The film The Free State of Jones, is being released in May. Surprisingly, it is the second Hollywood film to depict alleged events in Jones County Mississippi during the Civil War, the first being the forgotten film Tap Roots (1948) which was based on the novel Tap Roots (1942) by James Street.
James Street noted that his novel was a heavily fictionalized account of local legends in Jones County of events that occurred in the Civil War. That of course is the usual problem when Hollywood attempts to depict history: legends and myths come to the forefront with history being a rear guard.
In regard to the events in Jones County in Mississippi during the Civil War, history is handicapped by the fact that the events were regarded as fairly minor at the time, and thus contemporary documentation is light. No adequate scholarly examination of the history of Jones County during the War has yet been undertaken, although in the past few decades some pioneering studies have been undertaken.
The central figure of Jones County in the Civil War is Newton Knight, a leader of Confederate deserters in that county during the War. He may have been a simple bandit or he may have been a Robin Hood figure protecting locals from the Confederate government. Quite likely he was both depending on the occasion. Our main source of information on his activities during the War is himself, and there is good reason to doubt his veracity on many points, as he tended to exaggerate his role in the War as the years went by. His main “historians” have been his numerous relatives, bitterly divided into pro and anti Knight camps. This is largely due to Knight in the 1870s deserting his wife Serena, and living in common law marriage with Rachel, a former slave of his grandfather’s. Newton had nine children by Serena and may have had nine or ten children by Rachel, the parentage of Rachel’s children being a matter of ongoing controversy.
This racial aspect is being played up in the current movie and completely absent in the 1948 film, both films reflecting contemporary racial attitudes.
In regard to Jones County and the Civil War I guess that Hollywood can be excused for producing films short on history when the underlying history itself is quite murky.