[Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia by Brian D. McKnight. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2006). Pp. 295, $40.00, Hardcover, photos, map, notes. ISBN 0-8131-2389-5 and 978-0-8131-2389-9)]
The Civil War in Appalachia has received a fair amount of coverage in recent years, most notably the troubled regions of East Tennessee and western North Carolina. Brian McKnight’s new book Contested Borderland provides the first comprehensive look into the conflicted areas of eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. As the author recounts, the Cumberland Divide was the scene of endless cavalry raids, pitched battles, and vicious guerrilla attacks during the Civil War.
The story of the regular fighting during the first half of the war is largely the story of Confederate general Humphrey Marshall. An officer often casually dismissed in the vein of a Floyd or Pillow, Marshall’s treatment here is evenhanded. The book’s coverage of military events is thorough in terms of breadth, but, as one might imagine with a book of this type, available space precludes detailed battle descriptions. Equal treatment is given to the cruel circle of violence between the army and citizens, home guards, and bushwhackers. Also, with proper recognition of the role of geography, McKnight helpfully explores the crucial importance of the mountain gaps (especially Cumberland and Pound gaps) in terms of communication and the movement of supplies and men between the two states.
Some of McKnight’s best work is in introducing the reader to the mindset of the region’s populace. It’s on par with much of today’s best work researching the people of Appalachia and the ‘piney woods’ regions of other states. Extended family networks complicated regional loyalties, which tended to shift toward whichever side could provide consistent personal and economic security. The author’s examination of the social effects of the regional mass closings of schools and churches from 1862 onward is informative and his findings on the Primitive Baptist church’s influence on Confederate loyalty mirrors that of Mark Wetherington‘s recent study of Georgia’s wiregrass region.
Based on approximately a hundred manuscript collections in dozens of archives and depositories, Contested Borderland is a product of extensive research in primary sources. For those interested in further reading, the introduction also serves as a nice Civil War in Appalachia historiographical essay. Flaws exist but are minor. Though well written overall, the text is repetitive in places and chronological transitions are awkward at times. The poorest choice was the inclusion of only a single, plain map of the Kentucky and Virginia counties abutting the divide. Non-local readers will need outside help tracking movements as perhaps a majority of the important points described in the text cannot be found on the map provided. However, none of the book’s flaws diminish its importance as a wide reaching and well-researched introduction to the military, social, and political history of this hotly contested border region. We should look forward to hearing more from Dr. McKnight.
(Review reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appearing in vol. 9 #5, pg. 87)