T. R. C. Hutton Reveals Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South in BLOODY BREATHITT
The notorious conflict between the Hatfield and the McCoy families of West Virginia and Kentucky is often remembered as America's most famous feud, but it was relatively brief and subdued compared to the violence in Breathitt County, Kentucky. From the Reconstruction period until the early twentieth century, Breathitt's 500 square miles of rugged upcountry land was known as "the darkest and bloodiest of all the dark and bloody feud counties" due to its considerable number of homicides, which were not always related to the factional conflicts that swept the region.
In Bloody Breathitt, T. R. C. Hutton casts a critical eye on this territory for the first time. He carefully investigates instances of individual and mass violence in the county from the Civil War through the Progressive era, exploring links between specific incidents and broader national and regional events. Although the killings were typically portrayed as depoliticized occurrences, Hutton explains how their causes and implications often reflected distinctly political intentions. By framing the incidents as "feuds," those in positions of authority disguised politically motivated murders by placing them in a fictive past, preventing outsiders from understanding the complex reality. Hutton reminds readers that the nation's political stability has had a tremendous cost in terms of bloodshed.
T. R. C. Hutton is a lecturer in the department of history at the University of Tennessee.
A Conversation with T.R.C. Hutton
How did you first become interested in Breathitt County and the violence that took place there between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I?
It began with a chart devised by historian Altina Waller in an article she wrote for the anthology Appalachia in the Making. The chart showed all of the counties in Kentucky and a few other states that had been labeled "feud" locales by two newspapers (the New York Times and the Louisville Courier-Journal) between the 1870s and the 1910s. I noticed two things: Breathitt was almost the only one listed more than once, and it was more or less the historical first and last. I knew something was up, especially since its first "feud" was during one of the worst years of Reconstruction violence. It occurred to me that what was going on there probably wasn't happening inside a proverbial bubble. At the same time, I had to acknowledge that there had to be a reason why violence was more common there than in surrounding mountain counties. How might something so ordinary as county boundaries happen to contain decades of different kinds of violence?
You argue that the term "feud" is deceptive? Can you explain?
This is one of the more complicated issues I cover in the book, but it boils down to this: "feud" suggests a conflict between parties of equal standing and ability who engage each other reciprocally, with neither side having an overwhelming advantage. When it comes to deadly violence, that's a very rare thing, and it's not particularly evident in the history of Breathitt County. There are those in power who have a permanent advantage that they maintain with either the threat or use of violence. The only thing that creates the visage of a "feud" is the fact that weaker parties did attempt to fight back and, on occasion, did so with a fair amount of brutality. However, these attempts at "revolutionary" violence (i.e., violence against a status quo) were never as powerful as the counterrevolutionary violence employed by powerful men who typically had the support of the state of Kentucky.
Moreover, "feud" suggests a conflict with low stakes enclosed within some "small" context with little significance beyond the immediate parties. Note the wars of words framed as "celebrity feuds" involving people like Kanye West or Rosie O'Donnell. The stakes behind the violence of "Bloody Breathitt" were not low for the people involved, no more so than the mass violence we see all over the South during Reconstruction and afterward.
What explains the violence there if it was not due to feuds?
My glibbest answer would be that Breathitt County had the misfortune of being contained within a very violent country. The decades I cover in the book, the 1860s through the 1910s were especially murderous ones. There were certain "hot spots" all over the country where this seems to be most pointed. There are reasons that have to do with Breathitt County itself, but the more important reasons deal with what it was like to live in the former slave states in the decades after the Civil War.
What impact did the Civil War have on violence in the region?