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Appalachia as the Civil War’s Heartland

Posted on Saturday, May 21, 2016 at 5:14 pm

Long a gateway between East and West, Cumberland Gap became during the Civil War a critical invasion route between North and South.  No major battle would be fought at Cumberland Gap, but both Union and Confederate commanders invested enormous resources defending this isolated passage between Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.  The people living in the vicinity of the Gap were bitterly divided over the Civil War, with many residents serving as guerrillas and spies for competing armies.  As a thoroughfare and a death trap,  Cumberland Gap exemplified the importance of the Appalachian mountain region as a whole during the Civil War.

Civil War historians commonly describe three “theaters” of the war – the Eastern, Western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, divided from one another by the Appalachian mountains and the Mississippi River.   The Eastern theater, defined mostly as the land between the Federal and Confederate capitals – though stretched north briefly into Pennsylvania – has historically received the most attention from the general public. The Western theater, extending from the Appalachian mountains to the Mississippi River, proved to be a far more fluid theater of war and has garnered much greater interest in recent decades.  The Trans-Mississippi has come in for more recent study and revision as well, especially with newer emphases on guerrilla war and on the intersection of Indian wars in the West with the Civil War.

But what have historians had to say about the boundary between the Eastern and Western theaters – Appalachia itself, including the lands around Cumberland Gap?   Though often presented as an isolated subset of the war, the Appalachian war actually served as the strategic and political heart of the Civil War.   Its people found themselves bitterly divided by a conflict that few of them sought; its landscape denuded and resources exploited like never before; and management of its complex maze of gaps, valleys, plateaus and ridges making the difference between success and failure for armies on both sides.

Geographically, the Appalachian mountain chain stretches from Alabama northeastward to Maine and into Canada.   Its foothills on the east rise at a fall line leading into the coastal plain.  Just below this fall line were established the major American cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Richmond.   In the critical southern half of the Appalachia chain, the mountains rise abruptly with the Blue Ridge, beginning in southern Pennsylvania and extending south through Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.  In the lower sections, the Blue Ridge widens into a transverse series of mountains including the Balsams and the Great Smokies.  Just west of the Blue Ridge is the long Ridge and Valley Province where most of the Appalachian population lived, and through which rivers and railroads transported people and goods up and down the Great Valley.  On the western edge rises another escarpment, leading to a large plateau – called the Allegheny Plateau in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. This plateau is dissected by rivers and marked by isolated hollows and beds of coal.

The northeast-southwest axis of the Appalachian mountains offered a great advantage to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Once his men could pass through the gaps of the Blue Ridge they could drive into Maryland and Pennsylvania without being noticed or harassed.  The valley funneled northbound Confederate soldiers toward the populous Union heartland, while it shunted southbound Union soldiers away from the Confederacy’s capital at Richmond.   Adept generals like Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, born in the western part of Virginia that became West Virginia, mastered the terrain surrounding the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and kept multiple Union armies at bay in 1862.

The Blue Ridge also protected the Army of Northern Virginia’s great breadbasket in the Shenandoah Valley.  The largest supplier of wheat, corn, hogs, cattle, and sheep for the South, the Valley’s farms and grist mills fed the Confederate army.  With iron forges, armories (including the famous Harpers Ferry works), blacksmithing and saddle shops, and a network of southeastward railroads and rivers reaching Richmond, the Great Valley sustained the Army of Northern Virginia for years of hard campaigning.  For this reason, General Phil Sheridan’s Fall 1864 scorched earth campaign proved essential in tightening the noose around General Lee’s men holed up in Petersburg.

For commanders in the Western theater, the Appalachian mountains served a different purpose.  As Union armies under Don Carlos Buell, William J. Rosecrans, George Thomas, Ulysses Grant and William T. Sherman pushed through Tennessee, the critical city of Chattanooga held the key to the Deep South.  Lying in a bowl surrounded by Missionary Ridge to the east and Lookout, Raccoon and Signal Mountains – all part of the Cumberland Plateau – to the south, west and north, Chattanooga proved to be a very difficult city to defend.  The Union army’s ultimate success at Chattanooga in late November 1863 depended on the establishment of tenuous communication and transportation across some of the most rugged terrain in the eastern United States.  Once the Union army pushed its Confederate foe off Missionary Ridge, however, the way lay open to Atlanta and beyond.

For the people living within the Appalachian mountains, the Civil War created and widened fractures within communities, driving kin, neighbors, and erstwhile political allies into a vicious guerrilla-oriented war.  Civil War loyalties tended to reflect wider social networks marked by class, family, partisanship and topography.  For example, elites in western North Carolina, many of whom served the South Carolina Low Country clientele summering in the mountain springs or purchasing food supplies for their plantations, identified strongly with the Confederacy.  So too did the myriad ordinary Democratic party voters who looked to those elites for leadership. In East Tennessee, by contrast, two rival elite networks pushed supporters in opposite directions. Those with business along the railroad connecting East Tennessee’s growing wheat farms with Virginia and Georgia tended to support secession. The majority, however, viewed the cotton planter elite with disdain and cleaved to the flag of their fathers.  With Union and Confederate sympathizers arrayed against one another in relatively close quarters, civil order quickly broke down, replaced often by brutal guerrilla war and desperate counterinsurgency operations. In this milieu, opportunistic guerrillas like Champ Ferguson, George Kirk, Tinker Dave Beaty and John Gatewood terrorized civilians and soldiers alike.

The Appalachian Civil War was, in some ways, a microcosm of the larger conflict, and in other ways a separate kind of communal war that persisted long after Appomattox.  The war’s devastation took its toll on the landscape and on divided families unable or unwilling to reconcile.  In the decades to follow, new conflicts over labor relations and access to mineral and timber resources once again divided Appalachian communities.  As with the Civil War, most of these conflicts would prove to be local versions of much larger struggles, though this time over the course of industrialization.

For some excellent studies of the Civil War in Appalachia, I recommend the following books:

• Astor, Aaron. The Civil War along Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015.

• Ayers, Edward L., and Andrew J. Torget. Two Communities in the Civil War. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

• Crawford, Martin. Ashe County’s Civil War: Community and Society in the Appalachian South. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.

• Fisher, Noel C. War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

• Groce, W. Todd. Mountain Rebels: East Tennessee Confederates 1860-1870.  Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000.

• Hess, Earl J. The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee: Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013.

• Hutton, T. R. C. Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

• Inscoe, John C., and Gordon B. McKinney. The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War. Chapel Hill, N.C..: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

• Jones, Evan C. and Wiley Sword, Eds. Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014.

• McKenzie, Robert Tracy. Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in Civil War America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

• McKinney, Gordon B. Zeb Vance: North Carolina’s Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

• McKnight, Brian. Confederate Outlaw Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

• McKnight, Brian D. Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

• Nash, Steven E. Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

• Newell, Clayton R. Lee vs. McClellan: The First Campaign. Washington, D.C: Regnery Books, 1996.

• Noe, Kenneth W. Southwest Virginia’s Railroad: Modernization and the Sectional Crisis in the Civil War Era. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2003.

• Noe, Kenneth W., and Shannon H. Wilson, eds. The Civil War in Appalachia: Collected Essays. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press 2004.

• Sarris, Jonathan Dean. A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.

• Sword, Wiley. Mountains Touched with Fire: Chattanooga Besieged, 1863. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.

• Taylor, Amy Murrell. The Divided Family in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

-By Aaron Astor


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