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An excellent history lesson

Having recently read and reviewed for the Smoky Mountain Living magazine Vicki Lane’s And The Crows Took Their Eyes, a fine novel set in Madison County during the Civil War and focused on the Shelton Laurel Massacre, this week I returned to that era with J.L. Askew’s War In The Mountains: The Macbeth Light Artillery at Asheville, N.C. 1864-1865 (Covenant Books, Inc., 2020, 535 pages).

I have but one quarrel with this excellent history. The title suggests that the author will address only the activities of a particular artillery unit in a specific period of time. 

Instead, Askew has given us a splendid account not only of the Macbeth Light Artillery, but also of the war in Western North Carolina, the leaders on both sides, the troops, the partisans and bushwhackers, and the women, children, and elderly who witnessed various raids and battles or fell victim to them. Though the author centers his history of the Macbeth on articles published year’s after the war’s end by a participant, H.F. Scaife, who wrote under the name of VIDI — a Latin word meaning “I saw” — Askew has delivered a well-researched and well-written history of our region during that tumultuous time.

In the first chapter, for example, Askew provides a detailed description of Asheville in the middle of the Civil War, taking readers on a tour of that city: the Eagle Hotel, the Female College, a Confederate Hospital, the courthouse, and several other places He introduces us to a “young lad attending Colonel Lee’s Academy in Chunn’s Cove” who witnessed several terrible sights during the War, including “the remains of deserters who had been captured by local troops and killed trying to escape.”

Askew is also a student of the terrain and the importance of key locations. In looking at Asheville, for instance, he points out that this “village of 1,100 inhabitants” was the “largest town in North Carolina west of the Blue Ridge.” He goes on to explain its strategic value, that it lay on the primary road connecting East Tennessee to South Carolina, a road used by drovers of livestock for decades. Eventually, the state legislature saw to it that the Buncombe Road became a turnpike considered “to be the best road in North Carolina.”

Control Asheville, in other words, and you controlled the traffic of that road, cutting off the connections between Tennessee and Western North Carolina. 

Like Vicki Lane’s novel, War In The Mountains shows us the horrors of a war when the enemy might well be your next-door neighbor. During the years when the Macbeth unit was fighting in this region, these mountains attracted large numbers of Confederate deserters sought refuge, and raiders and guerillas from both sides might unexpectedly appear to terrorize those left at home. 

Sometimes desperation impelled such raids. In January 1863, short of the supply of salt that would prevent their families from starving in the winter, a raiding party — many of them Confederate deserters — entered the town of Marshall, stole some of the supply of salt, and ransacked several homes. The events following this foray, which Askew presents in detail, led to the Shelton Laurel Massacre, where Confederate troops executed thirteen captives ranging in age from 13 to 60. 

Askew also recounts regular pitched battles between Confederate and Federal troops like the Battle of Asheville, Bull’s Gap in Tennessee, and Saltville in Virginia. Here we follow the Macbeth Light Artillery as it attempts to turn the tide against the intrusions of the Union army. 

Finally, Askew brings us into Asheville when Union soldiers enter the city. Though an armistice of sorts was in effect, and the small number of Confederate defenders had withdrawn, a mob of Union troops “had entered the town, riding onto front lawns, going from door to door, pounding for admission, then rushing inside and going through the house” as they plundered the civilian homes. 

War In The Mountains includes extensive citations and notes, the names of the soldiers in the Macbeth, a lengthy bibliography, and 20 pages of maps and photographs. 

In his Introduction to War In The Mountains, Askew writes, “I strive for synthesis to bring various military reports and anecdotes into a seamless narrative, stressing individual perspectives, how soldiers saw events and responded as human beings. I seek to avoid dry recitation of facts but try to show people caught in the chaotic and tragic circumstances of war revealing their true nature, both good and bad.” 

Mission accomplished. 

•••

A word to young readers:

Google “Declining IQ scores,” and you’ll find some recent evidence suggests that IQ scores are falling. Possible evidence of this decline may be found in Washington, D.C., and on televised news.

Various causes are attributed to this reduction: our obsession with electronic devices, the failures of some of our educational system, an inability to concentrate in a world bloated with distractions.

Some observers also cite our diminished reading habits as a factor. 

You can join the fight against idiocracy by reading from a real paper-and-ink book. Select some book, old or new, that will challenge you, that will make you think and feel, that will allow you to travel in time or to meet human beings utterly different than yourself, and that will most of all make you more fully human.

Put down that phone, hie yourself off to the public library or your local bookstore, browse the shelves, and pick out a book. Better yet, pick up an armload of books, grab a cup of hot chocolate, and begin reading. 

Have a blast and boost your brain. 

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, Amanda Bell and Dust On Their Wings, and two works of nonfiction, Learning As I Go and Movies Make the Man. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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