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I’ve been using the term “Appalachia” in my dissertation. The people I study lived in present-day East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. That’s Appalachia by just about any contemporary reckoning, so it might seem like a no-brainer.
The tricky part is that I’m writing about the Revolutionary era, and nobody really called it “Appalachia” in the eighteenth century. It’s not that the word wasn’t around. In fact, “Appalachia” is one of the oldest European place-names in the U.S. It comes from a sixteenth-century Spanish transliteration of the name of a village in Florida, later applied to the mountainous area to the northward.But “Appalachia” as a common name for the mountain South only dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Americans formulated the idea of the region as a culturally distinct unit. In an eighteenth-century context, it’s anachronistic.
Does that matter? The point of language is to communicate, and when we use words with meanings everybody knows, it saves a lot of trouble. But language doesn’t just ascribe intended meanings to things. It also reinforces the unintended meanings and associations that accumulate around words like barnacles on pier pilings. And the term “Appalachia” has many such associations.
Eighteenth-century observers did think of Appalachia’s white settlers as set apart in some respects, but they didn’t use the term “Appalachian” to do so. Whereas nineteenth-century commentators thought of a culturally distinct and isolated region contained within the U.S., eighteenth-century observers emphasized its geographic position at the back end of British America. That’s reflected in the terminology they used. What we consider Appalachia would have been “the backcountry” or the “back parts.” I use “backcountry” a lot in my dissertation, but I don’t think it’s totally synonymous. It’s a more slippery, generalized term that applies to more than just the mountainous South.
Some eighteenth-century observers referred to white settlers in East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia as “back water men,” or said that they lived on the “back mountains” or “western waters.” These phrases reflect the same sort of Atlantic vs. western orientation as “backcountry” and “back parts.” They emphasized the fact that these settlers lived on the western side of the mountains, where the rivers flowed toward the Mississippi. These terms are more specific than “backcountry,” but also narrower than “Appalachia.” There were plenty of whites settled in the Appalachian backcountry who weren’t “back water” men.
Maybe I shouldn’t be looking for an eighteenth-century equivalent to “Appalachia” at all. If people didn’t think of the mountainous South as a distinct region at the time, perhaps I’m just buying into the nineteenth-century myth of Appalachia by trying to conceptualize it as its own, unique thing.
Then again, there’s something to be said for staking a claim for Appalachia in an early American context. A lot of historians who specialize in the region focus on the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Applying the term to the Revolutionary era reminds people that the tumultuous events of that period mattered profoundly in the mountain South. Rather than agonizing over whether it’s anachronistic, maybe the best approach is to appropriate it for historically informed purposes.
Here’s another one to add to the list of new and forthcoming books on the Rev War in the South. John Buchanan’s The Road to Charleston picks up where his acclaimed The Road to Guilford Courthouse left off:
Greene’s Southern Campaign was the most difficult of the war. With a supply line stretching hundreds of miles northward, it revealed much about the crucial military art of provision and transport. Insufficient manpower a constant problem, Greene attempted to incorporate black regiments into his army, a plan angrily rejected by the South Carolina legislature. A bloody civil war between Rebels and Tories was wreaking havoc on the South at the time, forcing Greene to address vigilante terror and restore civilian government. As his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson during the campaign shows, Greene was also bedeviled by the conflict between war and the rights of the people, and the question of how to set constraints under which a free society wages war.
Joining Greene is an unforgettable cast of characters—men of strong and, at times, antagonistic personalities—all of whom are vividly portrayed. We also follow the fate of Greene’s tenacious foe, Lieutenant Colonel Francis, Lord Rawdon. By the time the British evacuate Charleston—and Greene and his ragged, malaria-stricken, faithful Continental Army enter the city in triumph—the reader has witnessed in telling detail one of the most punishing campaigns of the Revolution, culminating in one of its greatest victories.
Road to Guilford Courthouse is probably the most engaging book ever written about the Southern Campaign, so it’s nice to see Buchanan finishing the story of Greene’s reconquista. The Road to Charleston hits stores this March.
Check this out, frontier historians:
Aficionados of Daniel Boone may recall a 1992 biography of the frontiersman written by John Mack Faragher, professor emeritus of history at Yale University. For that milestone study, Faragher, my former adviser, conducted research throughout Kentucky and the broader region, spending months digging in archives held at the Filson and Kentucky historical societies, among others. In so doing, the author consulted hundreds of sources, taking nearly 5,000 notes comprised of 350,000 words.
These annotations are now available online via the “Digitizing Daniel Boone” project here. As the compiler of this resource, I believe this will be a “boon” to Kentuckians and to historians alike, for two reasons.
First, Faragher’s meticulous notes (the word-count equivalent of nearly four books) shine a bright light on the state and region’s archival holdings. Have an ancestor among the early settlers or indigenous peoples of the region? You can conduct a full-text search within the historian’s files. Users can also run reports based on keywords and people. This allows one to peer into the author’s mind between primary-source research and the crafting of paragraphs, to witness the first layer of historical interpretation.
Until now, the public typically could access only the source materials, on the one hand, and the published text, on the other. This has obscured the vast majority of historical work, like the nitty gritty of taking notes and organizing them into themes and eventually chapters. Now, we can better understand exactly how a historian went from consulting the files of missionaries, officials, and 19th-century historians like Lyman Draper to synthesizing them into a narrative. Equally important, we can better identify silences and the ways that the scholar’s perspective leaves some actors on the margins of history.
It’s pretty darn handy. Faragher transcribed a lot of material from the Draper Collection of Manuscripts and other sources, and it’s a lot easier to access this stuff online than it is to locate it in a repository and then grapple with microfilm.
Because the database basically consists of Faragher’s own research notes, it’s a bit like looking over his shoulder as he works on his Boone book. I would’ve loved to have had access to something like this before starting my dissertation, so that I could’ve had a glimpse at how an accomplished historian went about organizing material for a major project.
USA Today just published an interview with Chip Kidd, longtime book cover designer for Knopf. Asked to name his biggest career high, he replied, “‘Jurassic Park.’ That will be the first line of my obituary, and I’m extremely proud of that.”
I don’t blame him. It’s one of the most iconic logos of all time.
And it’s based on one of history’s most influential dinosaur displays: the old T. rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History.
The AMNH dismantled the skeleton in the nineties and re-mounted it in a more anatomically correct posture. By then, the old reconstruction had inspired so many books, paintings, movies, and toys that it stamped an indelible image in the minds of generations of dino aficionados. Even for people who never saw the skeleton in person, that was simply what a T. rex looked like.
Kidd’s 2012 TED Talk has more info on his Jurassic Park cover. (The whole thing’s engaging, but you can skip to 4:27 for the Jurassic bit.)
Ian Saberton released two new Rev War books this year. You might be familiar with Saberton’s six-volume edition of Cornwallis papers, a tremendous boon to those of us interested in the Southern Campaigns.
Relying principally on Ian Saberton’s edition of The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War, 6 vols (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010), this work opens with an essay containing a groundbreaking critique of British strategy during the momentous and decisive campaigns that terminated in Cornwallis’s capitulation at Yorktown and the consolidation of American independence. The essay begins by analysing the critical mistakes that led the British to disaster and ends, conversely by describing how they might have achieved a lasting measure of success. The remaining essays address certain characters and events in or connected to the war.
The second book is a biography of George Hanger, who commanded Tarleton’s Legion at Charlotte while Tarleton himself was sick.
My phone rang during a day off from work this summer. Something turned up during a road excavation on campus, just a few minutes’ walk from the museum, and they wanted me to take a look at it. Now it’s part of our collection. Here’s what happened:
Believe it or not, this isn’t our first rodeo with Civil War ordnance. Years ago, when I was still an undergrad at LMU, a water line project uncovered a whole cache of explosive shells right across from the museum’s parking lot. Some of them got drilled, disarmed, and added to our collection; an EOD team from Ft. Campbell detonated the rest in a vacant field at the rear of campus.
It’s not surprising that Civil War artifacts turn up at LMU from time to time. We’re just a stone’s throw from Cumberland Gap, a critical invasion route that changed hands four times. In fact, the contest for this strategic region is why we have a college named for Lincoln in East Tennessee—and one of the best private Lincoln/CivilWar collections anywhere. Right now we’re planning an exhibit on LMU’s origins and early history, where we’ll have the mortar round on permanent display.
Oh, and if you happen to run across any Civil War artillery rounds in the wild, let the experts handle it. This stuff is lethal.