Sunday, June 9, 2024

Book Review: The Civil War in the Smokies

By Noel Fisher
 Copyright 2005
Great Smoky Mountains Association 

This book is an older one I picked up at a gift shop during a quick vacation last fall but is a good work about an uncommon subject and certainly one that I enjoyed and that added to my understanding of the war. 

Comments about President Lincoln wanting to “free” East Tennessee from the Confederacy are relatively common in Civil War, at least on that high level, but more detailed explorations of the region are not such common topics. No major battles took place in the mountains, though the Siege of Knoxville, with famed Confederate General James Longstreet, was close by, so studies focused on military engagements find other geographic areas to explore and discuss.

This area, however, was the home to many people, Americans, who were split in their loyalties like the rest of the country. Slavery was not a large institution in these mountains, but it did exist, and a population of Native Americans also resided here. 

The start of this book gives a brief history of the settlement of the region, including Natives and then the influx of European Americans in the era of the American Revolutionary War. I thought this section was a bit of a slow read, but it provided good background information and once the story approached the Civil War years, my reading was much quicker, but that may be because of my preferences, not the author's writing.

Despite the importance of the social aspects of the war in this region, as frequently discussed herein the military was also involved here, via skirmishes, foraging, tracking deserters and spies, guarding or attacking targets such as bridges, seeking conscripts to fill regiments, helping others find their ways elsewhere, and in other important ways.

The numbers were not large, but people died. In some way, that type of war is more personal than the bigger, more famous, battles. Instead of casualty lists simply printed as “hundreds of men,” or lengthy lists of names, this book generally mentions a handful or so of specific names, as it does for men arrested as spies, deserters, or for being “loyalists” (Union supporters).

This area reminded me of the divided loyalties throughout Kentucky. That surprised me for some reason, and the idea of men "escaping" from the mountains to come to the Bluegrass State to enlist in Union regiments was another concept I did not remember hearing about previously. The geographic closeness of the two states means this idea makes sense, but I have often read of Kentuckians going south to join the Confederate army but not of men sneaking into Kentucky's southern border. 

An especially fascinating piece of this story was the examination of the letters between Confederate soldier Alfred Bell and his wife Mary. Mary was struggling at home and wanted to see her husband again, but he had his own troubles in the army, including an inability (or perhaps an unexpressed unwillingness) to leave the military to return home. Their story as told in this work was an outstanding piece of the bigger story, perhaps even symbolic of how other families fared during this time. It added a lot of context and detail to this work. This was the war seen from the family level, an everyday issue impossible to escape.

The final chapter, entitled After the End, may have been the most interesting section of the book, discussing the difficulties of life even after the war ended, as bitter feelings and distrust remained. Union supporters attempted to capitalize on victory by punishing their former opponents, while residents who had favored the Confederate side did not just sit back and accept such treatment, giving as good they got. Bushwhackers, lawsuits, and an even more difficult economic situation increased the struggles of residents, as well as institutions such as schools and churches. Educational facilities shut down for good, and some churches went years or even a decade without meeting during and immediately after the war.

Despite the lack of major battles or campaigns in the mountains, the war took a major toll on the area. In the best of times, life in the Smokies was tough, especially economically, and this work shows how much the war only exacerbated this and other issues, as the author notes about the area’s residents: "They simply could not escape the cruel logic of the war, and large-scale suffering was inevitable.” (p. 150) Militaries on both sides did scour this area for food and supplies, taking them from civilians who depended on these items.

One quote from this chapter sums up the situation in the mountains - and perhaps in the nation as a whole - quite well: "The Civil War threw Smokies residents into a situation for which they were wholly unprepared,” (p.150) with so much chaos, economic suffering, and mistrust of neighbors, as well as Confederate conscription policy, and other factors making life even harder.

As the war dragged on, difficulties surmounted, leading much of the populace to reconsider life’s priorities. Mere survival became more important than the political ideologies of the war, an issue the southern leaders could not really address.  "The Confederate government had little time to nurture the kind of loyalties and bonds needed" to create and maintain the faithfulness of residents. (p.151) This had natural consequences: "Indeed, it might be said that by 1863 these residents, while pro-Southern and pro-slavery, were no longer pro-Confederate.” (p. 151)

Overall, this is a fine book. It tells an interesting story of a people and region which struggled through many difficulties during the Civil War, a tale perhaps needing more attention.

I’m glad I read it and am happy to recommend it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Only One of the Men: Nicholas Korrell, 23rd Ky. Infantry

As 1862 evolved into 1863, the Battle of Stones River took place, quickly becoming one of the bloodiest fights of the war, a slugfest between two armies seeking control of central Tennessee, just months after the Confederates had left the Perryville Battlefield in Kentucky in Union hands.

Tens of thousands of men fought in this contest. Among them was Private Nicholas Korrell.

Born in Germany around 1836, Nicholas had immigrated to Campbell County, Kentucky before deciding to fight to defend his new country's government. 

He married Eliza Sheridan, a native of Ireland, in front of a Justice of the Peace on April 3, 1861, in Newport, just nine days before the start of the war. The couple had secured housing with John Barlow in that same town while also working in Barlow’s tavern, Nicholas as a barkeeper and Eliza as a servant. 

 Six months later, Nicholas joined company B of the 23rd Kentucky Infantry as a private on October 31, 1861, at the Newport Barracks, which sat on the land where the Licking and Ohio Rivers met, across the Ohio from Cincinnati. He mustered in on December 8 and agreed to a standard three-year term.  

      Newport Barracks during the 1884 flood of the Ohio River

At that time, he stood 5 feet 8½ inches tall, featured a light complexion, and had gray eyes and light hair.  


The 23rd Kentucky was a busy regiment that had recruited numerous men from Campbell County. After mustering in, it spent time in Kentucky and Tennessee before being in reserve at the Battle of Perryville in October of 1862. With the rest of the newly renamed Army of the Cumberland, the men of the 23rd followed the Confederates back into Tennessee where the opposing armies clashed at Stones River from December 31, 1862, through January 2, 1863. The 23rd was in Colonel William Grose’s 3rd Brigade of Brigadier General John Palmer’s 2nd Division of Major General Thomas Crittenden’s Left Wing of the Union forces at this engagement.

This battle ended in a Union victory that left the Federals “in control of central Tennessee” and gave Unionists throughout the nation “a much-needed morale boost, especially after the recent loss at Fredericksburg” in December.


This fight was the epitome of a bloodbath. It featured “some of the highest casualty rates of the war. With only about 76,400 men engaged, it has the greatest percentage of casualties (3.8 percent killed, 19.8 percent wounded, and 7.9 percent missing/captured) of any major battle in the Civil War, even more than at Shiloh and Antietam.”

Nicholas was mortally wounded on January 2, the battle’s final day. He passed away the next day, leaving him among the approximate 12,906 Union casualties.

His burial place is uncertain, but he may be in Stones River National Cemetery, perhaps one of the more than 2,500 unknown Union soldiers buried there.


Three months later, on what must have been a bittersweet occasion, his widow Eliza gave birth to their first and only child on April 1. It was a son whom she named Nicholas after the father he had never known.

Not only was she missing her husband as she gave birth, but she also did not have a physician present at the time. Fortunately, an experienced midwife, Margaretta Arman, was by her side, providing her knowledge, guidance, and assistance.

 Eliza applied for and received a widow’s pension, which started at $8 per month starting January 3, 1863, with an additional $2 per month for her son, as they resided on Front Street in Newport. The pension had increased to $12 monthly before her passing.


The two witnesses who signed her application were David Hays and John Link, Newport residents and former members of Nicholas's regiment 


Eliza was unable to locate an official copy of her marriage record, information the Pension Bureau required in order to approve her application, so her file includes several affidavits signed by acquaintances who swore that they had lived together as husband and wife. David Hays was among the people who provided this written testimony, as was another former soldier in Newport, William Air, who noted that Nicholas had often sent money home to Eliza and that he (William) had delivered it to her at least once.  

In 1900, Eliza was a boarder in the house of Christopher Ploss another Civil War veteran, and had apparently been so for years, as she had sponsored the baptisms of two Ploss children in 1884 and 1887.

She died in March of 1903, and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Southgate. In the cemetery lies a young man named George Korell (sic) showing a birth date of 1864. Some forms in Eliza's files, dated 1868, mistakenly listed her son's birth occurring on April 1, 1864, probably due to faulty memory as they all list him as being the on of Eliza and Nicholas, who had died in early 1863. One document did show the correct year of 1863.

Findagrave memorial 199320452

The main remaining question is her son's true name. All records in her pension file show it as Nicholas, but the 1880 census shows Eliza living with George, listed as her 15-year-old son, and also shows his name as George, born in 1864. Eliza and George are both buried in the same section and lot of the same cemetery. does not list him as her son as I write this post, though I have submitted that information as a suggested correction.

Perhaps his full name was George Nicholas or Nicholas George and he went by George. One other possibility is that she called him Nicholas, but regretted it, as perhaps it reminded her too much of her deceased husband, and she actually changed it to George at some point.

Whatever the unknown details actually were, the death of Private Nicholas Korrell was another sad story in a war too full of them, a single death of a “common” soldier, among thousands of similar ones in the same battle, yet a loss that others deeply felt and regretted. He was not famous and won no medals or prizes, but his death in defense of his adopted nation certainly mattered.

Rest in peace, Private Nicholas Korrell.


Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Book Review: Anatomy of a Duel: Secession, Civil War, and the Evolution of Kentucky Violence

By Stuart W. Sanders 
University Press of Kentucky 

At first glance, using one duel taking place on one afternoon in an obscure Kentucky community to explore a state’s culture may sound like a challenging proposition, but Stuart Sanders tackled that idea and turned it into a fine book describing a key piece of nineteenth-century life in Kentucky. 

In this deeply researched book, involving many sources, Sanders, author of multiple books about Civil War Kentucky, as well as one about violence on a period steamboat, uses his experience and writing ability to craft a fascinating story about how the confrontation between William Casto and Union Colonel Leonidas Metcalf illustrates the importance of the code duello in Kentucky life. He, however, goes beyond just that confrontation to show why it happened and why it was a bit unusual for its time as change was slowly happening in the Bluegrass State as civil war approached.

As the book’s title so aptly says, this work is truly an anatomy (or dissection) of this one fight, showing how state (and southern) culture, combined with the Civil War (and the tensions that led to war), the background of the individuals involved, and the actions of Union leaders who were trying to keep Kentucky (and Kentuckians) out of the Confederacy, all somehow worked together over time to lead to this contest. It was not simply a case of two men suddenly becoming angry and immediately dueling. It was a process based on those factors that Sanders explores and describes in a very readable and enjoyable book.

This book is more than a story about the duel, even as that word in the title is the attention-grabber. The author discusses violence in Kentucky, particularly the art of dueling, and how the state's citizens and government accepted it as part of life, but also shows how that form of manhood and honor had started changing in the Civil War era, especially during and after the war. Violence and fighting remained an unfortunately large part of life in the Commonwealth, but the formality of duels, with strict rules, regulations, and traditions, gradually changed into more improvisational street fighting, including the use of concealed weapons. The book’s title refers to this as “evolution,” but a reasonable argument could contend that “de-evolution” would be just as or perhaps more appropriate.

This work also discussed how the culture of violence, including both dueling and the newer style of fighting, injured, or even changed, Kentucky’s reputation nationwide. The frequent violence, fighting, and murdering came to define the state in many eyes, transforming the state’s reputation from the land of Henry Clay, compromise, and a forward thinking educated people to an image of a backward and poor population that constantly resorted to physically harming or killing fellow citizens. 

This truly is a good perspective not only on dueling or violence, but on the state of Kentucky in the mid-nineteenth century, including how the population was split in supporting the Union or Confederate side (even in the same towns and counties) and how that division sometimes led to violence like in the Casto-Metcalfe duel.  It is a much bigger story than just that of one of one fight or of that style of combat.

For those who seek satisfaction from books they read, I believe this one will accept and meet your challenge. I enjoyed this read and certainly recommend it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Leftover Random Thoughts on "We Shall Conquer or Die”

My actual review of this book is here, but I had a few other thoughts, comments, and reactions that I felt were better in a separate post. They concern the book but are more “personal" than material for a formal review, so I created this second post. 

I was reading this book because it is a Civil War book that I had been hearing about for a while, and I thought I could enjoy and learn about a topic that was not overly familiar to me. I have not done a whole lot of reading lately, and this one sounded like a nice one to try, especially with its subject including Kentucky. 

As I started reading it, however, it really surprised, even shocked me, not for the quality, as I have seen Derrick's writing on his blog and other websites, but because of how it adds to my understanding of my own research. None of my personal work deals with partisan warfare or western Kentucky, yet on the first page of the introduction, marked as page “x,” not even to the traditional "real" numerals yet, I saw a mention of James Shackelford, colonel of the 8th Kentucky Cavalry (USA) that referred to him as a “guerrilla hunter.” I recognized his name (but not his story) because one company of that unit had been partially recruited in Campbell County. A quick online search turned up more details on Shackelford too. This was quite the first impression.

Next came a mention of the 3rd Kentucky Cavalry (USA). Once again, one company in this regiment had been formed with several men who joined in Newport. I had not noticed their introduction to war was against Nathan Bedford Forrest. Now, I notice that a request for a leave of absence I found was written from "Camp Crooks" which I'm guessing was named for Colonel John Crooks of the 4th Indiana Legion, who was among the main Union military men discussed in this book.

They actually became co. H of the 3rd Ky. Cavalry, under captain Lewis Wolfley 

Additionally, the book discusses the 71st Ohio Infantry and its performance at Clarksville, Tennessee. I was familiar with this unit's reputation, due to Shiloh and Clarksville, because two of my favorite Campbell County stories are of men in company K of this regiment. The book also mentioned harsh comments about its colonel, Rodney Mason, in a Cincinnati newspaper that I had not seen before. 

Yet again, I was caught off-guard when this book mentioned the steamboat USS Fairplay, on which at least two Campbell County men served. Even after the previous surprises, this stunned me a little bit. The book even includes a picture of this ship.

Another unit mentioned, even if briefly, was the 100th United States Colored Infantry. Three men with Campbell County connections were in this regiment.

The author also explains how “mounted infantry” differs from cavalry. One unit I’m studying that had dozens of Campbell County men, the 53rd Kentucky, was often called “mounted infantry,” though not consistently so, but I understand their service a bit better now, especially since part of their service record indicates that they guarded parts of Kentucky against guerrillas. (Why I had not looked up how that type of unit differed from infantry and cavalry, I do not know.)

My research, of course, focuses mostly on individual soldiers/sailors, a basic understanding of their service and a look at their entire lives, but not the details of the everyday military service of their units. Perhaps I mention the most famous battles or campaigns some of the units joined, but the mentions of these regiments and the ship in this book and the smaller fights and skirmishes, they fought have given me a better understanding of their service, and perhaps have showed me ways to improve my research of these and other men, some of whom I just learned were "guerrilla hunters."

I never expected to find anything like those connections to my project in this book. Not at all. Both the title and subject seemed completely different than anything I’m doing, but i guess that’s why I should not judge a book by its cover, or perhaps even by its title, LOL. 

Friday, April 12, 2024

Book Review: We Shall Conquer or Die: Partisan Warfare in 1862 Western Kentucky

By Derrick Lindow 
Copyright 2024
Savas Beatie

The Civil War provides many avenues for discussion and study - battles, generals, politics, technology, and social issues, among numerous topics frequently explored.

One which I have never particularly thought of often was partisan warfare, particularly in western Kentucky.


In this fine book, still hot off the press, Derrick Lindow weaves a fascinating tale of this lesser-discussed style of war in an area not widely known for its role in the war. He describes this type of fighting and what a "partisan ranger" is, comparing it to the more well-known and popular term (especially among Union officials at the time), "guerilla.” He also introduces the readers to some of the Confederate irregular warriors, including a man with one of the more unusual nicknames of the war, Adam "Stovepipe" Johnson, as well as his partner-in-war Robert Martin, and some of their opponents, such as John Crooks and Gabriel Netter.

This type of fighting was much smaller in scope than the most famous battles associated with the Civil War, but even these smaller fights and skirmishes resulted in a number of deaths, men whose demise did make the news back home and affected their comrades-in-arms and families. This fighting and its effects were just as real as any “major battle,” as this book so ably shows.

As Lindow describes how this type of fighting in this area played out, it became reminiscent of ow cavalry usage and fighting in the war overall developed. The partisan war began with the Confederates having a significant advantage at first, as their forces attacked the enemy in ways (and places) the Federals did not expect or fully understand, and the Federals struggled to adapt to this style of war, to have enough men in the right places to meet the enemy, and even, at times, to find leadership courageous and skillful enough to combat the Confederates. As time went by, however, Union leadership and strategy improved, more troops were employed, and the understanding of both this style of fighting and the enemy progressed, all of which naturally led to better fighting by the bluecoats. Confederate victory was no longer as certain a result as it had been earlier in 1862.

This is simply a terrific book. 

More specifically, it is a terrific book for those who enjoy reading about the Civil War or this style of fighting, but especially so for people studying Kentucky’s role in the war. In a state in which politics and the general sentiments of the people were often divided, unclear, confusing, and frequently changing, this style of warfare - fairly described with similar adjectives - symbolized the state’s situation, and the author addresses that, showing how such uncertainty filtered through that region of the Commonwealth, especially for Union leaders trying to defend Union loyalists in a  state that included so many Confederate supporters who were more than willing to help the Confederate fighters. Which people in which towns or counties were on which side, and even on which day? Those were not easy questions to answer, yet the Union leaders (and even the southern forces) needed to understand the people they were dealing with and could or could not trust. 

The writing style is clear, easy to read and understand, and the length of both the book and the several chapters is suitable. It is a quick read, is based on research from many primary and secondary sources and uses well-thought-out analysis of those sources to bring this story together. The several maps and photographs are also helpful and appropriate. 

I gladly recommend this book.

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