Goodbye, Gone with The WindCulture Watch
tags: Civil War, Free State of Jones
Joan E. Cashin is a professor history at Ohio State University.
The movie, “The Free State of Jones,” is that rare thing—an absorbing film that brings to light a little-known chapter of American history. Even better, it should perform a valuable service by changing public perceptions of the Civil War.
The movie focuses on a working-class white man in Mississippi, Newton Knight, who becomes disillusioned with the Confederate military. So he returns to his home in Jones County to foment a rebellion against the Confederacy, declaring the county an independent free state. Southern authorities try to put down the uprising within, but they fail to subdue this strong-willed, free-thinking man.
Newton Knight speaks bluntly about inequities in the wartime South, and after the War he continues to challenge the status quo on class and race. Matthew McConaughey is perfectly cast, and he brings to life his character’s thoughtful defiance.
The movie does contain a few inaccuracies. For instance, the tax-in-kind collected by the Confederate government began in 1863, not in 1862, as depicted in the film. The apprenticeship laws, designed to hold black children in a condition similar to bondage, started in the antebellum North rather than the postwar South. But the costumes, architecture, and dialogue ring true for the mid-nineteenth century, and it gets the essentials right on the unrest in the wartime South’s white population.
The white Southern population was indeed divided, well before the war broke out. In 1860, the presidential election focused on one question: shall slavery expand into the trans-Mississippi West? Southern Democrat John Breckinridge declared not only that slavery must expand but that the slave states should consider secession if anyone tried to halt its expansion. Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas argued that the decision should be made at the territorial level, and Republican Abraham Lincoln stated that slavery’s expansion had to stop.
The forgotten man in the election, Unionist John Bell, ran for President because he was so alarmed by what secessionists were saying. He insisted that all political conflicts had to be resolved within the Union. He won three slave states, and he lost another one, Missouri, by fewer than five hundred votes. He may also have won Georgia, but voter fraud and intimidation have left historians uncertain of the outcome to this day.
In fact, 40 percent of the voting population in the slave states (only white men could vote) voted against the secessionist Breckinridge. Yes, 40 percent. And when secession began after Abraham Lincoln’s election in November, the Upper South held back; those states left the Union only after the shelling at Fort Sumter in April 1861.
When the bloodshed started, many white men all over the South refused to put on the gray uniform. Approximately one hundred thousand of them served instead in the Union army—yes, one hundred thousand—and thousands more dodged the Confederate draft when it was instituted in 1862.
Yet other white Southern men joined anti-Confederate guerilla groups across the South, harassing the rebel army. Pro-Union civilians welcomed the arrival of Yankee troops when they took over different parts of the region, and they rejoiced at the federal victory.
All of this information is well-documented in Victoria Bynum’s book, The Free State of Jones, and many other works by scholars. In fact, the South was so deeply divided that some historians have wondered how the Confederacy lasted as long as it did.
But another movie looms over every discussion of the Civil War, and that is “Gone with the Wind,” based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell. Even though the movie appeared in 1939, it has never faded away, resurfacing year after year on television and influencing the next generation of American viewers.
That movie, too, is entertaining, but the history is grossly inaccurate, reflecting Margaret Mitchell’s nostalgia for the plantation elite in the Old South. The movie focuses on those characters, and the few working-class whites who appear are either dishonest, corrupt, or pathetic. They certainly do not make any principled objections to the leadership of the plantation class before, during, or after the War.
That reactionary fantasy belongs in the dustbin of history. “The Free State of Jones” is a movie for the twenty-first century.
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