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Thanks for your question to History Hub! I'm personally divided on this question. I felt like both of the big "Civil War" movies of last year: this one, and Nate Parker's "Birth of a Nation" were both exercises in grand storytelling and mythmaking/repetition than they were attempts to depict historical fact. "Jones" tended to focus too much on Newton Knight and less so on the also-rans depicted as being attracted to his camp (makes sense considering they invested in Matthew McConaughey to play him). "Birth of a Nation" was better emblematic of this issue. His personal history aside, Nate Parker understood what Nat Turner meant to African-Americans and brought that portrayal to the big screen with great vigor. Both depictions, however, tend to represent what specific communities think of the legacy of the peoples depicted in those films rather than any sort of claim to accuracy.
If you're curious at all about the historical context of the events of "Free State of Jones," I would refer to Victoria Bynum's source material, which effectively shows the internal social divisions of the Confederacy at the micro level. There was a real "Free State of Jones," but it more represented an extreme case (which actually came to violence in the form of military skirmishes) of the inherent internal divisions of the efforts to create a decentralized slaveholding Republic. Other books have done this on the larger scale, particularly with the divisions between the governments of the various Confederate member states and its executive branch, along with the role class, gender, and race played in destroying the experiment from within. Stephanie McCurry's Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, William Blair's Virginia's Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865, and (to a lesser extent) Bruce Levine's The Fall of the House of Dixie: How the Civil War Remade the American South, echo this theme. To a great degree, Nat Turner's actual story remains untold.
On the cinematic side of things, I think "Lincoln" and "Twelve Years a Slave" represent the current peak of the form in "historically accurate" film making. They take dramatic license, but remain true to the individuals in the source material and take advantage of fantastic individual performances anchored by great screenplays. Lincoln really documents the seedy nuts and bolts work that had to happen to get the 13th Amendment passed and the various personalities who made it happen. And Twelve Years a Slave uses a self-contained narrative to show the degrees to which the experiences of enslaved and enslaver differed based on geography and personal dynamics. "Glory" also remains fantastic-- if a bit dated-- in its depiction of the USCTs.
Hope this provides some avenues to look into. If there are any personal preferences among others reading the thread, I'd also love to hear them! All the best.
Thanks for the thoughtful response, Michael Chornesky. You've given me lots to chew on.
"Glory" has long been one of my favorite movies (oh, to have a nickel for each time I've watched it!); thought "Lincoln" was fascinating too, in its depiction of behind-the-scenes nitty gritty our modern romanced view of emancipation ignores.
"Twelve Years a Slave" is in my iTunes wish list. Hmmm...might be movie night here in a few hours.
Definitely going to check out the books you mentioned. I’m headed to the library tomorrow to view microfilm loaned by the Library of VA, soooo...perfect timing.
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The National Archives acts as the custodian of the historical records. We do not interpret or comment on the accuracy of historical portrayals. That being said, we do have Confederate records in our custody, which you are welcome to look at.
You are able to access the War Department’s Collection of Confederate records (RG 109) that were captured by the Union forces at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Jonathan Deiss’s recent post provides the Preliminary Inventory for this record group. A cursory search reveals that there are records of the Army of the Mississippi, telegrams and letters sent, daily reports for regiments, and special orders. Additional records about battles and excursions can be found in the Records of the Office of the Secretary of War (RG 107) and Records of the U.S. Army Continental Commands (RG 393). There could be letters or reports about Jones County in these record groups.
Additionally, I searched for the Compiled Military Service Record for Newton Knight in the CMSRs of Confederate Soldiers (M269) from the State of Mississippi and found his service in the 7th and 8th Battalions of the Mississippi Infantry, available on Fold3.com.
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Cinda Baxter In the past, I performed research for a client who is a professor of history at a college in Mississippi, who personally provided consultation services for the Free State of Jones (film production) and had a small role in the movie. We worked on researching Newt Knight and his band for several years, on and off, beginning in 2007.
While I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of specific events or people portrayed in the film (such as the erroneous depiction of the killing of Newt's son), I do think that the essence of the story is true. Newton Knight and his band of deserters from the Rebel Army did operate as an independent force in Jones County, Mississippi. They were composed primarily, but not exclusively, of men from the 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry (CSA). In the role of Captain, he commanded a cadre of men from autumn of 1863 until the autumn of 1865, an abbreviated list of whom he provided to a US House of Representatives committee during the 42nd Congress.
Newton Knight was a man of contradiction as well as a victim of confabulation and confusion. His story may never be told, wholly. An example of his complex nature can be summed up in this document, from Newt's land patent case-file (filed in 1860), ironically bearing Abraham Lincoln's executive approval, actually signed by Lincoln's trusty secretary Stoddard :
From NARA RG49, pi22 entry 54, Paulding, Mississippi Land Office, cash entry, box 56., document # 15349; NAID 7736892.
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Wowser, Jonathan Deiss. Can't imagine what a fascinating experience it was, helping research Newt Knight. A rich and complex history, indeed.
Thanks for the great feedback and copy of his land patent record. "Ironic" doesn't even scratch the surface for this one.