Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South

By Zuczek, Richard | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South


Zuczek, Richard, The Journal of Southern History


Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South. By T. R. C. Hutton. New Directions in Southern History. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013. Pp. xii, 430. $50.00, ISBN 978-0-8131-3646-2.)

The image of the feuding Kentucky hillbilly figures prominently in American culture and southern history. Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South does not simply question conventional wisdom regarding the causes of feuding in eastern Kentucky; it challenges the very existence of the Kentucky feud. T. R. C. Hutton first contends that violence in the region was not feuding, understood as the product of personal (or family) conflicts; violence was political in nature, resulting from economic, class, and party rivalries. Second, and just as important, Hutton argues that leading figures successfully "depoliticized" violence, deliberately promoting the feud motif to conceal the true nature of the carnage (p. 6).

Hutton opens his account with the "illegitimacy" of Breathitt County's creation in 1839, engineered by Jeremiah Weldon South, John Lewis Hargis, and other Bluegrass Democrats to further their commercial interests (p. 34). As a result, Breathitt emerged sui generis with deep divisions, as its absentee (or recent migrant) sovereigns clashed with the largely nonslaveholding, Whig-turned-Republican squatter-yeomanry who occupied the county.

These divisions led to bloodshed in the Civil War, with Unionist William Strong and other long-standing locals waging a guerrilla "social war" against the "finer body" of people who embraced the Confederacy (pp. 54, 49). Hutton's first cases of depoliticization appear as Democrats (and some Republicans) whitewashed the bloodletting as products of a feuding mountain culture, beginning the myth of the feud and inadvertently inaugurating the corresponding myth of a unified Republican Appalachia. Similar messaging permeated the Reconstruction era, as Union Leagues, the Ku Klux Klan, and incarnations of wartime guerrilla units stalked the county. Yet eastern Kentucky avoided the attention paid to the former Confederate states, as state leaders and media sources--in particular, the Louisville Courier-Journal--ascribed violence to "vigilantism," "local tribalism" (p. …

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