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Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia Released 9/28

Related: Civil War, Kentucky
Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia Released 9/28

Many histories leave the impression that the Civil War was a classic tale of good versus evil-abolitionist versus slaver-played out on a nationwide battlefield. These accounts overlook the many subtleties and exceptions from this tumultuous era. In Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia, now available in paperback, historian Brian D. McKnight examines a seldom-addressed aspect of the Civil War: the conflict in the mountainous region encompassing the Kentucky-Virginia border.

Though a political map of the region would clearly indicate where Union territory ended and Confederate territory began, physical geography had the upper hand in defining the Civil War loyalties of the central Appalachian people. At the same time, geographical considerations made the Kentucky-Virginia borderland valuable to both sides in the war: the Appalachian range separated the Eastern and Western Theaters, which made the few natural passages through the mountains strategically desirable.

Very few mountain dwellers were slaveholders, especially in Kentucky. This factor contributed to the attitude among Appalachians that the war was neither for nor about them, even though it endangered and deprived them. Towns along important routes were not granted the privilege of neutrality. As military traffic increased in the area, it was not uncommon for small roadside towns to play host to both Union and Confederate troops within a matter of days. Although never forcibly taken, the Cumberland Gap changed hands four times over the course of the war and was known as the "American Gibraltar."

By 1864, Union troops had filtered their way east through the mountains, gaining the loyalty of many southwestern Virginians who had once supported the Confederacy. Local militias in both Kentucky and Virginia placed pressure on area citizens to declare their allegiance, and some partisan bands used their military might to pursue personal interests and vendettas. Through firsthand accounts and original military documents, Contested Borderland portrays a self-sustained population forced into a conflict from which they perceived little to gain and much to lose.

Brian D. McKnight is a teaching fellow of history at the University of Virginia's College at Wise. His work has appeared in numerous books and journals, including the Historian, the Smithfield Review, and Ohio Valley History

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