A media furor over the so-called “Free State of Jones” erupted in sync with the eponymous film starring Texan Matthew McConaughey in the summer of 2016, but the subject has been a bone of contention for a very long time indeed, as is evidenced by this essay by Alexander Lee Bondurant that appeared in Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, vol. 1 (pp. 104-6), printed for the Society in Oxford, Mississippi in 1898. Other entries include “Mississippi as a Field for the Student of Literature”, by W.L. Weber, “Suffrage in Mississippi”, by R.H. Thompson and “Some Inaccuracies in Claiborne’s History in Regard to Tecumseh” by the aforementioned Riley (If you ask me–and I know you didn’t–Claiborne had a lot of slips, but he covered a lot of ground, and his errors often lead to discoveries.)
Most alumni of the University of Mississippi will find Professor Bondurant’s name familiar if only for the classes they took in Bondurant Hall, though some of the most hard-core Ole Miss fans will remember him as the man who established the University of Mississippi football team and served as its coach during its first season in 1893. For the record, the Rebs had a 4-1 season, losing only to the Southern Athletic Club in New Orleans (0-24) on Nov. 30; they stayed in the city long enough to beat Tulane there two days later (12-4). Bondurant was also a classics scholar with degrees from the University of Virginia and Harvard.
I reproduce his essay “Did Jones County Secede?” refuting the existence of the Free State of Jones out of historical interest. I myself remain solidly convinced that the Free State of Jones was never a cohesive entity, much less one with noble objectives, most likely nothing more than a handful of outlaws protecting themselves and their families against the depredations of a moribund, corrupt regime.
It seems that many within and without the State would answer this query in the affirmative, and even their ordinance of succession is given by one writer on the subject as follows:
“WHEREAS, The State of Mississippi, for reasons which appear justifiable, has seen fit to withdraw from the Federal Union; and,
WHEREAS, We, the citizens of Jones County, claim the same right, thinking our grievances are sufficient by reason of an unjust law passed by the Confederate States of America forcing us to go into distant parts, etc., and therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That we sever the union heretofore existing between Jones County and The State of Mississippi, and proclaim our independence of the said State and of the Confederate States of America; and we solemnly call upon Almighty God to witness and bless this act.”
Such being the case, it has seemed to me in order to advert to a discussion in The Nation beginning March 24, 1892, which throws considerable light on the question. In the paper of this date Samuel Willard, of Chicago, writes that he had been a soldier in the army which invaded Mississippi, and that he had never during the war heard of such an occurrence. When, therefore, he saw the statement made in The New England Magazine for November, 1891, the author being professor Hart, he doubted its accuracy. It may be stated just here that Professor Hart, in a subsequent history of The Nation, gives as his authority Mr. Galloway, historian of the Sixth Army Corps, who published in The Magazine of American History for October, 1886, an article entitled “A Confederacy Within a Confederacy”; but upon what authority Mr. Galloway based his statements does not appear. He therefore wrote to the Governor of the State of Mississippi and to the clerk of Jones County, and elicited replies from both of these gentlemen, and Governor Stone enclosed a letter from his predecessor, Hon. Robert Lowry, who was sent to Jones County during the war in command of troops for the purpose of arresting deserters. The texts of the letters are too long to quote in full, so a few passages will have to suffice. Gov. Stone writes:
“It gives me great pleasure to inform you that the whole story is a fabrication, and there is scarcely any foundation for any part of it. To begin with, Jones County furnished perhaps as many soldiers to the army of the Confederacy as any other county of like population. * * * Many of them declined to go into the army in the beginning, but so far as formal withdrawal or resolution to that effect is concerned, no such thing ever occurred in Jones County. Hon. Robert Lowry was sent to Jones County during the war for the purpose of arresting and returning deserters to their commands, and there was some little fighting with these bands of deserters, or rather bush-whacking of his men by the deserters; and some of the deserters were arrested and executed, but only a few. The whole story is the veriest fabrication, and I presume few persons of intelligence will believe any of it.”
Ex-Governor Lowry writes: “The county furnished nearly and probably its entire quote of soldiers, many of whom did splendid service. No such effort as establishing a separate government was ever attempted. The story of withdrawal and establishing a separate government is a pure fabrication—not the shadow of foundation for it.”
Governor McLaurin, in a recent letter to me on this subject, writes: “I was a boy thirteen years old when the war commenced. I was ‘raised’ in Smith County, a county adjoining Jones. I was at home the first three years of the war, and, if there was any attempt by Jones County to secede and set up a separate government, I did not hear anything of it. I was in a brigade that intercepted a federal raid that started from Baton Rouge to Mobile in November or December, 1864, and we passed through or very near Jones County, and I never heard of any attempt to set up a separate government in the county. I think it it safe for you to negative the whole story.”
E.B. Sharp Esq., chancery clerk, writes: “The report is utterly false in every particularly.”
The authority of these well-known gentlemen is quite sufficient to dispose effectively of this canard reflecting upon the good name of a county which rendered brave and efficient service to the Confederacy.