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Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia

by Brian D. McKnight, University of Kentucky Press, 2006, 312 pages, $40.

The Appalachian highlands of western Virginia and eastern Kentucky is terrible country in which to wage war. That’s probably why few Civil War battles were fought there. Nevertheless, Union and Confederate forces struggled to gain a strategic advantage in this remote and rugged land by holding the Cumberland Gap, occupying areas rich in mineral deposits and controlling the region’s only railroad, few (and bad) roads and numerous unpredictable rivers.

The story of these campaigns fills the pages of Brian McKnight’s engaging and eminently readable first book, Contested Borderland. Readers not discouraged by his turgid opening chapter, which only a demographer could love, will be richly rewarded with a fascinating account of the war fought far from the main theaters of operation.

McKnight complements his understanding of the area’s military history with insights into the region’s social and political peculiarities. He also explores the way geography influenced the course of military operations, perhaps more so there than anywhere else. Taken together, McKnight’s impressive array of skills enables him to present a compelling account of an isolated world turned upside down by a war fought over issues few of its residents understood or cared much about.

A teaching fellow of history at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, McKnight shines a bright analytical light on mist-shrouded mountaintops, into darkened hollows and along meandering creeks. He illuminates the reasons why, from the earliest days of the war, commanders of both armies sought to recruit soldiers from among the region’s insular and clannish population. Sufficient numbers of young men did sign up to wear both blue and butternut so that neighbor often fought against neighbor, continuing a deeply rooted tradition of clannish feuding.

McKnight cogently explains why no significant battle occurred at the Cumberland Gap in spite of its strategically important location, whereas the remote and inhospitable banks of Middle Creek were the site of a January 10, 1862, skirmish that permanently tarnished the reputation of Confederate General Humphrey Marshall, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War, and launched the career of an inexperienced Union colonel named James A. Garfield.

Throughout the war, savage firefights continually erupted throughout the region, particularly in southwestern Virginia. These brought about the capture of Union men and materiel at Rogersville by Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones on November 6, 1863; the massacre of U.S. Colored Troops at Saltville on October 2, 1864; and Union Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s cavalry raid that culminated near the covered railroad bridge over the Holston River outside Marion on December 17, 1864. Stoneman’s victory at Marion was the war’s last major engagement in the area and provided Robbie Robertson with a line in his song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

McKnight makes good use of contemporary anecdotes to bring to life many of the colorful personalities whose reputations were made or lost fighting in this unforgiving terrain. Shadowy figures like Ezekiel Counts, known as “Devil” for his zeal in prosecuting the Confederate cause, had his counterpart in Unionist Alf Killen, noted for his persuasive recruiting techniques. The mountaineers, skilled in the art of bushwhacking, were born into partisan warfare, and guerrilla bands of deserters and criminals roamed the countryside, often terrifying and robbing defenseless citizens under the guise of military necessity.

Occasional digressions, such as McKnight’s exegesis on the Primitive Baptist Church and his explanation of the electoral politics of the region, while useful for an academic dissertation, tend to distract the reader from the narrative thrust of the book. And as with many other Civil War monographs, the absence of maps keeps the reader geographically disadvantaged. But these are minor quibbles about a book that should propel McKnight into the front rank of regionally focused Civil War history.


Originally published in the January 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.