Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia

By Anderson, Paul Christopher | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia


Anderson, Paul Christopher, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia * Brian D. McKnight * Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006 * xii, 312 pp. * $40.00

Brian D. McKnight's Contested Borderland is a bold attempt to clear some of the virgin land of the Civil War world-the Central Appalachian Divide, particularly the region between Cumberland and Pound gaps that divides Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. In wielding traditional military history in one hand and social history in the other, McKnight attempts the difficult work of using both simultaneously. His grasp of the former, as both research field and narrative style, is solid; his use of the latter, in which he draws upon Appalachian studies, the recent harvest of guerrillawarfare writing, and the social history of the home front and especially the border regions, is ground-opening but not wholly satisfying.

Not that anyone would envy him this task. Appalachia is still an obscure branch of Southerniana; in a field as well-trodden as the Civil War, its relative neglect is criminal. Contested Borderland does much to address that dual ignorance. One gets the sense that no one will have to write the military history of the war in die Divide for many years to come. The war here, McKnight argues, was a war of grand strategy, with both sides seeking to control military vitals: the Cumberland Gap, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It was a war for resources: foodstuffs, iron ore, coal, timber, and especially salt from the works at Saltville, which produced two-thirds of the Confederacy's supply.

It was also a local and often violent, dislocating war for hearts and minds-sometimes within the bounds of "civilized war," very often without. Which was which is as perplexing now as it was then. Partisan bushwhacking and military confiscation could also be, from one day to the next, murder and robbery. In general, McKnight argues, sympathies in southwestern Virginia tilted toward the Confederacy, while southeastern Kentucky allegiances tended toward Unionism. …

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