The trailer for Free State of Jones is out. In case you haven’t seen it, here you go.
It’ll be interesting to see if this movie has any effect on popular notions of the Civil War, the South, and the Confederacy. People have a tendency to equate the “Civil War South” with the Confederacy. Using “the South” as shorthand for “the Confederacy” in the context of the Civil War is something we all do from time to time, but it’s important to remind ourselves that the two weren’t synonymous.
The Civil War divided Southerners just as it divided the nation as a whole. This wasn’t just true in the sense that some states in the South never seceded; it was also true of many people living within Confederate territory. For many Southerners faced with conscription, shortages, home guards, and requisitions of goods, the idea of rallying around the Confederate flag became more and more distasteful as the war dragged on. And, of course, some Southerners in Confederate-held territory were never crazy about secession to begin with, as was the case for many people here in East Tennessee.
It’s also noteworthy to see a movie depicting blacks and whites engaged in anti-Confederate resistance. The point here is not to fashion some myth of interracial amity in the nineteenth-century South. The point, rather, is to consider black Southerners as Southerners—in other words, as real people with some degree of agency living in the South, rather than an inert mass simply awaiting the war’s outcome. In other words, when we speak of a divided Civil War South, it’s easy to forget that white Southerners weren’t the only potential source of anti-Confederate dissent within the region.
I think a cinematic reminder of these Southern divisions in the Civil War would do us all some good, whatever region of the country we hail from. A lot of neo-Confederates equate critiques of the C.S.A. with attacks on the South as a whole. I can heartily agree with them that a lot of Americans carry unjustified and pernicious prejudices regarding this region, but remembering that “the Confederacy” and “the South” weren’t synonymous might help us all examine the C.S.A. a little more dispassionately. Conversely, folks from the North who let the darker aspects of the South’s history determine their attitudes toward the region and its people might rethink those attitudes after seeing Newt Knight’s story. Even in the 1860s, there were Southerners doing unexpected things.