Interview: Dr. Victoria Bynum, “The Long Shadow of the Civil War”

13 07 2010

Dr. Victoria Bynum is the author of several books on southern society during the war, with a focus on dissent and Unionism in the Confederacy.  She kindly agreed to an interview with Bull Runnings.

BR:  So, who exactly is Vikki Bynum – inquiring minds want to know?

VB:  I became a fulltime college student at age 26. As a single mother with two children to raise, I enrolled at San Diego City College in hopes of becoming a commercial artist. I soon became interested in American literature and history, and eventually changed my major to history after transferring into the California state college system. In 1978, I received my B.A. from Chico State University. By then, I had begun to research free people of color in the Old South and was eager to enter a graduate program that would enable me to continue research in Southern court records.  I was accepted into the history program of the University of California, San Diego, where I earned a PhD in 1987. By then, I was teaching fulltime at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. I retired from Texas State this past January, shortly before the release of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (Chapel Hill, 2010).

BR:  How long have you been working on Southern Unionists, southern dissent, and Jones County, and in what forms?

VB:  I became interested in Southern Unionists in 1983 while researching the doctoral dissertation that became the basis for my first book, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill, 1992). I had originally intended to confine that study to racial and class differences among women in a slaveholding patriarchy, but quickly discovered that women played an enormously important role in Civil War home front conflicts. The Randolph County region of North Carolina, including portions of Montgomery and Moore Counties, was a major area of Unionism, much more so even than Jones County, Mississippi. Particularly in the NC Governors’ Papers, the voices of women and Unionists came alive.

Writing Unruly Women stimulated me to begin researching the history of Mississippi’s legendary “Free State of Jones,” another region of strong Unionist allegiances, in 1992. My own Bynum ancestors had lived in Jones County, and, I soon discovered, were deeply involved in that region’s inner civil war. Although my ancestors’ history made the topic all the more interesting for me, my larger goal was to uncover the factual history of an important Civil War uprising shrouded in legend. In the study that resulted, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (Chapel Hill, 2001), I focused extensively on the roots and legacy of political dissent and Unionism in piney woods Mississippi. An important tool for accomplishing that was my tracing of the frontier migrations and experiences of key families backward through Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and forward to Texas.

To my amazement, while researching the migration of several Jones County families to Texas, I encountered another Unionist uprising in the Big Thicket region of East Texas, where, I discovered, several of the outliers were brothers of band members of Mississippi’s Free State of Jones! It was at this point that I decided to combine my research on Southern anti-Confederate dissent in a single volume, where I could show the links between these communities, and also compare and contrast them in a broader historical context. The result was my third book to explore Southern Unionism (among other forms of dissent), The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and its Legacies.

BR:  Tell us about The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

VB:  Long Shadow provides a comparative analysis of three Civil War areas of dissent: the Quaker Belt of the North Carolina Piedmont, the Jones County area of piney woods Mississippi, and the Big Thicket region of East Texas. The volume features six distinct but related essays, each of which centers around a particular story. Some essays combine the regions for comparative purposes; others focus on a single topic in a single region, such as women’s resistance to Confederate forces in the North Carolina Quaker Belt, the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, or Newt Knight’s thirty-year effort to gain federal compensation for his Mississippi band of guerrillas.  All the essays reveal the varying importance of community norms, kinship networks, religion, and attitudes toward slavery in stimulating Southern resistance to secession and the Confederacy.

By approaching Unionism as a community issue, I avoided a Great Man approach toward the study of movements of resistance in which a single individual, such as Newt Knight [the central figure of The Free State of Jones] of Mississippi or Bill Owens of North Carolina, overshadows the complex societal forces that stimulated and sustained such movements. So, while Long Shadow identifies key similarities among regions of dissent, it also pinpoints important differences between them.

BR:  Did you find out anything while researching Long Shadow that changed—or reinforced—any opinions formed during The Free State of Jones?
 
VB:  The new materials cited in Long Shadow enriched my knowledge of Jones County, Mississippi’s Civil War uprising, and enabled me to expand on the story. They did not, however, refute the essential arguments I made in The Free State of Jones. In both works, I maintain that Newt Knight’s anti-Confederate views accelerated during and after the Civil War. For example, in 1861, Newt volunteered for Confederate service before passage of the South’s first conscript act (in contrast to men who later formed the Unionist core of his guerrilla band, The Knight Company).

Also expanding the story of the Jones County uprising is Newt’s second federal claims file, 1887-1900, which I obtained a copy of just before The Free State of Jones went to press. The file was rich with depositions that quote directly from aging former Knight Band guerrillas (including Newt), enabling me to include their voices in Long Shadow.

New research materials also allowed me to discuss in far greater depth in Long Shadow the extent to which dissent among certain Knight Band members extended into the New South era.  Like Warren J. Collins in Texas and Jasper Collins in Mississippi, Newt Knight displayed far greater political militancy in his later years than during the war, or even during Reconstruction when he served the Adelbert Ames Administration.   Newt’s remark around 1894 that plain southern farmers should have risen up and killed the slaveholders rather than fight their war for them reflected his disappointment with wartime governments, both North and South. Viewed in historical context during periods of dizzying change and violence, ordinary people (like Newt) responded to and helped to shape those times.  By 1894, the experiences of war, Reconstruction, and New South politics had reshaped Newt Knight’s beliefs significantly. The man who volunteered for Confederate service in 1861, led an anti-Confederate guerrilla band in 1863, and served the Union government during Reconstruction, was now advocating internal class revolution as the best way to have defeated slaveholders .

Long Shadow presents a wider and longer view of the multiracial community founded by Newt, his white wife Serena, and Rachel and George Ann Knight, the mixed-race former slaves of his grandfather, than did The Free State of Jones. As a result of additional research and wider communication with present-day Knight researchers, Long Shadow also provides a more nuanced view of racial identity among mixed-race Knights. We are unlikely ever to know the exact nature of Newt Knight’s racial views, or, for that matter, those of the three women with whom he fathered children. While there is evidence that Newt and his parents may have disliked slavery, as did a fair number of non-slaveholders, there is no evidence that they were abolitionists, or that Newt Knight ever advocated equal civil rights for freed people of African ancestry.  Rather, some Knight descendants insist that Newt considered his children by Rachel and, later, her daughter George Ann, to be white and that he encouraged them to identify themselves as such. This is certainly plausible given their physical appearance, small degree of African ancestry, and the fact that many did self-identify as white.

BR:  How has the book been received?

VB:  It’s a bit too early to tell, but so far I’m pleased with Long Shadow’s reception. It has been favorably reviewed by an academic historian (Paul Escott for H-Civil War), by a Civil War blogger (Brett Schulte, TOCWOC), and by a newspaper editor (Joe L. White of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger).  Privately, individuals have emailed me to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. 

BR:  What’s next for you?

VB:  I’m not sure what’s next for me, but am reasonably certain it will not be another academic history. I remain fascinated by the lives and struggles of ordinary people, but hope in the future to tell stories in a new way, perhaps through a different writing genre or medium of art.

That last bit is tantalizing, if cryptic.  I’ll be curious to see what Dr. Bynum comes up with.

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14 07 2010

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