Monday, January 4, 2021

Review - "Disorder on the Border: Civil Warfare in Cabell and Wayne Counties, West Virginia, 1856-1870" by Joe Geiger

[Disorder on the Border: Civil Warfare in Cabell and Wayne Counties, West Virginia, 1856-1870 by Joe Geiger, Jr. (35th Star Publishing, 2020). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiv,359/459. ISBN:978-1-7350739-4-1. $34.95]

Joe Geiger, the long-serving Director of the Archives and History section of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, is as knowledgable as anyone when it comes to the state's Civil War-era history. In the four decades that have passed since the publication of his book Civil War in Cabell County, West Virginia 1861-1865 (1991)1, Geiger has continued to research the topic and gather more source material. In the process, he's also widened his geographical focus to include adjoining Wayne County. Wayne County has already received some good coverage in the literature, in particular Jack Dickinson's Wayne County, West Virginia in the Civil War (2003), but given the apparent close similarities between the respective polities and Civil War experiences of both counties (along with the likely limited exposure of Dickinson's fine but self-published work) a dual history approach seems natural. With all of that in mind, the end result of Geiger's labors in synthesis and expansion is his new book Disorder on the Border: Civil Warfare in Cabell and Wayne Counties, West Virginia, 1856-1870. Beyond its more obvious local history appeal, the mass of ground-level military and civilian perspectives (especially from the pro-Union side) contained inside the volume should also prove more broadly useful to Civil War writers and historians engaged in researching a variety of Border State topics.

Any glance at the map of West(ern) Virginia will reveal the strategic significance of Cabell and Wayne counties. Situated within an elbow of land wedged in by the confluence of the Ohio and Big Sandy rivers, both Cabell and Wayne counties share a northern border with the state of Ohio, and the long western border of Wayne County is adjacent to Kentucky. The Kanawha River, western Virginia's main southern avenue of invasion and counterinvasion during the war, also passes close by to the east. Like many of their fellow trans-Appalachian Virginians, antebellum Cabell and Wayne county citizens frequently chafed under what they viewed as Richmond's persistent neglect, and they often forged closer economic and cultural ties with nearby Ohio than they did with other parts of Virginia. During the secession crisis, solid voting majorities in both counties opposed leaving the Union. Even so, when war came there were more than enough proponents of both sides to ensure a violent and persistent inner war within most pro-Union counties in the region. Indeed, some of the most prominent citizens of western Virginia were secessionists, the best-known of these being Albert Gallatin Jenkins. Jenkins, whose vast Cabell County land holdings would be alternately looted and appropriated throughout the conflict, became a Confederate general and would return to the area during the war as a noted cavalry raider.

Though the book does address on some level the secession crisis, wartime elections, emancipation, West Virginia statehood debates, and other issues of society, politics, and race, the great majority of Geiger's narrative is devoted to intimate descriptions of the military and home front violence that wracked both counties during and beyond the Civil War years. Though none of the fighting in Cabell and Wayne counties could be rated as a true pitched battle, it was the case that skirmishes, raids, and guerrilla attacks occurred on a frequent basis throughout the conflict. In the book, chapters are devoted to the two largest military events that occurred in the counties, the July 1861 so-called Battle of Barboursville and the November 1861 Raid on Guyandotte. While the Union victory at Barboursville, an action won by the 2nd Kentucky over a gathering of pro-Confederate militia, solidified federal control in the area, Confederate success at Guyandotte a few months later nevertheless demonstrated how tenuous Union occupation could be. After vengeful Union forces returned to the town and burned much of it in retaliation, Guyandotte provided the first glimpse at just how destructive, and often indiscriminate, the inner war's violence would become in the future.

After the Guyandotte raid, hostage taking became an increasingly common practice by both sides to ensure decent treatment of political prisoners2. Because Civil War volunteers tasked with occupation duties often demonstrated little interest in discerning loyalties among local factions, their presence could certainly have caused negative feelings among West Virginia Unionists living in areas bordering the Ohio River. However, it seems to have been the case that citizens of Cabell and Wayne counties on the whole appreciated cross-river intervention from Ohio, especially when locally-raised troops were transferred elsewhere leaving nearby towns, farms, and river traffic vulnerable to guerrilla attack.

As already mentioned, most of the Civil War fighting that occurred in Cabell and Wayne counties was in the nature of small-scale raids, ambuscades, and armed violence against civilians. These events, which extended well into the early postwar period, are recounted in minute detail throughout the book. In addition to its useful documentation of local history, Geiger's narrative, with its detailed coverage of individual and family experiences, also serves as a bountiful genealogical resource. Mostly written from the Union perspective, the book meticulously traces the activities of a number of federal volunteer units, including the aforementioned 2nd Kentucky, the 34th Ohio (Piatt's Zouaves), and a multitude of West Virginia infantry and cavalry regiments and detachments. In reading the book's lengthy documentation of the scale and frequency of attacks on both military and civilian targets in Cabell and Wayne counties, it seems clear that West Virginia deserves wider recognition as a guerrilla war hotspot at least comparable in notoriety to parts of Kentucky and Missouri.

With political opposition in Cabell and Wayne counties effectively muffled and voting qualifications strictly regulated, Republican candidates maintained electoral success in the wake of emancipation and no McClellan votes were tallied in either county during the 1864 presidential election. As was the case with many other border state counties, the end of slavery was either accepted or welcomed, but extension of full citizenship rights to freedmen was generally opposed by West Virginia Unionists. In the book, Geiger describes how pro-Confederate diehards attempted to disrupt the fall 1865 elections by defying voting restrictions. In common with other guerrilla-infested border regions, there were also lawsuits filed by Cabell and Wayne county Unionists against prominent Confederates and guerrilla fighters over property losses incurred during the war years. However, even after postwar resistance (violent and non-violent) continued for years after Appomattox, even ardent Unionists eventually supported the restoration of voting and civil rights to ex-Confederates, and by 1870 the Democrats swept back into power statewide.

It could be maintained that the book too heavily favors description over wider contextual analysis, but that's really part of the nature of most Civil War county and local histories. This reviewer's chief complaint centers around another drawback common to Civil War local history publications, a lack of suitable cartographic orientation. The archival county maps provided in the book are of only limited assistance to those unfamiliar with local geography [the best one is the post route map on page 8 encompassing both counties, but it is dated significantly postwar at 1896], and military map coverage of the many raids, skirmishes, and guerrilla attacks described in the text (at any scale) is absent.

In its meticulous documentation of Civil War-era military and home front violence in Cabell and Wayne Counties, Disorder on the Border is a richly detailed resource for those researching regular and irregular warfare (particularly the latter) along the far western border of Virginia—and from June 1863 onward, the new state of West Virginia. The release of this highly informative local history also further cements 35th Star's status as the new leader in publishing Civil War West Virginia military history and edited primary source materials.

1 - While this volume represents a significant source and content upgrade from Geiger's 1991 Cabell County study, readers might still want to keep the older volume in the home library for its roster appendices of Union and Confederate soldiers from the county along with its lists of soldiers killed or captured in action inside county borders. The author's annotated compilation of Guyandotte Raid casualties and civilian arrest lists is also valuable reference material not carried over to this otherwise heavily expanded county history treatment.
2 - Military and civilian hostage taking was a pervasive Civil War practice worthy of more in-depth study. Most recently, Joan Cashin's War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War (2018) addressed the topic in limited but interesting fashion.

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