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.

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