Protesters in San Francisco have pulled down a bust of Ulysses Grant, the former U.S. president and Union general who defeated the Confederates, because Grant married into a slave-owning family. They also pulled down other statues, including that of Francis Scott Key (pictured above), who wrote the U.S. national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” since Key owned slaves.
I readily agree that slavery was and is reprehensible, and the Confederates were traitors to the Union. I also agree that statues of many such historical people need to be removed to museums, not glorified front and center in our parks and courthouses. But where does this sort of thing end? What person, past or present, is without character flaws?
I wonder if these same protesters would be willing to tear down a statue of Charles Darwin, since he was a racist who said Africans were less evolved than white people? I wonder if these same protesters would be willing to deface a statue of John F. Kennedy, since he was reportedly an adulterer?
Interestingly, some of those people of the past, if they were here today, would likely be shocked by the immoral practices of some of these modern protesters, some who may cohabitate outside of marriage or may have killed babies through abortion– but at least they didn’t own slaves, so they judge themselves righteous. How blind these self-righteous anarchists are, seeing the sins of the past but ignoring the sins of the present.
These modern moralists do not see how similar their vandalism is to ISIS fighters who tore down ancient statues in the Middle East because they were “pagan.” These revolutionaries do not see how their onrush to destroy any and every injustice in the name of the people is similar to another revolution– the French revolution, a time when the revolutionaries were soon devouring each other for not being radical enough. Today’s radicals could read about it in their history books, but it seems they have torn out most of the pages.
“Ever heard of the ‘Free State of Jones?'” my father asked me when I was a boy. “When Mississippi seceded from the Union, Jones County seceded from Mississippi, but Mississippi forced Jones County back into the state, and the Yankees forced Mississippi back into the Union.”
It wasn’t quite so simple as that, but Dad had the basic story right. Now this little-known (but well-known in south Mississippi) and strange piece of Civil War history is on the big screen, in Free State of Jones.
My wife and I saw the film in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is in the county immediately south of Jones. The theater was packed for an afternoon matinee, as people are fascinated by a film about local history. Some people personally knew minor actors in the film. Behind us, someone whispered in a swamp scene, “That must be the Okatoma.”
What they saw was an mostly accurate, violent film about the stubborn, tragic character of Newton Knight, who led a band of escaped slaves and poor white deserters, at times numbering in the hundreds, that literally took control of Jones, Jasper and part of Smith Counties in south Mississippi late in the Civil War, and rebelled against the Confederacy.
(Above: Newt Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey, leads his band of rebels.)
Why did they do it? Jones County had the lowest percentage of slaves in the state of Mississippi. A law passed during the war allowed whites who owned 20 or more slaves to be exempt from fighting. Poor white farmers in south Mississippi had no interest in the war and resented being forced to fight. As Newt Knight famously said, “This is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
Notice that I said the film is mostly accurate. There are some dramatized scenes based on the true story, of details that we cannot know, such as some of the interactions between Newt Knight, his wife Serena, and his common-law African-American wife, Rachel. Also, the film takes major liberties with Newt’s killing of the Confederate officer who was trying to capture Knight. The movie invents a dramatic scene involving an ambush at a funeral and shows Newt killing the officer in a church. The historical records indicate that what really happened was that Newt hunted down Major Amos McLemore at the Deason home in Ellisville, killed the colonel in the house, and then fled. This scene is the only major departure from the historical record that I saw in the film, and even though the film took liberty with the events for the sake of drama, at least got it right that Knight hunted down and killed the man who was trying to capture him.
Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of Newt Knight is convincing, as is all of the acting. The costumes and cinematography are realistic and gripping. Little details are correct, such as names of places, and the correct Mississippi flag of that era. The plot appears to reach a climax of victory and then it feels like an alligator painfully dragging you into the swamp. That is because this is not fiction, this is history. History doesn’t always fit into neat plots with satisfying endings. But the adage applies here: truth is stranger than fiction.
Caution: Free State of Jones is rated R for graphic war violence.
(Above: Newt Knight rallies poor people of Jones County to fight.)