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The Civil War in the Big Sandy Valley of Kentucky

by John David Preston, Gateway Press

Granted, a handful of studies have already examined Confederate General Humphrey Marshall’s endeavors in eastern Kentucky in 1862 or have analyzed the entire Civil War in Appalachia, but John David Preston’s The Civil War in the Big Sandy Valley of Kentucky is a good regional study of a mostly ignored area of the conflict. By honing in on four counties along the Big Sandy River (Pike, Floyd, Johnson and Lawrence), Preston provides a compelling snapshot of the war in eastern Kentucky.

Extensively updated from a 1984 out-of-print first edition, Preston’s book details how the valley contained a poorly educated population of nonslave-holding farmers who worked a handful of acres. While the region tended to support the Northern cause, Preston notes there were substantial secessionist pockets, and he effectively explains the decline of pro-Confederate sentiment as the war progressed, including how Southern depredations effectively pushed the populace into the Union camp.

Some of the book’s best sections include Preston’s examination of the region’s political culture and an overview of the campaigns of Union Colonel (and future President) James A. Garfield, notably the battles of Ivy Mountain and Middle Creek. To enliven the narrative, Preston provides vivid anecdotes, such as one on the surrender of Con federate soldier Martin V. Bates, who stood 7-feet-11. Upon his capture, the massive Bates was guarded by a 5-foot-1 Federal trooper. In another aside, Preston notes that a group of Confederates “took over a polling place…and voted for Abraham Lincoln.” After the war, 28 of those Rebel voters were indicted in the local circuit court for election fraud.

Preston aptly describes how the Big Sandy River affected military operations. He also writes about the war’s impact on the postwar period, including political shifts and how wartime retribution evolved into postwar lawsuits—notably litigation about stolen property, murder and kidnapping. Preston’s writing is especially compelling when covering the war’s negative impact on the Big Sandy residents.

The book provides a good analysis of local enlistments and notes that at least 150 men from the region served on both sides during the war. Although Preston conducted detailed research into census records and compiled service information, he writes that “no clear pattern emerges” as to why men joined one side or the other.

The narrative flows well, though Preston’s text occasionally devolves into the recitation of facts strung together without detail or analysis. While the book provides a useful chronological list of battles, skirmishes and raids, and a roster of troops from the area, the lack of an index hampers its usefulness as a research tool. But this updated version of The Civil War in the Big Sandy Valley of Kentucky will stand as a solid regional study that sheds light on a little-remembered area during the war.


Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here