Book Note: West Virginia's Coal River Valley in the Civil War

Marauders, armies plundered region—new book tells story

      In “The Coal River Valley in the Civil War: West Virginia Mountains, 1861," Boone County native Michael B. Graham presents an engrossing exploration of the struggle between the armies of the North and South in West Virginia's picturesque Coal Valley.

    Few events in American Civil War history are more overlooked and plain forgotten. As the war dragged on for four years, the citizens of Boone County especially found themselves on the front lines throughout the entire ordeal and suffered terrible hardships.

    In the summer of 1861, Boone was the scene of one of the most important early campaigns of the Civil War in southern West Virginia. Afterward the county descended into terror as state and local government broke down and war against civilians raged until the conflict's end.

    The Coal River Valley in the Civil War

    By Michael Graham, PhD

    The History Press (South Carolina), 208 pages, $19.99

    Historians of the Civil War generally recall about the Coal Valley only the burning by the Union army of the Boone County Courthouse, the war's first victim of this kind of warfare.

    Dr. Graham's work, for the first time, demonstrates the importance of the fairly unknown and under-appreciated 1861 Coal River Valley campaign. He brings into focus how this series of small battles contributed in a big way toward establishing Union control over southern West Virginia and aided the creation of the new state of West Virginia.

    The strategic purpose of the campaign: make Boone an example of how the Confederacy could not establish herself against the might of the Federal armies.

    As the campaign's principal architect, Union brigadier general Jacob D. Cox put it: “The march and attack had been swift and vigorous, and the terror of the blow kept that region quiet for some time afterward."

    Between the first significant action at Coon's Mill, present day Seth, and the final battle at Kanawha Gap near Chapmanville, about 280 soldiers and civilians were killed, wounded and captured. This was small compared to the Civil War’s horrific carnage in battles such as Antietam, Gettysburg and Shiloh—but costly for an operation of its size and with such a small local population bearing the brunt.

    In all such actions, of which there were many in the Coal Valley during the war, many houses and farms were burned; cattle, horses and mules confiscated; and large quantities of food seized to feed the armies. Like locusts, the soldiers of both sides repeatedly stripped the land of every useable item across the valley's thousand square-mile swath.

    Of the entire valley, Boone though suffered the most. Most of its county seat, Boone Court House (present day Madison), was burned to the ground, though history disputes whether General Cox's men or vengeful local Union militia started the blaze. Other communities were also burned—Bloomingrose by the Federals, Bald Knob by the Confederates.

    Dr. Graham's narrative uses a multitude of sources. Among them: Howard Miller, an elder of Drew's Creek, telling a Smithsonian Folklife Center interviewer: “Both sides raided anywhere they could. If somebody was a sympathizer with the other side, they took what they had and almost starved them to death. These people moved on top of the mountains to get away from people finding them…they were afraid and that was the only way they could escape because somebody would come along and just kill them.”

    As for the grim violence that scarred the region throughout the war years, Dr. Graham cites a potent passage from the report of an Ohio soldier for the Union, Pvt. Timothy Deasy, of the 26th Ohio Infantry, recalling the Yankees' take-no-prisoners attitude toward the Boone Confederates. Another elder, Tet Chumley, recalls oral tradition about the “trail of tears” of demoralized and terrified Boone women and children following family members who had been taken prisoner.

    Dr. Graham makes clear that the people who lived through the war and its aftermath in the Coal Valley were seared by the experience. Over a hundred years after the war, communities were still characterized as “Yankees” or “Johnnies," and "the war" was too sensitive to discuss.

    As for its military significance: the Coal Valley became a contested buffer and dangerous no-man's land between the Raleigh-Wyoming-Logan Counties line and the Kanawha Valley. Out of the experience arose the strategy and tactics of raiding that effectively put a stranglehold over southern West Virginia that prevailed throughout the Civil War.

(The History Press, 2014)