Tuesday, January 2, 2007

McKnight: "Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia"

[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)


  1. You never get a second chance to make a first impression: one of the major landmarks in Borderland is Pound Gap, yet the frontis map has it nearly 8 miles inside Pike County. It was in Letcher Co. during the war and still is! And where are Paintsville and Whitesburg, two county seats with a total of eight index references? Can't find them on the map. UK's cartography department should have caught that.
    The book proposes to cover the Big Sandy area of KY adjacent to VA, so where in the biblio' are some of the most thorough books yet done on eastern KY history: Civil War in the Big Sandy Valley by Preston; 10th KY Cav., CSA, by Wells & Prichard; and Ely's history of the Big Sandy valley? As for others conspicious by their absence, I can't comprehend of anyone surveying the war in any part of Kentucky without citing the state history by Collins. Neither do I think it possible to even do a good survey history of the Big Sandy without using the guidepost histories of Garfield's Big Sandy campaign: Mason's history of the 42nd OVI, Beach's history of the 40th OVI, Letters from the Army by Stevenson, and Sherman's Cavalry. Of the three Garfield related items listed in the primary sources, the two books of letters would have corrected some of the factual errors cited below. The third, Bond's editing of the O.J. Hopkins diary, states in the intro' that Hopkins's volume from the Big Sandy campaign was lost and so he had to depend upon Frank Mason, author of the 42nd OVI history, to refresh his memory. To cite Mason would have been much more appropriate.
    I was very disappointed by the tables in the book. Listing the number of slaves per county in 1850 and '60 proves little as far as the influence of slavery in choosing sides in the mountains. A more meaningful approach would have been to list the 1860 county numbers, then compare them to the '61 schedules from that year's county tax lists which were generally done in late spring after the war started. This would give an idea of just how many of those 1860 masters were already abandoning the ship of slavery in the face of impending war. For example, in Pike Co., KY, the slave population declined by 1/3 during that one-year span, but one of the slaveholders in '61 was John Dils, future colonel of the 39th KY Infantry, US! The other table very misleadingly gives the 1850 public school figures but says nothing for 1860, a date only one year removed from the war. Dr. McKnight lists Deskins' Pike Co. history in his biblio' but takes no note of the research therein which states Pike Co. had some 63 public schools in '60. I know from info' in that record that 1300-plus Pike children had attended school in the past year. Dr. McKnight is right on, however, in his assertion that the war was a disaster for education in the mountains. Many of those 1300 Pike students never again went to school and some probably died as soldiers.
    Books from academic presses are presumed to have their facts correct. I'm not familiar with the Cumberland Gap action, but am disappointed with many of the misstatements in Borderland regarding the Big Sandy area: p. 49, the battle of Ivy Mountain was Nov. 8, not Nov. 9; p. 49, the 59th OVI did not climb the heights at Ivy Mtn., a feat accomplished by the 21st OVI [History of the 21st by Canfield would have corrected these errors]; pp. 68 and 94, Marshall was never in the vicinity of Piketon post Middle Creek, but was 25 miles away at the closest, and his withdrawal did not cause chaos there [there is actually no record of chaos until an advance guard of Garfield's cavalry came to town and killed both the county judge and the foremost physician in town]; p. 69, Marshall was in Lebanon, some 30 miles from Pound Gap, not in Gladesville, only 15 miles away, at the time of the battle [a close reading of Bluegrass Confederate would correct this back-door slap in the face at Marshall]; p. 92, Garfield's troops were not well-trained and they did not spend the winter in Camp Buell, but were in Pikeville at Camp Brownlow from mid-February forward; p. 92, as for Marshall's men seeking redemption post Middle Creek and pre-Perryville, in the interim they had whipped the socks off Cox's army at Princeton, but this victory doesn't even rate an index entry [don't confuse it with the two entries for Princeton University]; p. 93, E.O. Guerrant, Dr. McKnight's favorite citation from early '62 forward, was not from Mount Sterling, but was born 2/28/1838 in Sharpsburg, KY (see McAllister & Guerrant's biography, 1950, p. 1]; p. 94, A.J. May was not famous because of his participation at Middle Creek, but was justifiably well known for his Ivy Mountain performance; p. 96, the Big Sandy flood of 1862 was not in March, but in February; p. 98, John Dils was not a native of Pike County, which is stated on two occasions, but was born in what's now West Virginia [either Scalf, which is a biblio' listing, or Ely, which is not but should have been, would have corrected this]; p. 105, A.J. May was not a Pike County native, but was born in a two story, ca. 1820 brick home in Prestonsburg which stands as a museum open to the public today; can A.J. May, a member of the 10th KY Cav., a legitimate arm of the PACS, truly be called a partisan? p. 106, to equate A.J. May with Menefee is a serious discredit to May, rather like comparing the Pope to an evangelist who's caught with one arm in the till and the other around a woman other than his wife; p. 107, most of Garfield's 'strong support' on the upper Big Sandy was living in tent camps and makeshift shelters at the mouth of the river due to the Witten-Cecil-May-Martin-Caudill-Elliott-Moore-Goff-Osborne support for the South, glaringly reflected by the fact that in 3/62 when appointed Brig' Gen'l, Garfield had to go to lower Johns Creek, almost to Floyd County, to find a loyal official qualified to administer him the oath; further on the strong support, or lack thereof, Garfield complained bitterly in his correspondence of not being able to find guides and scouts once he arrived in Pikeville; p. 124, Dils had no part in the action downriver from Prestonsburg, KY, known as the Boat Fight, on 12/4/02 when Clarkson's men looted the Union winter supplies [he was, however, in a separate battle later that evening, or early the next day, with Clarkson's men at a gap in Morgans Mountain wherein he was dragged down a steep incline and at first reported killed, an error which a close reading of The VA State Rangers & State Line or Dils' pension app' would have corrected]; p. 152, Menefee did not run through Pound Gap, but crossed to Elkhorn Creek and back into VA via one of the passes atop Pine Mountain; p. 153, as for hatred festering between Dils & Menefee for the rest of the war, maybe on Dils's part, but he likely never saw Menefee after the fall of '61 since he ran when he heard Menefee's men were on their way to Pikeville in 8/62 and Menefee dropped out of sight from the spring of '63 until the winter of '65, most likely in jail in Abingdon; p. 153, Menefee never attempted to exercise power within the Confederate Army which he did not hold because he was a part of the VA State Line, a militia unit with no affiliation with the PACS, as shown on James August's 'List of Officers of the Virginia State Line,' Jan. '63, showing him on detached service.
    Borderland on p. 25 takes east KY to task for having only one man at Russellville when the Confederate gov't of KY was formed. Wonder why? Nelson had just brought 4000 troops into the valley and any southern man worth his salt was either joining or materially supporting Jno. S. Williams and the 5th KY Infantry, CSA. As for the KY convention being well attended, it has been agreed upon for years that, in the words of one KY historian, that assembly was 'propped up by Buckner's bayonets,' i.e. the reps were chosen from the ranks of the CS army and its prominent hangers-on, just as John Milton Elliott was more than likely chosen as a congressman to Richmond by Cerro Gordo Williams and staff. Big Sandians can't be faulted for being absent from Russellville. Finally, on p. 25, Borderland, like so many other books with an ax to grind against Beriah Magoffin, quotes his famous response to Lincoln wherein he states Kentucky would furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sisters in the South and states that the governor exacerbated a difficult situation. This quote is almost always cited in isolation, but Collins tells us that, a few days later, Jeff Davis made the same request of Magoffin, which was, to paraphrase, answered in the negative using the fewest words possible, i.e., "No!" In the final assessment, Magoffin was probably a true proponent of KY neutraility, but when this quote is presented out of context- and Dr. McKnight is not the only one; it was done in a new KY history published recently- it makes him looks like the rampant secessionist he is so often portrayed to be.
    Y'all have a good day, but please buy Dr. McKnight's book. In spite of my nit-picking, it's still the best survey CW history of our part of the world to come down the pike. It's a good read.
    Randall Osborne

  2. So there!...LOL. Seriously, Randall knows what he is talking about. He and writing partner David Deskins are in the midst of writing a multi-volume history of the war in SE Kentucky. I've read the manuscript of vol. 1 and learned a heck of a lot. The Big Sandy Valley doesn't get a lot of attention and I am definitely looking forward to seeing it published.

  3. Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Kentucky and Virginia.
    Well, when I saw the title of this book my heart jumped in anticipation [like a kid that is about to get a treat in a candy store]..but boy, was I ever in for a major disappointment. What a missed opportunity. The book is riddled with mistakes, and not just forgivable ones, and sadly lacks structure.
    It still amazes me that historians of the caliber such as Noe and Sutherland gave this book such rave reviews. It is as if they read a different book..or did not read this one at all.

    I particularily went over the Ivy Mountain, Middle Creek and Cumberland Gap chapters, all of which have serious flaws, some of which were pointed out quite eloquently by Randall Osborne.

    Regarding Garfield's Eastern Kentucky Campaign...McKnight writes that "Garfield and the Eighteenth Brigade arrived by steamer at Catlettsburg, Kentucky."
    It may be noted that half of Garfield's 18th Brigade arrived by steamer, the other half was already waiting for him, namely the 14th KY Infantry, a locally raised unit, and the 22nd KY Infantry. Garfield arrived days later, by himself, and proceeded to Louisa where he arrived in the middle of the night, scaring the bejeeves out of McLaughlin's troopers who were encamped in the court house when he was trying to get the attention of the commander of the guard by firing off a few shots.
    McKnight figured the strength of the Eighteenth Brigade at 900, which is barely regimental strength, much less brigade strength.
    McKnight continues,"Equally troublesome, however, was the slow arrival of Kentucky regiments to aid Garfield's Eighteenth Brigade." For the record, the 14th and 22nd KY were part of this brigade, not detailed to "aid" the 18th Brigade. Furthermore, the 14th KY was already in place and about half the regiment went with Garfield to George's Creek, the remainder arriving with a few days after. The 22nd KY joined later, after finally receiving their equipment, and were involved in the Battle of Middle Creek.
    As an uninformed reader, McKnight's remark strikes you in such a way that Kentuckians were reluctant to join the fight. I suppose he could have elaborated somewhat on the situation instead of running the risk of misleading the reader.

    Regarding the Cumberland Gap chapter..well, it is a disaster, entirely. Morgan did NOT divide his 7th Division and left part of his troops on the northside of the Gap in order to attack it from two sides. All Brigades crossed over into Powell Valley, as well as his artillery, and marched toward Cumberland Gap in order to take it. I suppose McKnight overlooked Morgan's General Order No. 42. It clearly explains Morgan's positioning of troops for this action.
    And furthermore, there was absolutely NO battle, no artillery firing, no infantry attacks from both sides that took place when the Gap was taken. I am still shaking my head how something like this can be in a supposedly well researched book. Perhaps he thought of DeCourcy's brilliant move in 1863, when the Gap was once more taken from the Confederates [and for good]...but that is yet another story.
    At any rate, the only artillery firing done that day was a salute that was fired when the first Federal regiment marched into the abandoned fortifications at the Gap.
    The place was empty, evacuated June 17, 1862, upon orders of Kirby Smith. General Carter Littlepage Stevenson's brigade fell back to Bean's Station, ten miles from Morristown, and remained in this section until August.

    McKnight also describes the 7th Division as a body of troops "made up of numerous smaller, sometimes independently raised, units. Ok, let's see:

    24th Brigade
    Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Carter
    49th Indiana-Lt. Col. James Keigwin
    7th Kentucky-Col. T.T.Garrard
    1st Tennessee- Col. Robert K. Byrd
    2nd Tennessee- Col. James P.T. Carter

    25th Brigade
    Brig. Gen. James G. Spears
    3rd Tennessee- Col. Leonidas C. Houk
    4th Tennessee- Col. Robert Johnson
    5th Tennessee- Col. James T. Shelly
    6th Tennessee- Col. Joseph A. Cooper

    26th Brigade
    Col. John F. DeCourcy
    22nd Kentucky- Col. Daniel W. Lindsey
    16th Ohio- Lt. Col. George W. Bailey
    42nd Ohio- Col. Lionel A. Sheldon

    27th Brigade
    Brig. Gen. Absalom Baird
    33rd Indiana- Col. John Coburn
    14th Kentucky- Col. John Cochran
    19th Kentucky- Col. William J. Landrum

    Capt. Jacob T. Foster
    7th Michigan- Capt. Charles H. Lamphere
    9th Ohio- Lt. Leonard P. Barrows
    1st Wisconsin- Lt. John D. Anderson
    Siege Battery- Lt. Daniel Webster

    Kentucky Battalion-Lt. Col. Reuben Munday

    Kentucky Engineers
    Capt. William F. Patterson

    Which units, exactly, were not full fletched regiments?? I must be missing something. Perhaps McBride was thinking about the various homeguard units that operated on occasion with Morgan's troops. Of course, I can't find any mention of them at all.

    On the other hand, McKnight spent a lot of time with Thomas Legion and the scalping of some Federal soldiers under Morgan during an action that took place near the Gap. Although interesting because of its notoriety it did not warrant as much coverage by the author when the whole Cumbarland Gap chapter is only 20 pages long.

    The description of Morgan's evacuation of the Gap was also lacking in research and thus, in understanding of the situation.
    He goes into repeated detail about how tents were shredded, yet no mention that rations were poured down a deep well, that pits were dug and thousands of muskets were buried. No mention of Gallup blowing up the powder magazine which created a huge crator [it is still there] and shook the earth, the vibrations of which could be felt several miles away.
    And here is my absolut favorite...the Confederates on the northside of the mountain quietly watched Morgan withdraw.."and permitted the Union soldiers to escape" [and didn't alert their commander??]...no such thing. The Confederates had no clue of Morgan's evacuation until Patterson sprang the mines to block the roads and the magazine was blown to smithereens. Besides, the three CS brigades, posted on the northside of the Gap, had gone towards the interior of Kentucky by the time Morgan evacuated. They were technically still in Morgan's rear and had effectively cut Morgan's line of communications and supplies but they were not near enough to seriously interfer with Morgan's exit from the Gap.

    And the large herd of cattle that was captured "just outside of Hazel Green", well...it was a small heard of cattle and it was captured right before the column reached Proctor, another two days march from Hazel Green.

    This goes on and on, the book is peppered with inaccuracies and mistakes, besides the fact that I found the book hard to read because it is so badly structured. McBright jumps from late summer 1862 back to March 1862, etc., and unexpectedly goes of on different tangents entirely.

    I found it regrettable, that McKnight did not include mention of the 14th KY Infantry [US] into the book even though it was the first Union unit to be raised in the Big Sandy Valley. It participated in the actions at Ivy Mountain, Middle Creek, and in Morgan's Cumberland Gap Campaign. Since the book promises to give an overview of military actions in the area, omitting the 14th KY Infantry altogther is a serious oversight. Yet, McKnight freely quotes Archibald Means' letters but forgets to mention that he was a captain in the 14th KY. As a side note, Captain Means was not John Means' brother despite the same last name, he was a distant cousin and John's brother-in-law. Arch's family came from Ohio not "an affluent Big Sandy family".

    The 39th KY {US] was only a mere side mention in the book even though it played a major role in the Big Sandy Valley and its defense. Those boys could and did fight, hard, but barely got any credit for their actions.
    Well, the faux pas with Colonel Dils' involvement, or rather non-involvement, in the boat fight was already covered by Randall Osbourne.

    There is too much too little in this book, which in the end drains the blood from the book and tests the more informed readers' patience.

    The military actions are covered to a certain extend but lack accuracy and depth, the social aspect is also covered but fairly one-sided. I was amused the read McBright's comment of how the "soldiers who traversed the mountains of eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia noticed peculiarities among the people", such as women chewing, the country being fruitful in peaches & children, etc.. I doubt if Marshall's soldiers would have taken notice much since a great number of them came from similar circumstances. Of course, the reader sees all this through Guerrant's eyes, Marshall's adjutant, a bluegrass Confederate raised in no doubt more favorable circumstances who had a lack of understanding of the mountain folks he encountered and who he labeled as "generally poor, ignorant, & almost consequently -cowardly."
    No effort is made on McKnight's part to offer other voices in order to balance Guerrant's views and lets his remarks stand as valid, thus perpetuating a stereotype of the "ignorant mountain people" that has haunted this region for nearly 150 years.
    There is no sign of cowardice in these poeple any more so than in others who lived elsewhere. Studying the histories of the regiments of this area in depth, both US and CS, will tell you that much.

    The book was hailed as an introduction to the war in the borderlands but unfortunately I do not see how a novice to the study of the Civil War in the Mountains of Eastern KY and SW Virginia will draw much useful information from this book and give him/her at least a basic idea of the nature of the war in Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia.

    I can't recommend this book but on the up-side I may thank Mr. McKnight for doing the job he did because it left the serious researchers plenty to write about.

    Marlitta H. Perkins


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