Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginiaby Brian D. McKnight
Pub. Date: 03/31/2006
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
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When most of us close our eyes and try to picture the Civil War as it happened, I imagine most of us see long rows of uniformed men advancing toward one another with appropriate flags waving above them, in an open field lit with sunshine. We seem to picture the war as one great Pickett¿s Charge. All the men are true and brave, ready to die doing their duty. Of course, that¿s not the way it was. And that vision was especially untrue in the regions tucked away from the commerce and the traffic and the war¿s main events. The ridges of the Appalachians separated people. They defined borders between states, between free and slave, and for a while between a country trying to save itself and another wanting to begin on its own. Those mountains and the narrow valleys between them offered plenty of shade and shadows in which people of all sorts could seek refuge. Where they ended in northwestern Pennsylvania the lumber camps became havens for well-armed bands of Union deserters. Farther south, along the Kentucky- Virginia frontier, mixed bands of deserters from both sides hid in the forests and preyed upon the locals. ¿Volunteers¿ stepped forward under the shield of being soldiers to steal from whomever they didn¿t like. As Brian McKnight points out in this regional study of the war near the Cumberland Gap, although lightly populated, this area had points of military significance, the gap itself being but one. It was here that James A. Garfield first proved his worth in the field, managing his men so well that he quickly gained promotion to brigadier and appointment as Don Carlos Buell¿s chief-of-staff. McKnight, who teaches at the University of Virginia¿s College at Wise, located right in the center of the area covered by his book, does a great job of showing all the facets of the war as they happened there. He shows you the military side, but also the partisan and civilian sides, which was significant in this mountain country where grudges were quickly formed and rarely forgotten, and an assassin in the dark could just as easily dole out justice as could a judge or jury. This was, after all, where the Hatfields and McCoys would carry on their own private war not many years afterward. In his thoughtful introduction, the author provides a good historiography of other regional studies of the partisan war fought in other places in the Appalachians, as well as in Missouri where it was, perhaps, at its worst. And he correctly points out that the war around the Cumberland Gap has never been adequately covered before. It has now, thanks to his efforts now available in this excellent book.