Check out this editorial on Unionist volunteers from Campbell County, TN. Campbell Co. is just down the road from yours truly, and like the rest of East Tennessee, it was an anti-secession stronghold during the Civil War. The editorial links the mountaineers’ patriotism with that of their Revolutionary ancestors, a comparison made by prominent Unionists in the 1800′s.
Tag Archives: Appalachia
It took two centuries and millions of dollars to improve on Daniel Boone’s route through the Cumberland Gap. For years, the portion of US 25E that crossed from Tennessee into Kentucky followed the path of the old Wilderness Road as it skirted the tip of southwestern Virginia, passed along the rocky face of Cumberland Mountain, and cut through the Gap—the notch in the mountain wall near the point where Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky intersect. Then it descended into the valley of Yellow Creek just across the Kentucky state line.
It worked well for a pioneer footpath, but as an automobile route it presented a couple of problems. For one thing, paving over the old Wilderness Road obviously made it very difficult to appreciate the way this critical passage looked when tens of thousands of settlers used it to head to the West.
Second, since it ran along the mountain face, the highway was treacherous. If you happened to veer off the road, you could easily go plummeting down into the town of Cumberland Gap, TN at the mountain’s base. Quite a few motorists had done just that over the years. Locals sometimes referred to it as “Massacre Mountain.”
This combined need for safety and preservation resulted in one of the largest engineering projects this area has ever seen, a four-lane, two-way tunnel bored completely through the mountain not far from the Gap itself.
When the tunnel opened, the old portion of the highway across the mountain closed. The Park Service tore up the pavement and began restoring that part of the Wilderness Road route to its pioneer-era appearance. Now it’s one of the walking trails at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park; you can literally walk in Boone’s footsteps, along the side of the mountain and right into the Saddle of the Gap, along what used to be a busy roadway. (Click here to see a map of both the trail/old highway route and the new tunnel route.)
I was in high school when the tunnel opened. My school was just a short distance from the Gap, almost within sight of the pinnacle of Cumberland Mountain. We all got out of class that afternoon to attend the opening ceremony, seated with the other spectators in folding chairs facing the tunnel’s Kentucky side. The governors of the three states spoke, as did various other local dignitaries. Lee Greenwood sang “God Bless the USA,” there was a brief historical lecture, and a good time was had by all.
For the grand finale, a procession of reenactors marched out of the tunnel, depicting all those who had passed through the Gap: Indians, then long hunters, then pioneers, then Civil War soldiers. It was a flesh-and-blood, live-action version of Frederick Jackson Turner’s poetic summation of the Gap’s importance to the westward movement: “Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file— the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by.” The reenactors’ march out of the tunnel embodied Turner’s belief that the frontier consisted of stages of development, one following another in inevitable progression, and that the Gap was one of the places where this process played out.
Unconsciously, it also exemplified something that’s always bothered me about the way we remember and interpret the Gap, and indeed about the way we remember and interpret many historic places. The emphasis was on the people who were just passing through it. Migrating buffalo, Indians on the warpath, hunters on their way to the bluegrass, pioneer farmers on their way to new land, Civil War soldiers on their way to invade either North or South (the Gap changed hands four times during the war)—they were all from somewhere else, and going to some other destination. Everything around it, meaning the area where I grew up and have lived most of my life, was just an indistinct blur.
Once I got older and acquired an interest in history, I was a little appalled that I had spent much of my life just a few minutes’ drive from one of the most important places in America and had never really given it much thought. So I picked up a copy of The Wilderness Road by Robert Kincaid, the inaugural volume in a series of books on historic travel routes originally published by Bobbs-Merril in 1947. Like me, Kincaid had spent quite a bit of time in the Gap’s shadow; he held a number of posts at Lincoln Memorial University, just a stone’s throw from the Gap, and he eventually became the college’s president.
Kincaid’s book probably remains the most comprehensive examination of the Gap and the route of which it was a part, from the earliest European contacts through the first part of the twentieth century. Dr. Thomas Walker, Daniel Boone, the Civil War armies, the post-war British industrialists who founded the towns surrounding the mountain—they’re all there, marching across the pages just as they had marched across Turner’s imagination and then out of the newly opened tunnel in reenacted form. In that sense, the book is comprehensive; it gives you an overview of all the hubbub that went on in this part of southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southeastern Kentucky for the past couple of hundred years.
But the hubbub is basically all you get. Kincaid’s book, like the tunnel pageant, is very episodic. Each chapter is devoted to some notable incident or group of incidents. Explorers, hunters, pioneers, soldiers, and industrialists saunter onstage, do their bit, and then saunter back off. What was going on between all this migrating, invading, and exploiting? Where were the people who actually lived here?
It’s not that this context would necessarily be more interesting than some of the highlights in the history of the region. In fact, it’s hard to beat this corner of the world for dramatic incidents and wonderful stories—the gruesome murder of Boone’s son when the famous pathfinder tried to lead a party through the Gap in 1773, the escape of General George Morgan’s besieged garrison from the pass in 1862, or the creation of a short-lived industrial and resort enterprise which flourished for only a few years before vanishing entirely in the 1890′s. Still, these occasions when the world came crashing in on the Gap region don’t, in and of themselves, constitute its complete history.
There is a natural tendency, especially among older or popularized history books, to focus solely on those occasions in which “something happened.” History then becomes a simple series of events. To be fair, this part of Appalachia wasn’t too heavily settled until after a lot of the more favorable lands to the east and the north were taken up, so there wouldn’t have been too much to cover besides the migrants passing by for those earliest years. But by the early 1800′s, this region began to have a history of its own. You don’t get much of that in many accounts of the Gap.
The region in which the Gap is located might have something to do with it. An early commentator referred to Appalachians as “contemporary ancestors,” meaning that people in this region lived for many years in a kind of static state of preservation, exactly as the pioneers who passed along the Wilderness Road to greener pastures had once lived. It wasn’t true, of course, but the idea caught on and has become one of the most widespread and persistent of Appalachian stereotypes. If you buy into it, then it makes sense to ignore the broader regional context, because you’d essentially be assuming that the region didn’t really have a history of its own.
It reminds me of the concept in evolutionary biology known as “punctuated equilibrium.” in which species change during occasional fits and starts, with longer periods of stasis in between. If you assume that things are just puttering along as usual, then why bother? You might as well ignore the stasis altogether.
I’m not denying that the more dynamic periods of history merit disproportionate attention, so I don’t intend this to be a criticism of historians in general. Nor do I intend it to be a criticism of Kincaid’s book in particular. It’s a valuable distillation of information about this area that I’m very glad to have in one volume. Besides, he was writing at a time before many of these issues became problematic. Anyone interested in the history of Cumberland Gap in particular or Appalachia in general owes him a debt of gratitude. (Besides, he and I have the same alma mater, so I’ve got his back.)
It’s just that the backdrop to that procession of long hunters, pioneer migrants, Civil War soldiers, and New South industrialists is my homeland, and I wish I knew as much about the folks who lived here as I do about the ones who were just passing through.
If you’re interested in the Civil War in Appalachia, then allow me to recommend “War in the Mountains,” a symposium scheduled for Saturday, April 16 at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, TN. Here are the presenters:
- LMU’s own Dr. Earl Hess, author of Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg, Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg, The Union Soldier in Battle, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth, and numerous other books
- Dr. Thomas Mackey of the University of Louisville, contributor to Sister States, Enemy States: The Civil War in Kentucky and Tennessee
- Dr. Brian D. McKnight of UVa-Wise, author of Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia and Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia
For more info, call (423) 869-6439 or send an e-mail to email@example.com.
Let me direct your attention to two of this year’s books from the University of Tennessee Press, both of which I’ve eagerly awaited for some time.
First up is Lincoln Memorial University and the Shaping of Appalachia by Earl Hess, which will place the early history of LMU within the context of what was happening in Appalachia during the crucial late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and of the Lincoln apotheosis that peaked around the time of the centennial of his birth.
As regulars of the blog know, LMU is my alma mater, and Dr. Hess is one of the people most responsible for setting me on a path toward a career in history. Most readers know him for his acclaimed Civil War studies.
Another book to anticipate is Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction by Paul Bergeron, who spent more than a decade editing and publishing Johnson’s papers and is probably the country’s foremost authority on him. This book promises a more nuanced and balanced appraisal of Johnson than what many histories provide, and may lead to a thorough reassessment of his place in American politics.
We all know that Pigeon Forge, TN is the hap-hap-happiest place around when it comes to learning about the past, don’t we? Well, it’s about to get even better, because I’ve got gobs of news here that’ll make every history enthusiast within two hundred miles of the Smokies start wetting their pants with excitement.
First up, check out what’s happening for the holidays over at a site this blog has featured before—the Titanic Museum Attraction: “Starting Saturday, November 13, it will snow – yes, REAL snow – at the Titanic every Friday and Saturday evening at 7:00pm through January 1, 2011. The snow is part of the museum’s ‘Christmas in a Winter Wonderland,’ which is dedicated to honoring and celebrating the lives of the 2,208 passengers and crew of the Titanic.”
And we’re not talking cheap, second-rate snow here, either. This snow equipment cost $150,000. That’s not even counting the “additional $100,000 [that] will be spent on Christmas trees, lights and decorations that will decorate the interior and exterior of the Titanic Museum Attraction.”
This may be the best quarter million ever spent in the history of museum budgeting. I’ll tell you what I’m doing for the holidays, ladies and gents. I’m driving to Pigeon Forge, where I can enjoy a frothing mug of egg nog while I watch artificially generated snow gently blanket a fake ship festooned with garlands and Christmas lights.
Perhaps I’ll make a second trip on January 22, when they’ll be hosting—I kid you not—the First Pigeon Forge Professional Ice Carving Competition. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to commemorate the deaths of 1,517 people than by carting in a bunch of chainsaw-wielding artisans to fashion decorative shapes out of the very same substance that killed them. Can you?
You’ll want to come back to Pigeon Forge in the spring so you can be first in line to buy tickets for the upcoming “Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud and Stunt Show.” Now, maybe you’re thinking that a dinner theater/stunt show isn’t the best way to teach history. Well, think again. The visionaries behind this enterprise are making cultural edification a top priority:
The new production is scheduled to open in early Spring of next year, and will be loosely based on the true story of the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud. The audience will be divided into the Hatfield and McCoy families by special seating areas. The show will extend throughout the theater as the audience participates in the good natured rivalry. Dangerous and comical stunts will be performed throughout the show to add a special excitement. Singers, dancers, actors, musicians and specially trained stunt people will round out the cast. As with all Fee/Hedrick shows, this new show will have a family friendly atmosphere with a focus on fun.
“Our area is rich with Appalachian heritage,” said theater co-owner David Fee. “Mountain clans were a way of life here, and this show will showcase all that’s great about them!”
And just what is it that’s so great about mountain clans? Well, being a native Appalachian myself, I can personally attest that “dangerous and comical stunts” are right at the top of the list. Indeed, when my family gets together for any special occasion, we make a special point to engage in as many dangerous and comical stunts as possible. Last Thanksgiving, for example, after we had all eaten our fill and hanged a member of the opposing clan with which we were feuding at the time, everyone adjourned to the backyard to watch as I climbed to the roof of my uncle’s house and (wearing nothing but a pair of leopard-skin underpants and a gigantic foam Yosemite Sam hat) shoved a fistful of lit bottle rockets into each nostril, took a running start, and leaped off to land in a kiddie pool filled entirely with creamed corn, which was positioned two stories below on the ground.
But I digress. The news item continues:
The building, will undergo a multi-million dollar renovation and transform in appearance into two neighboring hillbilly style mountain homes complete with a decorative moonshine still and barnyard animal areas. The theater lobby will also feature the largest moonshine still in the world – soon to be verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. “The Moonshine Still will be an interactive learning center that highlights the history of the mountain people, but interjected with lots of humor”, says Hedrick. “Our customers will have a better understanding of everyday life back in the hills, while making them laugh at the same time!”
They will no doubt have a better understanding of everyday life back in the hills. It’s no secret that negative Appalachian stereotypes and historical misperceptions are a ubiquitous problem, and the best way to inculcate an appreciation for the rich, subtle past of the mountain region is to have a feuding-themed theatrical production and then decorate the lobby with the biggest frocking moonshine still you can find. In fact, it’s probably just a matter of time before the Cherokee Heritage Center commissions the world’s largest cigar store Indian statue, which they can put near their new Firewater Refreshment Stand and Me Take Heap Big Paleface Scalps Gift Shop.
My history buff nerve endings are just buzzing with anticipation.
One of the many pernicious stereotypes about Appalachia is the notion that the region is homogenous. No matter how distinct different parts of the region or segments of its population are, many people have a preconceived notion of the whole entity, and they accordingly dismiss those aspects that don’t fit the image they’ve created in their own minds. In truth, there are many Appalachias—small towns, big cities, agricultural communities, areas reliant on extractive industries, others based on manufacturing or retail, and so on. Whenever somebody says something to me about “Appalachian culture,” my response is invariably to ask which one. If you’re going to speak accurately about this region, you need to take all of its different manifestations and their relationships into account.
This is one of the central contentions of Mark Banker’s fine new book Appalachians All: East Tennesseans and the Elusive History of an American Region. It’s a scholarly book, in the sense that it’s the result of research and an engagement with the relevant literature, but it’s also meant to be accessible and highly personal. Banker is, like me, an East Tennessee native, and this work is a result of his desire to make sense of his own past and that of his homeland.
Banker recognizes that Appalachia consists of various distinct but intertwined parts. Accordingly, Appalachians All focuses on three different subregions of East Tennessee: the central valley metropolis of Knoxville, the “coal Appalachia” of the northern Clearfork Valley, and the “timber-tourism Appalachia” of the Smokies, specifically the now-extinct settlement of Cades Cove. Incorporating his own family’s history into his narrative, he demonstrates that many successful Valley inhabitants and hinterland elites, such as his own immediate forebears, have long had an ambivalent relationship with traditionally “Appalachian” culture. Despite the fact that Knoxville’s growth and relative good fortune has been deeply dependent on outlying, less-advantaged areas, many of these “successful” Appalachians have consciously distanced themselves from those subregions and the people who live in them.
Indeed, the interdependence of these different East Tennessee subregions is one of the central arguments in the book, echoing William Cronon’s examination of early Chicago’s relationship with its own hinterland. Knoxville’s centralized location made it a clearinghouse for trade from outlying communities, such as the relatively comfortable settlement of Cades Cove and the more hardscrabble Clearfork Valley, where ever-shrinking farms eventually became so small and depleted that they were unable to provide a satisfactory standard of living. Even in Knoxville, political and geographic forces combined to erode the city’s influence in both the state and the nation. While some regional advocates argued for improved transportation networks to link cities like Knoxville to broader markets, this did not happen until 1858, on the eve of a war that further damaged the region’s economy.
After the Civil War, Knoxville experienced an economic boom with the expansion of rail networks and an influx of migrants, becoming an important wholesaling center for the larger region and a hub for the extractive industries that moved into areas like the Smokies and the Clearfork Valley. This connection to its hinterland was the key to the city’s growth. In those hinterlands, this very same era was a turning point of a more ominous kind. As both regional elites and outside investors profited from the cutting of Smokies timber and the mining of Clearfork coal, these extractive industries devastated East Tennessee’s landscape and created a fresh set of economic problems for her inhabitants.
The postwar era was also the age of the “discovery” of Appalachia, when local color writers and missionaries crafted the canon of Appalachian stereotypes that continue to plague her people: isolation, backwardness, ignorance, violence, and so on. The notion of Appalachia as a unique, peculiar, and monolithic region was partly the work of outsiders, but Banker (drawing heavily from the work of David Hsiung) stresses that elites within Appalachia share much of the blame. By hastening to differentiate themselves from their neighbors whom they saw as less progressive and successful than themselves, they helped legitimize the stereotyping and exploitation of their own region. Some longterm missionaries and scholars, whom Banker terms “insider outsiders,” offered more complex, subtle, and realistic appraisals of the region and its ills, but the simpler images put forth by less-informed observers proved more pervasive.
During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, this pattern in which some parts of the region benefited at the expense of others continued. When tourism replaced the timber industry in the Smokies, residents of Cades Cove were expelled from their community, which became a hollowed-out shell of the vibrant community it had been as part of the new national park, surrounded by tourist traps that catered to stereotypical “hillbilly” imagery. Wealthier owners of seasonal homes, meanwhile, secured more favorable long-term leases. Meanwhile, America’s increasingly insatiable demand for coal, and the development of technology to enable surface and mountaintop removal mining, continued to wreak havoc in the Clearfork, although some locals managed to profit from setting up their own extractive businesses or by finding work in the industry.
The later twentieth century brought about an “Appalachian awakening,” with the emergence of more sophisticated scholarly appraisals of the region and the birth of activist movements that sought to alleviate environmental and economic ills as well as counter the bigotry from outsiders that helped these ills to persist. Today, Banker argues, Knoxvillians remain ambivalent about “Appalachia,” although there is evidence of greater economic cooperation and regional awareness within East Tennessee as a whole.
Appalachians All is a unique piece of work, both scholarly and deeply felt. Banker draws deeply from academic scholarship on the southern highlands—as mentioned, his account of the birth of Appalachian stereotypes owes much to David Hsiung, and he relies heavily on Durwood Dunn’s acclaimed study of Cades Cove for his sections on the life and eventual death of that Smokies community. Banker also draws from other standards in the field of Appalachian studies, such as the work of Henry Shapiro, Allan Batteau, and John Gaventa.
Furthermore, he is careful to put the history of East Tennessee into its proper context within the history of America as a whole. For example, he stresses that the complacency and conservatism that some critics of the region have noted during various time periods were actually quite normative for the entire country during those same eras, and at various points he notes the interplay between national and regional political and cultural forces. This sensitivity to broader historical forces is one of the book’s great strengths, and distinguishes it from many other treatments of Appalachian history that are focused exclusively on regional “uniqueness” and the possible reasons for it. Banker disagrees with both early observers who have attributed Appalachia’s supposed singularity to isolation and later commentators who have laid all the region’s problem at the feet of outside exploiters. Regional interdependence, he finds, is a key that unlocks many doors in the surprisingly complicated passageways of East Tennessee’s history.
Despite his engagement with specialized scholarship, Banker seeks a broader audience. The history of his own family and of his own life, interspersed throughout the book, make this a very personal book. Banker realizes that it is difficult for those of us who are from this region to separate ourselves from images of its past and present, and so he yields fully to the need to integrate his own story with the story of his homeland. Many Appalachian writers have grounded themselves deeply in a sense of place, but none to my knowledge has done so with the benefit of the insights of serious history as successfully as he has.
The result is a look at East Tennessee that is informed and balanced without cold, clinical detachment. Banker realizes that his own forebears exemplify the desire of many “successful” Appalachians to engage in “successful acculturation,” to distance themselves from less desirable aspects of their own culture while holding on to others. It is a process at which many Appalachians, always carrying the burden of coming from a misunderstood region, have become adept. In some ways East Tennessee has suffered as a result, because by denying that they are “Appalachian,” some of her citizens have accordingly misunderstood their own shared history, leaving them ill-prepared to handle the challenges and opportunities of the present.
Appalachians All is being published by a university press, and that fact, combined with its regional focus, might unfairly limit its audience. I fervently hope that doesn’t happen, because this is a book that needs to be widely read. It synthesizes a great deal of important scholarship, and suggests ways in which we can apply insights from the past. East Tennesseans and all Appalachians have allowed themselves to be told what “Appalachia” is and was for far too long, and they need to be reminded of the reality of the different Appalachias and Appalachians. And outsiders desperately, desperately need a more informed and less prejudicial view of the southern mountains. Banker’s book should help us East Tennesseans see ourselves and our past more clearly, with all its complexity. It’s certainly done that for me, having grown up just east of the Clearfork and an hour’s drive north from Knoxville. This book is a wonderful contribution to a conversation we Appalachians need to be having, and one that non-Appalachians need to join.