Feelin' Mighty Southern: Recent Scholarship on Southern Appalachia in the Civil War

By Fisher, Noel | Civil War History, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Feelin' Mighty Southern: Recent Scholarship on Southern Appalachia in the Civil War


Fisher, Noel, Civil War History


Southern appalachia, that region taking in western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western North Carolina, East Tennessee, northern Georgia, and northern Alabama, proved to be the wild card in Civil War politics and strategy. From the beginning of the secession crisis President Abraham Lincoln viewed the supposedly loyalist mountain regions as an ideal base for military operations into vital Confederate territory, and a place to drive a wedge into Southern unity. Politically, not to mention logistically, the mountain regions turned out to be less hospitable, and certainly less cooperative, than Northerners hoped. The Southern Appalachians, however, proved equally troublesome to the Confederate command. After an initial burst of wartime fervor, many mountain residents grew increasingly resistant, and then violently hostile, to coercive Confederate mobilization policies. The mountain regions also provided havens for deserters and increasingly fertile ground for bushwhackers, bandits, and resistance movements. At the same time, the war was particularly cruel to the Southern Appalachians, and residents suffered from economic collapse, social fragmentation, failed institutions, brutal partisan infighting, and heavy-handed intervention by outsiders, both Northern and Southern.

Except for northern Georgia, the Southern Appalachians were a sideshow in the conventional war. Perhaps for that reason, they have also constituted one of the last battlegrounds in Civil War historiography. Until recently, the mountain regions outside West Virginia and northern Georgia received only brief mention in general accounts of the war and were of little interest to Civil War scholars. Even now, one can find more works on the Battle of Gettysburg than on this entire area. The few existing accounts of the war were largely state and county histories, dissertations and theses, and local records. It was not until the late 1970s that the Southern Appalachians became an object of serious interest to Civil War historians. Not coincidentally, that interest coincided with a wave of social, economic, and cultural studies of the mountain regions by such scholars as Dwight Billings, Durwood Dunn, Ronald Eller, Paul Salstrom, Henry D. Shapiro, and Altina L. Waller. These works significantly altered the stereotype of primitive, savage Appalachia and provided a more sophisticated basis for exploring patterns of loyalties and wartime behavior. (1) The progress of contemporary Civil War Appalachian studies has not been rapid, but numerous monographs, articles, and essays have been published in the last twenty years, and a common theoretical framework has begun to emerge.

The coming of age of Civil War Appalachian studies is signaled by the publication of The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War, the first work purporting to offer a comprehensive history of an Appalachian region in the 1860s. The authors, John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, are both distinguished Southern historians and pioneers in the study of Appalachia. McKinney's Southern Mountain Republicans, 1865-1900: Politics and the Appalachian Community perceptively links the transformation of political parties in the postwar period to Civil War grievances, economic changes, racial turbulence, and national political developments. Inscoe's Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina challenges the entrenched image of western North Carolina as undeveloped, isolated, and apathetic to Southern interests, and provides a model for studies of other Appalachian regions. (2) Both authors bring to this work a secure grasp of Appalachian scholarship, an intimate knowledge of the region's history, and an energetic and graceful style. They offer a detailed account of western North Carolina's antebellum and wartime economy, responses to secession, prewar and wartime politics, dissent, partisan violence, the influence of the war on slavery and gender roles, and the lasting effects of the war. …

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Feelin' Mighty Southern: Recent Scholarship on Southern Appalachia in the Civil War
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