Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Fisher: "The Civil War in the Smokies"

As an admirer of Noel Fisher's War At Every Door, I was pleased to obtain a review copy of his latest book, The Civil War in the Smokies (Gatlinburg, TN: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2005. Cloth, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, 3 maps, 169 Pages, ISBN 0-937207-46-2). Happily, Smokies is every bit as scholarly as Fisher's earlier East Tennessee studies and the material is all new. The region in question roughly encompasses the current Great Smoky Mountains National Park---the Tennessee counties of Blount, Cocke, and Sevier, and across the border in North Carolina, Cherokee, Haywood, Jackson, and Macon counties.

While military operations are discussed in some detail, the main focus of Civil War in the Smokies is the effect the conflict's dire economic, political, and social disruptions had on the local population. Initially, the North Carolina side of the Smokies was largely pro-secession but the heavy handed actions and the lack (or perceived lack) of concern for the mountain counties exhibited by the Confederate government caused many there to lose heart. As was common in many areas of the upper south, residents were badly abused by the regular and irregular forces both sides. Fisher's writing powerfully evokes the fear and increasing economic desperation of the region's families. The book's lengthy recounting of the correspondence between Confederate soldier Alfred Bell and his wife, Mary, is especially moving. Education and religion also took a heavy beating as institutions were closed and often looted or destroyed. Both during the war and in its immediate aftermatch, ministers thought to be sympathetic to one side or the other were not allowed to preach or were dealt with in violent fashion.

During the war's first half, the Smokies area under consideration was occupied by regular Confederate forces of varying strengths. Battles were few, but the countryside gradually became infested with guerrillas, deserters, and conscription evaders. With the arrival of Ambrose Burnside's army in 1863, the area came under nominal Union control. After the Confederate victory at Chickamauga and the investment of Chattanooga, Union occupation was soon contested by a large column under Longstreet. When the advancing Confederate forces failed to retake Knoxville, the Smokies became something of a no man's land, repeatedly fought over by large foraging expeditions and mounted raiders.

Although Longstreet was recalled to Lee's army for the 1864 campaigning season in Virginia, the Smokies remained the scene of numerous cavalry raids. While the modified period maps included in the book help the reader follow the actions of the opposing forces to some degree, original (and more detailed) maps constructed with the text in mind are needed in order to convey a proper understanding of some of the more complex military movements. These would also serve to forestall much of the geographical confusion that will undoubtedly be felt by readers not native to the region (like me).

Several unusual units that are not often mentioned in Civil War military histories are discussed by Fisher. Perhaps the most interesting is the mixed race (white and Cherokee) Confederate legion organized and led by prominent citizen William Holland Thomas. Unionist North Carolinians from the area were available in large enough numbers to form two mounted infantry regiments that conducted raids and garrisoned important points during the war's waning moments.

The Civil War in the Smokies is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone wishing to learn more about the Civil War in the mountains of East Tennessee and western North Carolina. The southern Appalachian region has received a fair bit of attention lately, but the material here is fresh. The writing is lively and the level of research is certainly rigorous enough to impress the most demanding of readers.

[If you're interesting in obtaining a copy, a softcover edition can be purchased from the GSMA webstore at a very modest price. As to the hardcover availability, you might want to inquire by email]

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