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Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America [NOOK Book]

Overview

In his first work of nonfiction, bestselling novelist James Webb tells the epic story of the Scots-Irish, a people whose lives and worldview were dictated by resistance, conflict, and struggle, and who, in turn, profoundly influenced the social, political, and cultural landscape of America from its beginnings through the present day.

More than 27 million Americans today can trace their lineage to the Scots, whose bloodline was stained by ...
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Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America

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Overview

In his first work of nonfiction, bestselling novelist James Webb tells the epic story of the Scots-Irish, a people whose lives and worldview were dictated by resistance, conflict, and struggle, and who, in turn, profoundly influenced the social, political, and cultural landscape of America from its beginnings through the present day.

More than 27 million Americans today can trace their lineage to the Scots, whose bloodline was stained by centuries of continuous warfare along the border between England and Scotland, and later in the bitter settlements of England’s Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland. Between 250,000 and 400,000 Scots-Irish migrated to America in the eighteenth century, traveling in groups of families and bringing with them not only long experience as rebels and outcasts but also unparalleled skills as frontiersmen and guerrilla fighters. Their cultural identity reflected acute individualism, dislike of aristocracy and a military tradition, and, over time, the Scots-Irish defined the attitudes and values of the military, of working class America, and even of the peculiarly populist form of American democracy itself.
Born Fighting is the first book to chronicle the full journey of this remarkable cultural group, and the profound, but unrecognized, role it has played in the shaping of America. Written with the storytelling verve that has earned his works such acclaim as “captivating . . . unforgettable” (the Wall Street Journal on Lost Soliders), Scots-Irishman James Webb, Vietnam combat veteran and former Naval Secretary, traces the history of his people, beginning nearly two thousand years ago at Hadrian’s Wall, when the nation of Scotland was formed north of the Wall through armed conflict in contrast to England’s formation to the south through commerce and trade. Webb recounts the Scots’ odyssey—their clashes with the English in Scotland and then in Ulster, their retreat from one war-ravaged land to another. Through engrossing chronicles of the challenges the Scots-Irish faced, Webb vividly portrays how they developed the qualities that helped settle the American frontier and define the American character.
Born Fighting shows that the Scots-Irish were 40 percent of the Revolutionary War army; they included the pioneers Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston; they were the writers Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain; and they have given America numerous great military leaders, including Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Audie Murphy, and George S. Patton, as well as most of the soldiers of the Confederacy (only 5 percent of whom owned slaves, and who fought against what they viewed as an invading army). It illustrates how the Scots-Irish redefined American politics, creating the populist movement and giving the country a dozen presidents, including Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. And it explores how the Scots-Irish culture of isolation, hard luck, stubbornness, and mistrust of the nation’s elite formed and still dominates blue-collar America, the military services, the Bible Belt, and country music.
Both a distinguished work of cultural history and a human drama that speaks straight to the heart of contemporary America, Born Fighting reintroduces America to its most powerful, patriotic, and individualistic cultural group—one too often ignored or taken for granted.
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Editorial Reviews

Malachy McCourt
Despite his inordinate pride in the warlike tendencies of his fellows, Webb has written a splendid, eminently readable account of a hidden people and culture.
— ; The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Former navy secretary Webb (Fields of Fire; etc.) wants not only to offer a history of the Scots-Irish but to redeem them from their redneck, hillbilly stereotype and place them at the center of American history and culture. As Webb relates, the Scots-Irish first emigrated to the U.S., 200,000 to 400,000 strong, in four waves during the 18th century, settling primarily in Appalachia before spreading west and south. Webb's thesis is that the Scots-Irish, with their rugged individualism, warrior culture built on extended familial groups (the "kind of people who would die in place rather than retreat") and an instinctive mistrust of authority, created an American culture that mirrors these traits. Webb has a genuine flair for describing the battles the Scots-Irish fought during their history, but his analysis of their role in America's social and political history is, ironically for someone trying to crush stereotypes, fixated on what he sees, in almost Manichaean terms, as a class conflict between the Scots-Irish and America's "paternalistic Ivy League-centered, media-connected, politically correct power centers." He even excuses resistance to the "Northern-dominated" Civil Rights movement. Another glaring weakness is the virtual absence of women from the sociological narrative. Webb interweaves his own Scots-Irish family history throughout the book with some success, but by and large his writing and analysis are overwhelmed by romanticism. (Oct. 5) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A soldier, highly placed defense official (secretary of the navy, assistant secretary of defense), novelist (Fields of Fire), filmmaker (Rules of Engagement), and journalist, Webb here tries for historian. In this examination of his roots, he traces America's fighting spirit to the Scots-Irish. Distinguishing the working-class Scots-Irish from WASPs, he follows their emigration to America since Colonial times and draws dramatic conclusions, e.g., the "warrior ethic" of his Confederate kin compelled them to "fight too hard" and lose the Civil War. Webb has done his reading (his varied sources include both classical works and one of his novels), but a trained historian would be more guarded in his conclusions. The book's biggest strength, Webb's narrative skill, is also its weakness; he can border on the bombastic. He is at his best when he writes biographically but suffers when he issues blanket statements, not quite making the leap from novelist to historian. In addition, in promoting one ethnic group he appears to slight others. The audience for this book is likely to be his Scots-Irish fans. Robert Moore, Bristol-Myers Squibb Medical Imaging, North Billerica, MA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Pugnacious, bibulous, restless, pious: the Scots-Irish have fueled stereotypes and filled the White House, to say nothing of the ranks of the military. Though millions strong, writes Webb, these Scots-Irish backbone-of-America types "don't go for group-identity politics any more than they like to join a union." Instead, they live quietly independent lives marked by hard work and faith, punctuated by blasts of country music and shotguns. Chalk up one stereotype, that of the southern redneck, which has a lot of truth in it but needs complicating; as Webb sagely remarks, "In the American South it has always been said that one cannot shoot an arrow into the air without having it land on a soldier, a musician, or a writer." Or an inventor, inasmuch as he reports the development in one Virginia country alone of the mechanical reaper and the sewing machine. Webb does a fine job of tracing the Scots-Irish-mostly Scottish Presbyterians first transplanted to Ulster, then to the American colonies-from antiquity to the American Revolution, when their cantankerousness and dislike for the English crown made them natural rebels. (Webb, a former assistant secretary of defense and Marine officer, likens them to Iraqi insurgents today, though he doesn't press the point too hard.) He moves the narrative on to the Civil War, when the Scots-Irish comprised the bulk of the Confederate army, which Webb vigorously defends; and into modern history, with exemplars like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to speak for the clans. ("It is even said that the patrician George W. Bush has a Kentucky-born, Scots-Irish ancestor," Webb whispers.) His point that Scots-Irish people have a distinct culture in which they shouldtake pride is not news to the people themselves, so some may wonder at Webb's program when he urges, "My culture needs to rediscover itself, and in so doing to regain its power to shape the direction of America." But there's plenty of good information and interpretation, amplifying David Hackett Fischer's indispensable Albion's Seed (1989) and Arthur Herman's How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001).
From the Publisher
Born Fighting is a bombshell—or else the most brilliant battle flare ever launched by a book. James Webb reveals the all-but-invisible ethnic group that has created the core beliefs of democracy American-style: our rights come from God, not the Government; all of us are born equal, and “born aristocrats” don’t exist; and tread on either of those two truths, and we’ll fight you down to the last unbroken hyoid bone. The Scots-Irish, for such is their name, have fought all our wars for us, including Vietnam. James Webb was there, and he can count. He has written not only an engrossing story but also an important work of sociological history in the tradition of the great James Graham Leyburn.”
—Tom Wolfe
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767922951
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/11/2005
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 106,966
  • File size: 535 KB

Meet the Author

JAMES WEBB is the author of six novels, including Fields of Fire, Lost Soldiers, and The Emperor’s General. He is also a filmmaker (Rules of Engagement), a world-traveled, Emmy Award–winning journalist, and has taught literature at the university level. One of the most highly decorated Marines of the Vietnam War, he served as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan Administration. A native of St. Joseph, Missouri, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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Read an Excerpt

1

Big Moccasin Gap

Gate city is more than four hundred miles from Arlington, down the long spine of mountains that marks Virginia's western border. It takes seven hours to drive there, interstate highway almost all the way. I go west on I-66 until it hits the mountains, then hang a left on I-81, keeping those low, blue ridges off to my right as I tear my way south, heading through history. I-81 is a busy road, lots of New York and Pennsylvania license plates weaving in and out of heavy traffic. The exit ramps whiz past my vision, heading off the interstate to towns like Staunton, Lexington, Roanoke, Radford, and Wytheville. I recognize the counties, Rockbridge, Botetourt, Franklin, and others, places where my ancestors once built log cabins and scraped corn patches out of the mud before heading farther south or west.

The mountains are beautiful, smoky from the haze that the sun makes when it burns into the pine. My mind plays tricks. I tell myself that I've been right over there, once upon a time, or at least my blood has, taking water straight from a stream and staring out into the wild unknown, dreaming of the majestic deliverance that must be just over the next horizon, hiding in a valley that no white man has ever seen before. Or maybe the next horizon, or the next one, or the next one after that. Which is why my people kept on going, some of them getting hung up, staying behind in the cul-de-sacs of Appalachian hollows while the more adventurous worked their way, rat like, through the maze until it broke out into Kentucky and then Missouri, Texas, and Colorado, and one day even hit the palm-lined beaches of California.

Because that is the story of my people, not for a generation or for ten generations but for forever. There was a time more than two thousand years ago when the Celtic tribes dominated middle Europe. They made beautiful jewelry and carvings. They were poetic and warlike. They followed strong leaders, even to their deaths. They brought their women and children to the battlefield and put them behind their ranks so they would be sure not to retreat. And they did not retreat. But they refused to recognize leadership beyond their local tribes and thus would not become a nation. And they had a permeating discontent that caused the more determined of them to keep pushing, every generation, a little bit farther into the wild unknown.

Until God played his greatest trick on them. Up the English island they moved, a generation at a time, ever northward, each generation seeing the more restless and aggressive push farther, breeding a new generation of even more restless and aggressive travelers. To the far north they moved, into what is now called Scotland, and when it ended or became too bleak they found sea bridges into Ireland. And so after hundreds or thousands of years of insistent wandering, the most migratory and curious among them found that they were caught in a cruel genetic joke, all their energies bottled up in wild, desolate places that only faced each other or the sea. So back and forth they went, across the sea bridges from Ireland to Scotland and then back again, waves of them that they now called "clans" taking out their fury on each other, then uniting once in a while when the Romans or the English sought to conquer them. The wildest, most contentious people on all the earth, trapped in a sea-bound bottleneck, their emotions spattering out into poetry and music and brawls, calling each other Irish and Scottish now, or Catholic and Protestant, anything that might make another reason for a good, hard fight.

Until they became the British Empire's greatest voyagers, indeed its greatest export, settling in odd places all around the world. And for that splinter of them that became my people, the Scots-Irish, this meant the Appalachian Mountains, their first stop on their way to creating a way of life that many would come to call, if not American, certainly the defining fabric of the South and the Midwest as well as the core character of the nation's working class.

You yourself may see cars and Burger Kings when driving along I-81. But I am watching my own ghosts: tough, resilient women on the buckboards of narrow wagons, hard men with long rifles walking alongside, and wool-clad kids tending thin herds of cattle as they make their way down the mud trail called the Wilderness Road.

That rough road, as Johnny Cash once sang. That old Breezy Creek Road. That low-down, troublesome road through Moccasin Gap.

Nearing Gate City, I dip for a few miles into the hills and ridges of Tennessee, then drop off the interstate and come down a mountain until I am back in Virginia. Soon I pass a sign that remembers Big Moccasin Gap. This was Indian hunting ground for thousands of years. Arrowheads are almost as common as acorns if you scrape the thin soil around Gate City. It was also Daniel Boone's home. His son Jim was killed by an Indian war party in Castlewood, barely twenty miles away. And from this point in 1775, Daniel Boone blazed the first trails through the mountains into Kentucky. Big Moccasin Gap. Johnny Cash wrote the song about it many years ago, probably to honor his wife, June Carter Cash, whose famed musical family was from Hiltons, six miles up the road.

I have family here, too.

From Gate City, I follow narrow, winding roads along rushing streambeds and past small frame houses built at the bottom of the ridges. The mountains loom above me. Trucks are parked along the roads. Little wooden footbridges cross the streams, leading to the front doors of the houses. American flags are frequent, on the trucks and in the yards and on the porches. America got bombed and mountain people don't forget, even if it happened in New York and Washington, because when it comes to fighting wars, mountain people have always been among the first to go.

A few miles outside of town I turn left onto a far narrower road. It has no marker other than a small hand-painted sign with an arrow and the name of a Baptist church, but I know it by heart. It wasn't so long ago that the road was still dirt. This is the entrance to Alley Hollow. My great-great-grandfather lived in this hollow. My great-grandfather left from here to move up to Kentucky. A lot of people back in Alley Hollow share my blood. And all of them share a large part of my history.

My great-great-grandparents are buried back here along with maybe a dozen others in a rough patch of woods on top of a nearby mountain. There are no headstones, only large rocks that mark individual graves. When David G. Webb died, he owned no property and the value of his possessions totaled ten dollars, neither of which was unusual in these hills. Years ago I contacted the Veterans Administration and obtained a Confederate headstone for him and my great-great-grandmother, but there is no road leading to the top of the mountain and it is a laborious trek by foot, so the heavy marker has yet to find its proper resting place. Thinking of the anonymity of their graves, I remember a time when I visited a Protestant cemetery in Northern Ireland, in a little town along the coast just north of Larne. Most of the oldest headstones were unreadable, their etchings washed away by centuries of cold rain coming in from the sea. When I asked why they had not been replaced, I was told, simply, that the families that had buried those people had moved on.

The mountain is on someone else's property, back in the hollow. My cousins have called to ask permission for us to visit it. We drive in a truck down dirt roads. Old frame houses mark our journey, their porches buckling and the springhouses along the rushing streams falling into ruin. Folks here are still moving on. They always have. That is the story of our people. The road roughens even more, ribbed like an old washboard from the rains. We pull up in front of a haunted, empty farmhouse and walk across its back pasture. Two yapping barn dogs appear from nowhere and stay with us as we head slowly up the mountain.

On top of the mountain the wind, heavy with oxygen, hits my face. I look over at the deep green waves of mountains that surround me, thinking on the one hand that it reminds me of being in the open sea, and on the other that I can now see all the way to Tennessee. And I know this is what my ancestors must have thought as well. Another mountain, and then another. Why should I stop here? And I think not only of my great-great-grandparents lying underneath my very feet, but of all the others who made me, whose lives passed through these mountains and others just like them to the north and south. Perhaps they were brave. Perhaps they were merely desperate. But they were daredevils, not only to have shown up, but also to have had the courage to leave.

On top of this mountain you can understand the Pioneer's Creed: The Cowards Never Started. The Weak Died Along the Way. Only the Strong Survived.

The names jump at me, up from the front-porch chronicles of my grandmother, out from the pages of the past. Webb, Hodges, Smith, Doyle, McKnight, Marsh, Cox, Long, Leach, Condley, Murphy, Walker, DeHaven, McBride, Miller, Jewell, Cochran, Johnson, Leckie, Chitwood, Stuart, Lane. And the others whose names just now escape me, all of them coming here from one unknown, stopping for a while, and then heading out again into another.

The earth is a ravisher in these mountains, its vines and tangles swallowing up the memories of those who went before, and in their place the wild things are moving back into the hollows. Deer are so thick that my cousin finds it hard to keep them from the alfalfa he grows for his small herd of cattle, and even from his garden. Someone nearby reported seeing elk up in the far woods. And at night if you listen close, you can hear an occasional coyote.

Standing on the mountain, I worry that when this generation dies, the memory of those who went before me will be lost just as completely, buried under the avalanche of stories that have on occasion ridiculed my people and trivialized their journey. They came with nothing, and for a complicated set of reasons, many of them still have nothing. The slurs stick to me, standing on these graves. Rednecks. Trailer-park trash. Racists. Cannon fodder. My ancestors. My people. Me.

This people gave our country great things, including its most definitive culture. Its bloodlines have flowed in the veins of at least a dozen presidents, and in many of our greatest soldiers. It created and still perpetuates the most distinctly American form of music. It is imbued with a unique and unforgiving code of personal honor, less ritualized but every bit as powerful as the samurai code. Its legacy is broad, in many ways defining the attitudes and values of the military, of working-class America, and even of the peculiarly populist form of American democracy itself. And yet its story has been lost under the weight of more recent immigrations, revisionist historians, and common ignorance.

Walking down the mountain and driving back toward the world that these people made possible for me, I make a simple vow. Or maybe I simply hear them, calling to me from the place where I will someday join them.

The contributions of this culture are too great to be forgotten as America rushes forward into yet another redefinition of itself. And in a society obsessed with multicultural jealousies, those who cannot articulate their ethnic origins are doomed to a form of social and political isolation. My culture needs to rediscover itself, and in so doing to regain its power to shape the direction of America.


2

The Radical Individualists

The scots-irish (sometimes also called the Scotch-Irish) are all around you, even though you probably don't know it. They are a force that shapes our culture, more in the abstract power of emotion than through the argumentative force of law. In their insistent individualism they are not likely to put an ethnic label on themselves when they debate societal issues. Some of them don't even know their ethnic label, and some who do know don't particularly care. They don't go for group-identity politics any more than they like to join a union. Two hundred years ago the mountains built a fierce and uncomplaining self-reliance into an already hardened people. To them, joining a group and putting themselves at the mercy of someone else's collectivist judgment makes about as much sense as letting the government take their guns. And nobody is going to get their guns.

But this is who they are, and where they came from.

Their bloodline was stained by centuries of continuous warfare along the border between England and Scotland, and then in the bitter settlements of England's Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland. Their religion was a harsh and demanding Calvinism that sowed the seeds of America's Bible Belt, its on-your-feet independence instead of on-your-knees rituality offending English Anglicans and Irish Catholics alike. On occasion they sold themselves as indentured servants in order to escape Ulster's harshness, although unsurprisingly, they quickly became known in America as disagreeable and in-your-face when in that role.

Mostly they came in families and even large groups of families, and thus retained their cultural identity long after leaving Ireland. They came to America on small boats that took months to cross the Atlantic, as many as 30 percent of their passengers dying on a typical voyage. They settled not in the plantations along the Southern coast or in the bustling towns of New England, but in the raw and unforgiving mountain wilderness, some spilling out from settlements in New Hampshire, but the overwhelming majority populating an area along the Appalachians that stretched from Pennsylvania to Georgia and Alabama. It was not unusual to find that their first task beyond building a cabin was to defend themselves against the bloodcurdling attacks of Indian war parties.

They fought the Indians and then they fought the British, comprising 40 percent of the Revolutionary War army. They were the great pioneers--Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, and Davy Crockett among them--blazing the westward trails into Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and beyond, where other Scots-Irishmen like Kit Carson picked up the slack. They reshaped American politics, taking hegemony away from the aristocratic English-Americans and creating the populist movement. In this role they gave us at least a dozen presidents, beginning with the incomparable Andrew Jackson and including Chester Arthur, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt (through his mother), Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan (again through his mother), and, most recently, Bill Clinton. It is even said that the patrician George W. Bush has a Kentucky-born, Scots-Irish ancestor.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Pt. 1 Rulers and rednecks
1 Big Moccasin Gap 3
2 The radical individualists 9
Pt. 2 The making of a people - and a nation
1 Hadrian's Wall 23
2 Tribalism versus feudalism : the Celtic tie of kinship 32
3 Braveheart 42
4 Bannockburn 55
Pt. 3 The Ulster Scots
1 The Ulster plantation 67
2 Border warriors - and Bible beaters 76
3 The problem children of Ulster 87
4 Londonderry, the Boyne, exodus 102
Pt. 4 The spirit of a revolution
1 Roots 123
2 Pioneers and radicals 131
3 Preachers and warriors 154
Pt. 5 Rise and fall : the heart of the South
1 Westward, ho 177
2 Old Hickory 185
3 The winds of war 207
4 Attack and die 219
Pt. 6 Reconstruction, diaspora, reeducation?
1 The mess the Yankees made 237
2 Fight, sing, drink, pray 253
3 Poor but proud - and stubborn as hell 265
4 Hillbilly highways 276
Pt. 7 Reflections : the unbreakable circle
1 Glad soldiers, accidental scholars 299
2 The invisible people 317
3 Rites of passage : the legacy of Camel Six 328
4 Kensett, Arkansas 337
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First Chapter

1

Big Moccasin Gap

Gate city is more than four hundred miles from Arlington, down the long spine of mountains that marks Virginia's western border. It takes seven hours to drive there, interstate highway almost all the way. I go west on I-66 until it hits the mountains, then hang a left on I-81, keeping those low, blue ridges off to my right as I tear my way south, heading through history. I-81 is a busy road, lots of New York and Pennsylvania license plates weaving in and out of heavy traffic. The exit ramps whiz past my vision, heading off the interstate to towns like Staunton, Lexington, Roanoke, Radford, and Wytheville. I recognize the counties, Rockbridge, Botetourt, Franklin, and others, places where my ancestors once built log cabins and scraped corn patches out of the mud before heading farther south or west.

The mountains are beautiful, smoky from the haze that the sun makes when it burns into the pine. My mind plays tricks. I tell myself that I've been right over there, once upon a time, or at least my blood has, taking water straight from a stream and staring out into the wild unknown, dreaming of the majestic deliverance that must be just over the next horizon, hiding in a valley that no white man has ever seen before. Or maybe the next horizon, or the next one, or the next one after that. Which is why my people kept on going, some of them getting hung up, staying behind in the cul-de-sacs of Appalachian hollows while the more adventurous worked their way, rat like, through the maze until it broke out into Kentucky and then Missouri, Texas, and Colorado, and one day even hit the palm-lined beaches of California.

Because that is the storyof my people, not for a generation or for ten generations but for forever. There was a time more than two thousand years ago when the Celtic tribes dominated middle Europe. They made beautiful jewelry and carvings. They were poetic and warlike. They followed strong leaders, even to their deaths. They brought their women and children to the battlefield and put them behind their ranks so they would be sure not to retreat. And they did not retreat. But they refused to recognize leadership beyond their local tribes and thus would not become a nation. And they had a permeating discontent that caused the more determined of them to keep pushing, every generation, a little bit farther into the wild unknown.

Until God played his greatest trick on them. Up the English island they moved, a generation at a time, ever northward, each generation seeing the more restless and aggressive push farther, breeding a new generation of even more restless and aggressive travelers. To the far north they moved, into what is now called Scotland, and when it ended or became too bleak they found sea bridges into Ireland. And so after hundreds or thousands of years of insistent wandering, the most migratory and curious among them found that they were caught in a cruel genetic joke, all their energies bottled up in wild, desolate places that only faced each other or the sea. So back and forth they went, across the sea bridges from Ireland to Scotland and then back again, waves of them that they now called "clans" taking out their fury on each other, then uniting once in a while when the Romans or the English sought to conquer them. The wildest, most contentious people on all the earth, trapped in a sea-bound bottleneck, their emotions spattering out into poetry and music and brawls, calling each other Irish and Scottish now, or Catholic and Protestant, anything that might make another reason for a good, hard fight.

Until they became the British Empire's greatest voyagers, indeed its greatest export, settling in odd places all around the world. And for that splinter of them that became my people, the Scots-Irish, this meant the Appalachian Mountains, their first stop on their way to creating a way of life that many would come to call, if not American, certainly the defining fabric of the South and the Midwest as well as the core character of the nation's working class.

You yourself may see cars and Burger Kings when driving along I-81. But I am watching my own ghosts: tough, resilient women on the buckboards of narrow wagons, hard men with long rifles walking alongside, and wool-clad kids tending thin herds of cattle as they make their way down the mud trail called the Wilderness Road.

That rough road, as Johnny Cash once sang. That old Breezy Creek Road. That low-down, troublesome road through Moccasin Gap.

Nearing Gate City, I dip for a few miles into the hills and ridges of Tennessee, then drop off the interstate and come down a mountain until I am back in Virginia. Soon I pass a sign that remembers Big Moccasin Gap. This was Indian hunting ground for thousands of years. Arrowheads are almost as common as acorns if you scrape the thin soil around Gate City. It was also Daniel Boone's home. His son Jim was killed by an Indian war party in Castlewood, barely twenty miles away. And from this point in 1775, Daniel Boone blazed the first trails through the mountains into Kentucky. Big Moccasin Gap. Johnny Cash wrote the song about it many years ago, probably to honor his wife, June Carter Cash, whose famed musical family was from Hiltons, six miles up the road.

I have family here, too.

From Gate City, I follow narrow, winding roads along rushing streambeds and past small frame houses built at the bottom of the ridges. The mountains loom above me. Trucks are parked along the roads. Little wooden footbridges cross the streams, leading to the front doors of the houses. American flags are frequent, on the trucks and in the yards and on the porches. America got bombed and mountain people don't forget, even if it happened in New York and Washington, because when it comes to fighting wars, mountain people have always been among the first to go.

A few miles outside of town I turn left onto a far narrower road. It has no marker other than a small hand-painted sign with an arrow and the name of a Baptist church, but I know it by heart. It wasn't so long ago that the road was still dirt. This is the entrance to Alley Hollow. My great-great-grandfather lived in this hollow. My great-grandfather left from here to move up to Kentucky. A lot of people back in Alley Hollow share my blood. And all of them share a large part of my history.

My great-great-grandparents are buried back here along with maybe a dozen others in a rough patch of woods on top of a nearby mountain. There are no headstones, only large rocks that mark individual graves. When David G. Webb died, he owned no property and the value of his possessions totaled ten dollars, neither of which was unusual in these hills. Years ago I contacted the Veterans Administration and obtained a Confederate headstone for him and my great-great-grandmother, but there is no road leading to the top of the mountain and it is a laborious trek by foot, so the heavy marker has yet to find its proper resting place. Thinking of the anonymity of their graves, I remember a time when I visited a Protestant cemetery in Northern Ireland, in a little town along the coast just north of Larne. Most of the oldest headstones were unreadable, their etchings washed away by centuries of cold rain coming in from the sea. When I asked why they had not been replaced, I was told, simply, that the families that had buried those people had moved on.

The mountain is on someone else's property, back in the hollow. My cousins have called to ask permission for us to visit it. We drive in a truck down dirt roads. Old frame houses mark our journey, their porches buckling and the springhouses along the rushing streams falling into ruin. Folks here are still moving on. They always have. That is the story of our people. The road roughens even more, ribbed like an old washboard from the rains. We pull up in front of a haunted, empty farmhouse and walk across its back pasture. Two yapping barn dogs appear from nowhere and stay with us as we head slowly up the mountain.

On top of the mountain the wind, heavy with oxygen, hits my face. I look over at the deep green waves of mountains that surround me, thinking on the one hand that it reminds me of being in the open sea, and on the other that I can now see all the way to Tennessee. And I know this is what my ancestors must have thought as well. Another mountain, and then another. Why should I stop here? And I think not only of my great-great-grandparents lying underneath my very feet, but of all the others who made me, whose lives passed through these mountains and others just like them to the north and south. Perhaps they were brave. Perhaps they were merely desperate. But they were daredevils, not only to have shown up, but also to have had the courage to leave.

On top of this mountain you can understand the Pioneer's Creed: The Cowards Never Started. The Weak Died Along the Way. Only the Strong Survived.

The names jump at me, up from the front-porch chronicles of my grandmother, out from the pages of the past. Webb, Hodges, Smith, Doyle, McKnight, Marsh, Cox, Long, Leach, Condley, Murphy, Walker, DeHaven, McBride, Miller, Jewell, Cochran, Johnson, Leckie, Chitwood, Stuart, Lane. And the others whose names just now escape me, all of them coming here from one unknown, stopping for a while, and then heading out again into another.

The earth is a ravisher in these mountains, its vines and tangles swallowing up the memories of those who went before, and in their place the wild things are moving back into the hollows. Deer are so thick that my cousin finds it hard to keep them from the alfalfa he grows for his small herd of cattle, and even from his garden. Someone nearby reported seeing elk up in the far woods. And at night if you listen close, you can hear an occasional coyote.

Standing on the mountain, I worry that when this generation dies, the memory of those who went before me will be lost just as completely, buried under the avalanche of stories that have on occasion ridiculed my people and trivialized their journey. They came with nothing, and for a complicated set of reasons, many of them still have nothing. The slurs stick to me, standing on these graves. Rednecks. Trailer-park trash. Racists. Cannon fodder. My ancestors. My people. Me.

This people gave our country great things, including its most definitive culture. Its bloodlines have flowed in the veins of at least a dozen presidents, and in many of our greatest soldiers. It created and still perpetuates the most distinctly American form of music. It is imbued with a unique and unforgiving code of personal honor, less ritualized but every bit as powerful as the samurai code. Its legacy is broad, in many ways defining the attitudes and values of the military, of working-class America, and even of the peculiarly populist form of American democracy itself. And yet its story has been lost under the weight of more recent immigrations, revisionist historians, and common ignorance.

Walking down the mountain and driving back toward the world that these people made possible for me, I make a simple vow. Or maybe I simply hear them, calling to me from the place where I will someday join them.

The contributions of this culture are too great to be forgotten as America rushes forward into yet another redefinition of itself. And in a society obsessed with multicultural jealousies, those who cannot articulate their ethnic origins are doomed to a form of social and political isolation. My culture needs to rediscover itself, and in so doing to regain its power to shape the direction of America.



2

The Radical Individualists

The scots-irish (sometimes also called the Scotch-Irish) are all around you, even though you probably don't know it. They are a force that shapes our culture, more in the abstract power of emotion than through the argumentative force of law. In their insistent individualism they are not likely to put an ethnic label on themselves when they debate societal issues. Some of them don't even know their ethnic label, and some who do know don't particularly care. They don't go for group-identity politics any more than they like to join a union. Two hundred years ago the mountains built a fierce and uncomplaining self-reliance into an already hardened people. To them, joining a group and putting themselves at the mercy of someone else's collectivist judgment makes about as much sense as letting the government take their guns. And nobody is going to get their guns.

But this is who they are, and where they came from.

Their bloodline was stained by centuries of continuous warfare along the border between England and Scotland, and then in the bitter settlements of England's Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland. Their religion was a harsh and demanding Calvinism that sowed the seeds of America's Bible Belt, its on-your-feet independence instead of on-your-knees rituality offending English Anglicans and Irish Catholics alike. On occasion they sold themselves as indentured servants in order to escape Ulster's harshness, although unsurprisingly, they quickly became known in America as disagreeable and in-your-face when in that role.

Mostly they came in families and even large groups of families, and thus retained their cultural identity long after leaving Ireland. They came to America on small boats that took months to cross the Atlantic, as many as 30 percent of their passengers dying on a typical voyage. They settled not in the plantations along the Southern coast or in the bustling towns of New England, but in the raw and unforgiving mountain wilderness, some spilling out from settlements in New Hampshire, but the overwhelming majority populating an area along the Appalachians that stretched from Pennsylvania to Georgia and Alabama. It was not unusual to find that their first task beyond building a cabin was to defend themselves against the bloodcurdling attacks of Indian war parties.

They fought the Indians and then they fought the British, comprising 40 percent of the Revolutionary War army. They were the great pioneers--Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, and Davy Crockett among them--blazing the westward trails into Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and beyond, where other Scots-Irishmen like Kit Carson picked up the slack. They reshaped American politics, taking hegemony away from the aristocratic English-Americans and creating the populist movement. In this role they gave us at least a dozen presidents, beginning with the incomparable Andrew Jackson and including Chester Arthur, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt (through his mother), Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan (again through his mother), and, most recently, Bill Clinton. It is even said that the patrician George W. Bush has a Kentucky-born, Scots-Irish ancestor.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2009

    Born Fighting: A Real Treasure

    Being of Scots-Irish heritage, I was extremely pleased with this book. For the first time I began to fully understand the gift my ancestors have given me. I now look at my remaining family members and those who are no longer with us with a much greater appreciation, admiration and respect. I am definitely highly recommending this book to anyone who treasures their family in all its subtleties and complexities.<BR/><BR/>James Webb has created a very readable book. It reads like fiction rather than non fiction yet is highly informative, thought provoking and obviously well-researched. Bravo, Sen. Webb!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2008

    An engaging read that personalizes previous scholarship...

    Born Fighting is a good book, but for the original scholarship one must pick up Leyburn's Scotch-Irish or for a more recent scholarly discussion of ethnic immigration into colonial America grab a copy of Fischer's Albion's Seed. Webb's book is a good summary of Leyburn's and Fischer's scholarship. He presents their material with personal anecdotes that bring to life some of the cultural traits of the Scots-Irish, which results in many passionate and engaging passages. Some of Webb's conclusions may be a bit too general or treat historical events beyond the scope of his focus too casually but overall he does a good job arguing that the particular and persistant cultural traits of the Scots-Irish had a profound and unique impact on the history of the American frontier and aspects of our contemporary culture.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2008

    Most enjoyable!

    Despite the less than sterling reviews by previous individuals, I found the book to be highly informative and entertaining. Contrary to one reviewer's opinion, I learned in high school geography that the Appalachians do extend into New England and Canada. That's according to some outfit called the United States Geological Service.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2012

    I feel this book helps Scots-Irish descendants appreciate the jo

    I feel this book helps Scots-Irish descendants appreciate the journey of our ancestors.I feel thankful to be an American.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 27, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Deeply moving and informative yet easy to read

    This history of the Scots-Irish is for everyone who treasures the rugged individualism and spirit of the first Americans and our founding. Tracing the culture from early Scotland to the present, you will see how the values of the Scots-Irish have helped form America in the past and continue to teach us valuable lessons even now.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2012

    A very well written scholarly work.

    A little repetitive but a very interesting theory well documented and convincing.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2008

    An Obnoxious, Self-Effacing Tale

    I found this work arrogant and self-effacing by an author who was all too often willing to bend history to fit his argument. Bending history began with the claims that the bulk of the French and Indian War was fought in Appalachia. This might be true if one claims that Appalachia extends to the Hudson River, the Mohawk River, Lake George, Lake Champlain and to the plains of Abraham in Quebec where the Marquis de Montcalm finally met defeat and lost his life. And this author's argument was that the United States was not explored, hacked-out of the wilderness, and defended by many but that the Scots-Irish did it all. This is a pompous work and obnoxious in its reading. Don't waste either your money or your time.

    0 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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