It’s an exciting time for historians, especially as we get nearer to the opening of the film “Free State of Jones” on June 24th. Part of the excitement has been generated by the marketing of the film (including during Game 7 of the NBA Finals!), but also the real sense that the history is being told as carefully as possible through the medium of film, which doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to telling “the true story.”
Below are some links that will assist you in learning more about the story behind the film Free State of Jones.
Author and historian Victoria Bynum’s interview about Jones County, the Civil War, the Knight Company and other interesting facts about the Free State of Jones is available on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
The New York Times calls this a “film with footnotes,” a reference to the intensive research that went into the making of the movie. Learn about the history in this extensive website that accompanies the movie.
My friend and fellow historian, Victoria Bynum talks here about The Free State of Jones, the movie that is based on her superb book. Buy the book, watch the film, and learn something new about the Civil War.
It’s been forty years since I first saw the name “Newton Knight” in the footnotes of a Civil War history textbook as I headed home for the holidays on a greyhound bus northbound from San Diego to Monterey, California. Since that moment, I have thought about, researched, written, and talked about, the meaning of Jones County, Mississippi’s insurrection to the Civil War Era that our nation still struggles to understand.
Since 1992, I’ve published numerous works on Southern Unionism, opposition to the Confederacy, and the associated Civil War themes of guerrilla networks, women’s participation in home front uprisings, collaboration across racial lines, and retaliatory violence by Confederate militia and home front vigilantes.
I recently had the pleasure to attend a preview screening of The Free State of Jones. The movie unflinchingly depicts the…
In the wake of the human tragedy Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members of Emanuel AME Church were murdered by a white supremacist neo-Confederate, there has been a push in southern states to remove the symbols of the region’s Confederate past. Until now, only battle flags have been targeted.
But recently, the city council in New Orleans voted to remove Confederate monuments from its urban landscape, including those to Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as one to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Council members accomplished this feat through an ordinance that defined these monuments as a public “nuisance.”
According to the ordinance:
“They honor, praise, or foster ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens as provided by the constitution and laws of the United States, the state, or the laws of the city and suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group over another.”
This angers Confederate sympathizers like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who believe that such memorials honor their ancestors’ sacrifices. It also makes some historians a little uneasy, as they worry about erasing history, arguing that even when that past is ugly it should remain as a reminder to never repeat that past.
Yet much of what the ordinance says is true. Confederate monuments were erected in a moment of white supremacist backlash to black progress and were not simply memorials to honor ancestors. They were that, but they were also powerful symbols of white rule serving notice to black citizens that they were, at best, second-class citizens.
When the Jefferson Davis Memorial in New Orleans was unveiled in 1907, it was attended by thousands of white citizens. The ceremony included over 500 children from the city’s white public schools who formed what were known as “living battle flags.” These children, dressed in the colors that make up the flag, were then arranged on a stand so that they formed a Confederate battle flag. In that formation, they sang “Dixie” and even “America.”
But make no mistake, the loyalty expressed by white southerners during this and similar ceremonies across the South were first and foremost to the former Confederacy.
Monuments and memorials are generally a reflection of the values of the generation that originally placed them there. In 1907, the Davis monument reflected the values of a generation of whites dedicated to the idea of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Indeed, during speeches given at unveiling ceremonies across the South, they said as much.
So how should we consider removing such monuments and memorials?
If landscapes are constantly evolving, can the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans or elsewhere be understood as part of that evolution and a reflection of values of the current generation?
Others will see this as a historic preservation issue. As most of us know, preservation is a difficult sell under the best of circumstances. Some buildings get preserved, while others are razed in order to build something new in its place.
In this, I am reminded of a statement made by a curator at the National Museum of American History many years ago during one of my visits. She discussed how the museum had previously exhibited women’s work in the 18th and 19th centuries by showcasing several spinning wheels of various sizes. She asked, rhetorically, “how many spinning wheels are needed to demonstrate that this was the kind of work most women did?” Not an entire room full.
The same might be asked about the hundreds of Confederate monuments and memorials that are found across the southern landscape.
How many are needed to demonstrate that a generation of southern whites built monuments to the Confederate past?
The news of the past week has run the gamut from deep despair to joyous celebration, as millions of Americans grappled with the murder of black parishioners at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, while millions of others celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision upholding marriage equality.
Throughout this news cycle there has been an explosive debate over the Confederate flag and the need to take it down from government-sanctioned spaces, while, simultaneously, LGBT citizens and their allies have raised the flag of pride to commemorate a Supreme Court victory that makes this year’s pride season even more special.
This past week, there have been some amazing images of both flags, together and separately, that remind us that symbols do matter in issues of civil rights. Below are some of the photos and cartoons that have made the rounds that speak volumes about flags and people’s passion for causes.
My journey through the culture of the Lost Cause and what had been (still is?) the cult of Jefferson Davis came full circle years after my initial visit to Beauvoir upon learning about the creation of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. This project was initiated by the Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which owns and operates the site, and through its lobbying efforts became a financial beneficiary of the State of Mississippi. On their own, the Sons were not successful in their efforts to raise money for the library. In fact, the money they raised was not enough to renovate the house, much less build a presidential library.
So the Sons lobbied state officials, especially then Governor Kirk Fordice, who confirmed his support for Confederate history during each year of his two terms in office by officially declaring April as Confederate Heritage Month. The SCV’s lobbying efforts to garner funds for the library were rewarded in 1993 when the state gave $1.5 million in bond funds for the project. Then, two years later, Governor Fordice signed a bill giving the SCV an additional $3 million. Thus, the State of Mississippi awarded $4.5 million in taxpayer funds to a private institution to create (without a hint of irony) the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. Not “Confederate Presidential Library,” mind you, but Presidential Library.
This kind of state support was common in the early twentieth century. Throughout the South, state legislatures and local governments gave today’s equivalent of millions of dollars to erect Confederate monuments, build soldiers’ and widows’ homes, and fund other Lost Cause projects.
As states poured funds into creating stone likenesses of Confederate soldiers, their black citizens suffered as schools were underfunded and many lived in abject poverty. Not much has changed in the last century. It may be 2015, but it wreaks of 1915.
In today’s Mississippi, most minorities and poor whites must attend substandard public schools where state expenditures on public education place the state at the bottom in nationwide rankings. And yet there always seems to be money for a historic site dedicated to a pro-slavery president of a defeated Confederate nation.
This was brought into sharp relief when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. It nearly wiped Beauvoir from the map and destroyed the library. But have no fear, both the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and the Mississippi Emergency Management Association (MEMA) came to the rescue. From a report from the Department of Homeland Security:
“As of May 18, 2010, Beauvoir had received a public assistance award of $17.2 million from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), a FEMA grantee, for damages related to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.”
Not only was Beauvoir restored, the library was rebuilt to the tune of $17.2 million dollars. This on top of the original $4.5 million comes to $21.7 million for the site. Let that sink in.
Understanding Jeff Davis’s role in the Confederate tradition has, for me, meant truly knowing what a hold the Lost Cause still has on the South. Are white southerners, as my colleague David Goldfield writes, “still fighting the Civil War?” Certainly some of them are.
What’s more significant, I would argue, is that the white South continues to honor, revere, and value Confederate heritage without putting up a fight at all. It’s all around us if we look, and paid for by local, state, and even the Federal government–especially in the Deep South.
The price of Confederate heritage goes beyond the millions that were spent to commemorate it and the millions spent to preserve it. There’s a price to pay for honoring the heritage that I encountered through the memory of Jefferson Davis. It’s a heritage that has come at the expense of African American progress and the region’s poorest citizens, black and white. It’s a heritage that has hampered race relations and civil rights. And, it’s a heritage that has hurt the region’s reputation throughout the nation.
Simply put: Confederate heritage has cost the South too much.
Nothing says “Christian martyr” like a crown of thorns, but did you know that Jefferson Davis had one, too? He did.
Preparing my manuscript on the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) often took me to the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) in Richmond. In one final trip to search for images with which to illustrate my book, I traveled there in the spring of 2002. At the time, the MOC was hosting a special exhibit of items on loan from the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans, which opened in 1891 and is one of the oldest history museums in the South.
I walked through the exhibit, observing objects from several of the South’s heroes (General P.G.T. Beauregard‘s uniform, for example) and then was stopped in my tracks by the relic of all Lost Cause relics. There before me under plexiglas was a crown of thorns. Without reading the exhibit copy, I instinctively knew it was for Jeff. And, yes, I was right. Here before me rested the ultimate symbol of his martyrdom—a crown of thorns. I could hardly believe my eyes. I saw (but would not touch) the locks of his hair, and now I found myself gazing on his crown of thorns.
The thorny wreath, according to the Confederate Museum that owns it, was “sent to Davis by Pope Pius IX in sympathy for Davis’ post war treatment by the U.S. government while a prisoner at Fortress Monroe.” That seemed like a sacrilegious thing for a pope to do, but the representatives of the museum have yet to waiver from their story. However, the researchers at the Museum of the Confederacy documented their version, which is that his wife Varina Davis made the crown. An inventory of items donated by Varina to the Confederate Museum in New Orleans confirms that she made the crown, but I’ve yet to find out why. (Kevin Levin offers the documentation on his Civil War Memory site.)
This object, this relic of the Lost Cause, makes quite a statement about Davis as a martyr, because not every martyr gets a crown of thorns. Did the white South believe so whole-heartedly that his sacrifices were Christ-like?
I have no doubt that the early members of the UDC were on board with the “Davis as martyr” image, because it was in keeping with the stories written about women of the Confederate generation in the years following the Civil War.
Those “women of the sixties” were frequently compared to Mary and Martha of the Bible, “last at the cross and first at the grave.” Perhaps the UDC saw its role in preserving the image of Jeff Davis as similar in intent.
The crown of thorns, while made by Varina, served its purpose as the pièce de résistance in a much larger campaign by women to resurrect Davis’s image.
Check back for the final installment of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial when I discuss the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library as well as the financial and political costs of the Lost Cause.
Since 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was passed, the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in Richmond, Virginia, has hosted an annual ceremony known as the “Massing of the Flags.” The event, held each June, commemorates the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It is the one time each year that the UDC opens its doors to the public, and in my many research trips to the city, I was told that it would be interesting for me to attend this event.
In 2000, my curiosity led me to Richmond to find out what massing of the flags–Confederate style–meant. As I approached the headquarters I saw men in reproduction Confederate uniforms and women in dresses that cascaded over hoop skirts. It was a sign of things to come.
Entering the building, one walks into the large central room where the ceremony is held. Stretching along the wall directly opposite the entrance is a row of chairs, reminiscent of Masonic chairs, which at one time likely hosted the officers of the Daughters’ general organization. Above the chairs on the wall is the UDC motto “Think, Love, Pray, Dare, Live” represented on a five-pointed star with a cotton boll at the center.
I took a seat on the right side of the aisle and waited for the day’s activities to begin. Leading the audience in prayer, the minister did what Lost Cause devotees of a century earlier had done—paid homage to Jefferson Davis by likening his sacrifices for the South to those of Christ for humanity. Another speaker led the crowd in a rousing rebel yell, followed by the singing of “Dixie.” The day’s speech, like every year’s ceremony, focused on some aspect of Davis’s life and career. Then, I learned about massing flags.
State by state (not all of which we know to be Confederate, like California) was represented by a man and woman dressed in period attire. The man carried the state’s flag, as commentary about the state’s sacrifices, commitment to, or sympathy with the Confederate cause was read aloud.
Chests swelled with pride and the ceremony was observed by many others dressed in period attire, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs as the parade of flags passed by. Lest you think this was a ceremony of the aged, the Children of the Confederacy (the UDC’s official youth auxiliary) was also represented, just as in commemorations past.
This particular commemoration was marked with a speech by June Murray Wells, then president-general of the entire UDC organization. A resident of Charleston, South Carolina, Wells’ presence at that year’s massing came on the heels of the fight over the Confederate battle flag that flew atop the South Carolina State House in Columbia, which was subsequently removed.
In her speech recounting the year’s battles, however, Murray stayed true to Lost Cause form and painted the eventual outcome as a moral victory for Confederate organizations. She noted with pride that the flag, no longer flying out of view on top of the capitol, now appeared more visible to the state’s citizens, as it waved from a thirty-foot flagpole that stood directly in front of the building. “The pole is lit at night,” she told the enthusiastic crowd, and, she chuckled “should anyone try to remove the flag, it has an electric charge.”
That day Jefferson Davis’s birthday was marked in true Lost Cause fashion. A man who was a white supremacist was honored through modern day racist rhetoric. The NAACP, whose members Wells referred to as “that crowd,” and its boycott of South Carolina was, for those gathered to honor Davis, about “us” versus “them,” of white versus black.
And in their minds, the Confederate forces had won.
In Part VI of Me and Jeff Davis, I’ll talk about living on Jefferson Davis Highway.