I beg to differ. You don’t hear that term so much these days. A polite apology for having your own point of view and asking if you might offer it up. We’re more likely to stridently announce how someone else is a hundred percent wrong, or maybe never listen to what they have to say in the first place.
I’ve started many posts in the last year saddened by events in the U.S.A. and then predictably found some pretext to relate these to America’s history. What can I say; I’m drawn to it. I find history fascinating for its own sake but it’s of little use if we don’t explore parallels to now and what lessons we might learn. It’s also unavoidable when you’re alternately reading about ante-bellum or Civil War America and then watching the Capitol stormed on the evening news.
American Civil War histories can be on the grand scale of the demi-continent it was fought over or more precise and localised in their focus. A good friend of mine sent to me across the pond Aaron Astor’s book, The Civil War Along Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. The plateau is a sudden rising scar of mountains and high valleys that angles across the state, running from west of Knoxville down to west of Chattanooga. Astor draws out wonderfully how the geology and soils of the region shaped settlement, people’s outlook and eventually allegiances when it came to war. I’ve driven over the plateau many times but never stopped outside of an interstate rest area. It’s impressive. The land-trains struggle up and burn their brakes coming down. It was an encumbrance to the Civil War armies too. I set a scene in Whirligig where the Army of the Cumberland is making heavy weather to get their wagons and artillery across.
It was similarly a barrier to settlers steadily moving west in the first half of the 19th century. Having taken decades to seep through the gaps in the Appalachians, the Cumberland Plateau was the next serious barrier beyond the upper Tennessee Valley. The Cherokee were pushed steadily back to the west and eventually expelled from the region altogether by President Andrew Jackson. The soil on the plateau was thin and rocky for the most part, so tended to attract those with little money and few options. In short order the settlers were converted into semi-subsistence farmers who scratched out a living, highly dependent on their neighbours in time of need. Communities often centred on high, small valleys known as coves, many with only one road in and out. Astor describes how the harsh environment was reflected in evocative place names: No Business Creek, Brimstone Creek, Devilstep Hollow.
News into and out of these communities was limited in the early decades of settlement, often only brought in by merchants then passed on by word of mouth. The political tone or spin was often set by the self-interest of the local elites. Over time the isolation broke down to some extent. Turnpikes were built across the plateau and county politics began to live alongside the leading families’ power and influence. However, by the time secession and a probable civil war were on the ballot paper, the scattered populace’s outlook was still so heavily localised that in many cases neighbouring counties voted heavily in opposite directions; some to stay in the Union, others to side with the Confederacy. Tennessee was the last state to secede on June 8th 1861, largely due to the votes of bigger population centres in Western Tennessee. The result for those on the plateau were long years of bitter local fighting, a war within a war, fought almost privately in the mountains.
I’m greatly simplifying Astor’s wonderful history. History and societies are far more complex. And where’s the parallel to today, you may ask? Surely in the modern world we are broad in our outlook, all knowing in our perspective.
I beg to differ.
The Cumberland coves were carved over hundreds of millions of years, ready to hold and shape communities in isolation. Now, I’d suggest, we’ve got busy in recent decades hollowing out virtual coves in the pioneer wild west of the internet. They are carved by algorithms, watered by self-reinforcing social media, and ready to be preyed upon by ‘elites’ that are not local but far away. They distance us from our near neighbours better than any mountain or high forest. And not just in Tennessee. Across America and across the world, whatever our persuasion, we’re listening only to those who tell us what we’ve become accustomed to hearing. I see it in my friends and I see it in myself.
The current international and local isolation doesn’t help. But maybe when the siren sounds and I’ve finally hugged my distant family and absent friends, I’ll find a bar, pick a stool, and start a friendly conversation with someone who I’ll be pleased to disagree with and might return the favour.
The Civil War Along Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau - by Aaron Astor
By Richard Buxton
Battle Town (short story)