[The Coal River Valley in the Civil War: West Virginia Mountains, 1861 by Michael B. Graham (The History Press, 2014). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:153/207. ISBN:978-1-62619-660-5 $19.99]
Michael Graham's The Coal River Valley in the Civil War details in full an almost forgotten chapter of the 1861 campaigns fought by Union and Confederate forces for control of Virginia's western counties. A large expanse of what is today southern West Virginia, the Coal River watershed basically consists of the Big and Little Coal Rivers, which combine for a short stretch as the Coal River before draining into the Kanawha River west of Charleston. Until now, no book has been devoted to the Civil War in this area.
Like other parts of western Virginia, the Coal River Valley was divided politically, contributing many troops to both sides and making occupation an uneasy task. Cannel coal, an increasingly important resource for heating and lighting that was plentiful along the Coal and Big Coal, was another reason for fighting forces to pay attention to the area. Graham traces the region's economic development, demonstrating how the agricultural interests of the Little Coal clashed with the more industrial outlook of the Coal and Big Coal (including an extensive lock and dam system for transporting the coal to market) aggravating sectional tensions and dividing allegiances. For the Union army in 1861, the transportation network of the Coal River Valley also formed a potential dagger into the right flank and rear of General Jacob Cox's advance up the Kanawha River. Pro-Confederate forces gathering there could not be ignored.
A series of small scale operations conducted during August-September 1861 are detailed in the book. Both sides used local militia in combination with regular forces, with Cox able to send expeditions of up to 1,000 men into action to be opposed by battalion-sized Confederates, the latter without the benefit of artillery. The first clash described by Graham is the September 1 Union victory against Virginia state forces at Boone Court House on the Little Coal River. Twelve days later, reinforced by better armed and trained Confederate cavalry, the southern forces surprised and defeated an encamped Union force of superior numbers along the Big Coal near Joe's Creek. They followed this victory up five days later by capturing a company of Union militia defending a fort at Pond Fork. Cox then put an end to this temporary enemy ascendancy in the region, sending military expeditions up both the Little and Big Coal, the former defeating the Confederates at Kanawha Gap and expelling them from the valley.
For the rest of the war, Union forces would have only nominal control of Coal River Valley. With neither side able or willing to devote enough resources to its occupation, from 1862 onward the valley became essentially a no-man's-land subject to frequent outbursts of violence. The final chapter offers a comprehensive rundown of Union and Confederate raids and guerrilla actions into this contested ground, with Graham noting the close similarities in the civilian experience of wartime terror between Coal River Valley residents and the better documented home fronts of Border States Missouri and Kentucky. The author also points to events like the burning of Boone Court House and widespread destruction of private property during the summer 1861 operations as events comprising some of the war's earliest harbingers of the more generalized brand of "hard war" that was to come.
Skillfully utilizing substantial numbers of primary and secondary source materials off all types, Graham's detailed accounts of the Coal River Valley fighting in 1861 are clearly written, well organized, and thoroughly documented. The author is also to be commended for commissioning a nice set of maps. The area map offers much needed geographical orientation and the battle maps comprise minutely detailed renderings of both terrain and company-scale tactical movements. Most Civil War local history casts readers adrift in this regard, not so Graham's exceptional study. A pair of appendices round out the volume, the first a series of capsule officer biographies and the second a set of Union and Confederate casualty tables.
A comprehensive work of fine scholarship, Michael Graham's The Coal River Valley in the Civil War is the first full length history of military events that occurred in that developing region during the early months of the conflict. Its in-depth treatment of Union and Confederate operations conducted south of the Kanawha River during 1861 admirably brings to light a neglected corner of the sweeping campaign to secure Virginia's vulnerable and strategically important western flank. Graham's study is completely original and highly recommended!