the central character in the film, it would have been nice to see some more prominent roles for African Americans.

    The question was about race, but I would like to add a comment about gender in the film. One of the first major actions against Confederates was when Knight and his allies burn James Eakin’s cotton. The motive is Knight’s discovery that Eakins beat and raped his slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the woman Knight ultimately marries. This archetype patriarchal response undercuts the themes of an interracial class alliance driving resistance to the Confederacy and the creation of the Free State of Jones....
     
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