Friday, November 18, 2011

Byrd: "A UNIONIST IN EAST TENNESSEE: Captain William K. Byrd and the Mysterious Raid of 1861"

[ A Unionist in East Tennessee: Captain William K. Byrd and the Mysterious Raid of 1861 by Marvin Byrd (The History Press, 2011). Softcover, map, illustrations, appendices, notes, index. Pages main/total:158/192. ISBN:978-1-60949-245-8 $21.99 ]

During the first months of the Civil War, with Confederate general Felix K. Zollicoffer pursuing a generally conciliatory policy in East Tennessee, rival militias coexisted, wary of each other's intentions but without a large degree of physical violence between them. This all changed with the November 8, 1861 railroad bridge burning campaign conducted by pro-Union militants, a dramatic event that instigated a large scale Confederate crackdown characterized by mass arrests and the hanging of suspects. While the planned Federal invasion from Kentucky was canceled, pro-Union militias were targeted by Confederate authorities as immediate threats.  The following month, in Hawkins County (somewhere between Lee and Pumpkin valleys), a band of unionist militia was attacked by local pro-Confederate forces. Their sixty-year-old leader, William K. Bird, was allegedly abused and killed after his capture, leading to widespread calls by unionist Tennesseans for revenge and prosecution of the perpetrators. The political, military, and judicial matters surrounding this "raid" are the subject of Marvin Byrd's A Unionist in East Tennessee.

In his book, the author does a fine job of communicating the charged political atmosphere in 1861, in isolated Hawkins and Hancock counties and in East Tennessee at large. With local Civil War history publications (especially those authored by descendants) often characterized by wild leaps from scant evidence, Byrd's more careful handling of the available source material is refreshing. Just about every aspect of the raid -- who ordered it, who led it, the exact location of the clash, and the particulars of what happened -- is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. While the site location remains unknown and details of the fighting (often characterized as an ambush) sparse, the author constructs a strong case that the planning and conduct of the raid was a local affair not ordered by Confederate military authorities. Additionally, although built around circumstantial evidence, Byrd's case that the raid was planned and led by local secessionist and Confederate congressman Joseph Brown Heiskell is strongly presented.  What happened after the death of William Byrd is better known, and the author's coverage of the region's arrest and imprisonment record is extensive, as is the subject of lawsuits (during and long after the war) brought against the alleged attackers and murderers of Byrd, including the socially and politically prominent Heiskell.

On the complaint front, while the book's endnotes indicate a wide net was cast for relevant source material, a bibliography should have been included.  Also, the single tiny East Tennessee county map provided was wholly inadequate for guiding readers to the locations mentioned in the text.  Especially for non-natives, a detailed map of Hancock and Hawkins counties would have been enormously helpful.

A Unionist in East Tennessee can be recommended on a number of counts. While the subject of East Tennessee unionism at large has been covered well in many books and articles, this monograph provides a satisfactorily researched and unique micro-examination of an obscure incident between opposing local forces in an area of East Tennessee far less well studied than others.  Also, readers with genealogical interests will appreciate the massive amount of individual and family connection information uncovered by Byrd and presented in the text.  Finally, scholars of post war lawsuits brought against ex-Confederates will find a great deal of useful information for their pursuits.

1 comment:

  1. Would like to communicate with the author. I believe i have info about a civil war "assassination" in East TN that may be of interest.


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