Monday, January 15, 2024

Review - "A History of Putnam County, West Virginia in the Civil War" by Philip Hatfield

[A History of Putnam County, West Virginia in the Civil War by Philip Hatfield (35th Star Publishing, 2023). 8.5"x11" softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,222/315. ISBN:979-9889020-0-3. $26.95]

Excellent book-length coverage of Civil War military events in western (later West) Virginia certainly exist, but county histories have proven to be among the best resources for readers wishing to learn more about the Appalachian and trans-Appalachian region's cavalry raids, smaller-scale battles, and guerrilla warfare. Among the more noteworthy volumes are Joe Geiger's Civil War in Cabell County West Virginia, 1861-1865, H.E. Matheny's Wood County, West Virginia, in Civil War Times, John Shaffer's Clash of Loyalties: A Border County in the Civil War (for Barbour County), Jack Dickinson's Wayne County, West Virginia in the Civil War, and a pair from Tim McKinney (The Civil War in Fayette County, West Virginia and The Civil War in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Presented in a similar vein to several of those is Philip Hatfield's A History of Putnam County, West Virginia in the Civil War. Predictably, the most strategically situated counties make for the most interesting reading, and that is certainly the case with Putnam County's action-filled Civil War story. Straddling the Kanawha River (a major pathway for invasion into the West Virginia interior) and geographically located between the key towns of Charleston and Point Pleasant, Putnam County was practically destined to become a Civil War battleground for opposing conventional forces and irregular combatants alike.

Though much of Hatfield's text stresses military events and their impact in the region, his volume does provide some brief background information on the social and economic impact of slaveholding in the county. In-depth examination of Putnam County's place in antebellum divisions between eastern and western Virginians (and the thoughts of current historians on those matters) is beyond the scope of this particular study, but a short discussion of political developments during the run up to secession and the outbreak of Civil War can be found. By the book's estimation, a very slight majority of the county's total number of regularly enrolled soldiers went into the Confederate Army. Much like geography almost guaranteed that the conventional war would land in the laps of Putnam Countians, the roughly even number of men that went into the Union and Confederate armies was highly predictive of intense guerrilla warfare (or household war as some have come to call it) of the kind seen all across the contested Border States.

As mentioned above, battles, skirmishes, and raids form the centerpieces of most chapters. The main event of the 1861 chapter is the federal campaign up the Kanawha River Valley from Ohio, particular attention being paid to the July 17 Battle of Scary Creek. It was a Confederate victory that, given the overall disparity in forces each side could bring to the table, only delayed the inevitable. The text describing the battle is very detailed, a combination of author narrative and extensive block quotes from participant-sourced accounts. Reader preference for or against that stylistic approach is largely a matter of taste. The chapter materially supplements the best single source on the campaign, Terry Lowry's The Battle of Scary Creek: Military Operations in the Kanawha Valley, April-July 1861 (1982, 1998-rev.). Hatfield's entire book is stuffed with maps, photographs, and other illustrations, and a welcome accompaniment to this chapter is its collection of seven full-page maps (two originals and the rest archival) associated with Scary Creek.

After Union forces led by Brigadier General Jacob Cox swiftly occupied the Kanawha River Valley, a period of relative stalemate persisted until pressures elsewhere forced the withdrawal of most federal units from the region. The Confederates seized the opportunity to retake most of the valley, their campaign best documented in another volume from Terry Lowry, The Battle of Charleston and the 1862 Kanawha Valley Campaign (2016). Hatfield's 1862 chapter again richly supplements Lowry's, fleshing out what occurred in Putnam County during the campaign, specifically the "Battle" of Atkeson's Gate, a running skirmish fought near Buffalo. After eastern crises were settled by the results of the Maryland Campaign, strong Union forces eventually returned and retook the valley. Though it is not articulated as such, a common theme of the war in Putnam County and the rest of the Kanawha Valley is that every Confederate "success" proved only temporary, their efforts lacking the strength and logistical support needed for them to possess any significant staying power.

With permanent Confederate military reoccupation essentially out of the question by the end of 1862, cavalry incursions and company-sized conventional and guerrilla-type raids inside Putnam County intensified from mid-war onward. A major event discussed in the 1863 chapter is the March 28 Battle of Hurricane Bridge (also the subject of an earlier standalone study from Hatfield, see here), but many smaller actions are also addressed, including a second attack at Hurricane Bridge. Both the 1863 and 1864 chapters trace the course of escalating irregular warfare and the federal response to it. That inner war was present from the start of the conflict, and the book documents at some length the raising of pro-Union home guard units in the area and their struggles to maintain control of the region. River traffic was also targeted by swift-moving Confederate mounted forces, their largest coup being the onboard capture of Union brigadier general Eliakim Scammon in February 1864. The book's coverage of an October 1864 raid that resulted in a battle fought at Winfield demonstrates that conventional Confederate forces never abandoned their interest in the region either.

Every chapter contains extensive background and Civil War histories of individuals and families closely associated with Putnam County. These are either incorporated into the main text or presented in their own sidebar-style subsections. Emancipation and the controversial West Virginia statehood movement, along with their Putnam County connections, are also discussed at appropriate places in the book. Additional reference material can be found in the appendix section, which contains a series of company rosters.

Philip Hatfield's comprehensive examination of Civil War events in Putnam County, WV and the people involved in them, both military and civilian, is a worthy addition to an already impressive modern library of Civil War West Virginia county histories. Recommended.

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