Saturday, May 30, 2009

Just finished reading - Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia by Brian D. McKnight

The southern Appalachian Mountain region of southwestern Virginia and southeastern Kentucky is the focus of fellow East Tennessee State University alum Brian D. McKnight's work, Contested Borderland. This area experienced a type of war that in many respects was both unique and common to other regions hit hard by the Civil War. Over the course of the war this area saw some of the most famous of Civil War personalities. Men such as Ambrose Burnside, John C. Breckinridge, George H. Thomas, William T. Sherman, and Edmund Kirby Smith, and Felix K. Zollicoffer, all participated in actions in this region or had command over troops that did. Others, not so known, such as Humphrey Marshall, Samuel Jones, Stephen Burbridge, and Samuel P. Carter had their war fortunes enhanced or detracted by their actions or lack of actions in the region.

No major battles along the lines of a Gettysburg or a Chickamauga occurred in the mountains, but a significant amount of minor actions and skirmishes kept the hostilities burning. McKnight puts it well in his conclusion of the book, "...Although the region hosted no major battles, saw few large armies, and witnessed changes of sentiment from day to day, house to house, and brother to brother, its wartime experience is perhaps one of the most elusive, yet satisfying, historical studies. Within this area, the Union and Confederacy dueled not only for the hearts, minds, and votes of men, but met challenges that armies in other regions could never imagine. These challenges proved especially true in the mountains of eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, an important section of the war's front. Unlike other sections along the dividing line between the old nation and the new, this border remained both officially static but practically fluid for the full duration of the conflict."

At the start of the war the Confederates had a fairly firm control on eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia; other than the Unionist element within the local populations, which was not insignificant. A number of the problems that Confederate commanders faced in this area was due to the insurrectionist Union element. As the war progressed, grudgingly and in fits and starts, the Confederates withdrew leaving larger and larger chunks of territory in control of the Union armies. By 1863 Confederates had given up the Cumberland Gap and fallen back to defend the vital salt works at Saltville in the upper valley on the Tennessee/Virginia border (the Bristol/Abingdon area). The Union's first attempt to capture Saltville in October of 1864 proved unsuccessful, but another attempt in December 1864 proved fruitful and the salt works were destroyed. This was just another nail in the coffin in the Confederacy's casket as they desperately needed the salt production. Almost, if not as vital as the salt works, was the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad that ran through the valley from Knoxville to Bristol, and then to Lynchburg. This railway was an important connection between the eastern and western theaters for the Confederates. Raids by Samuel P. Carter (Elizabethton, TN native) and George Stoneman, at different points in the war destroyed parts of the railroad and burned its bridges.

One of the most terrible aspects of the war in this region was the personal violence that took over. Much like the guerrilla activities of Missouri, many mountain people used the war as an excuse to bring vengeance for real or perceived slights, threats, or pre-war feuds on their neighbors. McKnight relays one such story, and although it occurred in Scott County, Tennessee, it is a good example of the numerous horrible scenes that occurred in the Appalachian mountains during the war.

At one household a Unionist father nightly slept outdoors to avoid being ambushed by Confederate partisans in the area. One night the family was visited by a group of soldiers, and after harassing the wife and two daughters, all rode off except one. He apparently was more vengeful than the others because he began to chock the mother and poke his bayonet at one of the daughters. When the soldier was turned, one of the daughters picked up a wood ax and swung. The following is her account, "He chopped at me with the bayonet on his gun, I ran under the gun and chopped him in the face and breast with the ax, cut him to the hollow and split his chin open with the ax, getting the best of him. I knocked the gun from his hands. He staggered around and around and said 'don't chop me anymore.' But I did no stop. He got hold of the gun and stuck the bayonet in my forehead, burst my skull, knocked my brains out, put out my left eye and shot my third finger off my right hand. Father came up the stairs just as the gun fell out of his hands. Father shot him in the shoulder, he fell dead." Apparently this woman was one tough bird, because after a long recuperation, and being blinded in one eye and living with an open wound in her head, she lived to be ninety-one years old.

In Contested Borderland, McKnight weaves, political, military, economic, and social history to give the reader a real sense of what this area endured during the Civil War. And, athough the war ended, the violence did not stop immediately. Confederate and Unionist feuds would continue on into the 19th and 20th centuries, with roots back to these difficult years.

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