Most people think of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park as a pioneer site, but it was also a strategically important point during the Civil War, changing hands four times.
Just recently I stopped by the visitor center on my way back from lunch. Imagine my surprise when I found Entangled in Freedom on sale in the gift shop. This novel aimed at young readers is about a slave who accompanies Confederate troops into the field, and has generated some degree of controversy online because of its depiction of race relations in the nineteenth-century South and the nature of slaves’ participation in the Confederate war effort. Kevin Levin and Andy Hall have addressed some of the book’s interpretive issues at length, so there is little need for me to go into them here.
Part of the book is set in and around the Gap, which is presumably why CGNHP is selling it. What’s weird is that for a book that misreads some of the big issues involved in the Civil War, it includes a surprising amount of relatively little-known, arcane detail about local history and geography.
For example, there really is a cave in the mountain face, just above the old Wilderness Road, and incidentally this isn’t the first time a cave near the Gap has appeared in a work of fiction. Cudjo’s Cave was a nineteenth-century novel set in the Cumberland Gap region which also featured an underground sanctuary, and coincidentally enough, it also featured a slave character. After the war the real cave became a tourist attraction, and the proprietors re-christened it “Cudjo’s Cave” as a nod to the book. Now it’s in NPS hands and has reverted to “Gap Cave,” its original name.
And there really was a massive cannon named “Long Tom” that soldiers pitched over the side of the mountain, at least according to local Civil War lore. My hometown of Tazewell is correctly identified as the site of an engagement, and while we’ve got an interesting history of our own, we’re not exactly Sharpsburg or Chancellorsville. Historical figures who were present at Cumberland Gap during the war appear in the book, too.
There are a few bits of trivia that are off. The troops encamped at the Gap couldn’t have gotten water from Fern Lake, because it’s an artificial reservoir created in 1893, three decades after Union and Confederate forces were contending for control of the pass. (The park is incorporating the lake into its boundaries as part of a 2001 piece of legislation, by the way.) Still, it’s surprising to see Fern Lake mentioned at all.
All this credible detail within a context that misinterprets some of the fundamental issues of the war makes for an interesting case of the forest vs. the trees.