Tuesday, April 17, 2018


[Kirk's Civil War Raids Along the Blue Ridge by Michael C. Hardy (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2018). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, index. Pages main/total:163/192. ISBN:978-1-62585-846-7. $21.99]

Increased popular and scholarly interest in anti-Confederate southerners and in the guerrilla conflict that plagued much of the southern home front has led to numerous fine books and articles documenting Southern Appalachia's devastating "inner war." A very informative addition to this growing literature, Michael Hardy's Kirk's Civil War Raids Along the Blue Ridge scrutinizes one of the most hotly contested stretches of the Appalachian uplands. As Hardy shows, the citizens of twelve counties straddling the Blue Ridge interstate border—North Carolina's Watauga, Ashe, Mitchell, Yancey, Madison, and Haywood counties and the Tennessee counties of Johnson, Carter, Washington, Greene, Cocke, and Sevier—experienced levels of violence and societal chaos rivaling those found in any of the conflict's most bitterly contested regions (including the worst parts of Missouri). With neither side willing or able to devote the kind of manpower needed to maintain civil order, bushwhacking and raiding became so pervasive that all lines of demarcation between fighting and home fronts rapidly dissolved in the mountain counties of Southern Appalachia.

The individual referenced in the book's title, Tennessee-born Union officer George W. Kirk, would eventually become one of the region's most infamous actors by the war's midpoint, but, according to the author, evidence of his early war activities remains scarce. Hardy fills this gap with an excellent description of the developing wartime conditions that would eventually cause a man of Kirk's boldness and brutality to come to the fore. This is a key part of the study's grander ambitions. Much more than just a history of Kirk and his exploits, Hardy's book offers a wide-ranging exploration of the war experience within the prescribed twelve-county area.

As was the case in many other parts of the Upper and Border South, an uneasy peace existed among the divided elements of Appalachian citizenry early on, but, as Hardy shows, several events shattered the relative calm and sparked a cycle of violence that continued through Reconstruction and beyond. Union recruitment campaigns in East Tennessee combined with the bridge burnings of November 1861 prompted a Confederate crackdown on dissent. Later, the Conscription Act enacted by the Confederate government in 1862 led even more pro-Union men from both states (who might otherwise have remained neutral) to join local guerrilla bands, form home guard units, or enroll in federal regiments. These developments prompted even more frequent incursions by Confederate army detachments and state militia, the military presence doing very little to impose and maintain order but much to spark further resistance.

During the latter half of the war, the introduction of more and more regular forces into the border region, most notably General Burnside's invasion and occupation of East Tennessee and General Longstreet's lengthy but failed campaign to wrest back control of the region, intensified the violence. The armies also served to support and legitimize numerous irregular bands whose depredations and crimes would be largely overlooked for the sake of the benefits derived from their scouting and raiding. Throughout the area, guerrillas and home guards routinely killed civilians suspected of supporting the other side and plundered indiscriminately. Appreciating this backdrop, which is well presented it the book, is essential to understanding George Kirk's actions and motivations.

Kirk served as an officer in a series of federal Tennessee and North Carolina volunteer regiments, but achieved his highest rank very late in the war when he was appointed commander of the Third North Carolina Mounted Infantry. Hardy's study documents well the many 1863-64 raids Kirk led from his Tennessee bases into western North Carolina, including his 1864 capture by ruse of Camp Vance in Morganton (perhaps his most celebrated exploit). Kirk and his men continued operating deep behind enemy lines through the end of the war, most significantly in support of Stoneman's 1865 Raid. Even though Kirk's commands would be guilty of all the excesses of robbery and murder that would generally stain the reputations of the irregular combatants of Southern Appalachia, Kirk himself escaped official censure and was widely praised by his superiors.

As a whole, the literature devotes much more attention to issues of broader national reunion than it does to reunion at the more local levels. Hardy's study delves into the topic at some length, demonstrating how hard shared Civil War animosities died in the border counties. Along the Blue Ridge, many rural neighbors not only refused to reconcile but continued to use the threat of violence against wartime opponents. Long after the Civil War ended, intimidated former combatants of all classes were still abandoning homes and businesses in the interests of their own safety.

Before the arrival of Kirk's Civil War Raids Along the Blue Ridge, only Matt Bumgarner's Kirk's Raiders (2000) explored similar topics in book form, so Hardy's work is a very welcome contribution. In addition to providing a useful evenhanded assessment of George Kirk's notorious Civil War career, Hardy's book is highly recommended as a first-line option for anyone wanting to obtain a more general understanding of the people and events that turned the shared border between Tennessee and North Carolina into one of the war's most dangerous backwater fronts.

1 comment:

  1. A much-needed book, which I shall have to read. Kirk also figured in the later Kirk-Holden (1870) war in NC, where Gov. Holden put him in change of suppressing the Klan. His selection inflamed the citizenry against him, and it's hard to see how he would have chosen a more divisive figure for the job.


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