Historian Victoria Bynum, M.A. ’79, Ph.D. ’87, is a Civil War myth-buster.
Folklore is deeply embedded in American culture—whether told at the dinner table, around the campfire or just before bedtime, tall tales and legends about the nation’s history have the power to build a common identity and unify its people. For Victoria Bynum, M.A. ’79, Ph.D. ’87, American folklore is not just an opportunity for a great story, but a chance to look more closely at the finer threads of our heritage.
Interestingly enough for a noted historian of the 19th-century American South, Bynum was born and raised mostly in California. Her father, however, was born in Jones County, Miss., a location steeped in history and primarily known for its anti-Confederate rebellion during the Civil War. For Bynum, who gravitated toward history throughout college, the dynamics and repercussions of the uprising were captivating. “Here was a story that countered conventional images of the Civil War and ordinary white Southerners,” she says. After hearing a plethora of different sides to the story, Bynum was convinced that Jones County was begging for a deeper historical analysis.
Bynum began researching the area in 1992, after publication of her first book, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South, which she began in graduate school at UC San Diego. Eager to expand her existing research on women, people of color and pro-Union deserters of the Civil War South, she dove into a wealth of resources, poring over federal, state and county records, as well as folklore and several family accounts from the period. After long hours and years of dedication, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War was finally realized in 2001.
The book separates fact from fiction, and busts the illusion of a “solid South” during the Civil War era. The story centers on a rogue group of Confederate deserters, the self-proclaimed Knight Company, who battled the Confederate cavalry in the swamps of Jones County between 1863 and mid-1864. The story of rebellion is well-known among Mississippians, but Bynum digs deep into the legend, uncovering broader takeaways beyond the historical events themselves. Says Bynum, “I realized that the myths and legends that permeate this story—with their rival understandings of morality, loyalty and history—reveal the long-term effects of community conflict and human tragedy.”
Bynum’s book is among the primary texts that inform the 2016 feature-length film of the same title, starring Matthew McConaughey, Keri Russell and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. While Bynum is definitely excited for the film’s release (and a cameo role with her husband!) the issue of accuracy is ever-present. “I remind myself—and others when necessary—that a historically based movie is not a history text adapted to screen, nor is it a documentary, even though based on true events.” Yet considering the 20+ years that have passed since she started her research at UC San Diego, Bynum recognizes the value of a popular medium putting a spotlight on the subject of her research.
“In regard to movies, Southern Unionism has never been portrayed with the honesty and depth that it deserves,” she says. “It’s exciting to see that finally happening.”