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Book explores bloodiest county in Kentucky history

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The notorious conflict between the Hatfield and the McCoy families of West Virginia and Kentucky is often remembered as America’s most famous feud, but it was relatively brief and subdued compared to the violence in Breathitt County, Kentucky. From the Reconstruction period until the early twentieth century, Breathitt’s 500 square miles of rugged upcountry land was known as “the darkest and bloodiest of all the dark and bloody feud counties” due to its considerable number of homicides, which were not always related to the factional conflicts that swept the region.


In Bloody Breathitt, T. R. C. Hutton casts a critical eye on this territory for the first time. He carefully investigates instances of individual and mass violence in the county from the Civil War through the Progressive era, exploring links between specific incidents and broader national and regional events. Although the killings were typically portrayed as depoliticized occurrences, Hutton explains how their causes and implications often reflected distinctly political intentions. By framing the incidents as “feuds,” those in positions of authority disguised politically motivated murders by placing them in a fictive past, preventing outsiders from understanding the complex reality. Hutton reminds readers that the nation’s political stability has had a tremendous cost in terms of bloodshed.


T. R. C. Hutton is a lecturer in the department of history at the University of Tennessee.


A Conversation with T.R.C. Hutton

How did you first become interested in Breathitt County and the violence that took place there between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I?


It began with a chart devised by historian Altina Waller in an article she wrote for the anthology Appalachia in the Making. The chart showed all of the counties in Kentucky and a few other states that had been labeled “feud” locales by two newspapers (the New York Times and the Louisville Courier-Journal) between the 1870s and the 1910s. I noticed two things: Breathitt was almost the only one listed more than once, and it was more or less the historical first and last. I knew something was up, especially since its first “feud” was during one of the worst years of Reconstruction violence. It occurred to me that what was going on there probably wasn’t happening inside a proverbial bubble. At the same time, I had to acknowledge that there had to be a reason why violence was more common there than in surrounding mountain counties. How might something so ordinary as county boundaries happen to contain decades of different kinds of violence?


You argue that the term “feud” is deceptive? Can you explain?


This is one of the more complicated issues I cover in the book, but it boils down to this: “feud” suggests a conflict between parties of equal standing and ability who engage each other reciprocally, with neither side having an overwhelming advantage. When it comes to deadly violence, that’s a very rare thing, and it’s not particularly evident in the history of Breathitt County. There are those in power who have a permanent advantage that they maintain with either the threat or use of violence. The only thing that creates the visage of a “feud” is the fact that weaker parties did attempt to fight back and, on occasion, did so with a fair amount of brutality. However, these attempts at “revolutionary” violence (i.e., violence against a status quo) were never as powerful as the counterrevolutionary violence employed by powerful men who typically had the support of the state of Kentucky.


Moreover, “feud” suggests a conflict with low stakes enclosed within some “small” context with little significance beyond the immediate parties. Note the wars of words framed as “celebrity feuds” involving people like Kanye West or Rosie O’Donnell. The stakes behind the violence of “Bloody Breathitt” were not low for the people involved, no more so than the mass violence we see all over the South during Reconstruction and afterward.


What explains the violence there if it was not due to feuds?


My glibbest answer would be that Breathitt County had the misfortune of being contained within a very violent country. The decades I cover in the book, the 1860s through the 1910s were especially murderous ones. There were certain “hot spots” all over the country where this seems to be most pointed. There are reasons that have to do with Breathitt County itself, but the more important reasons deal with what it was like to live in the former slave states in the decades after the Civil War.


What impact did the Civil War have on violence in the region?


The war set a precedent for violence in this country, and it took a long time to recover from it. On the most basic level, the repeating rifle that became so infamous as a tool of “mountain” violence in the 1880s was a Civil War innovation. Politically, the war established political partisanship for decades to come; Americans “voted the way they shot” until the twentieth century. In the South, and in Kentucky, they also shot the way they voted. Historians have recently trended toward thinking of the American Civil War as a conflict that continued in some form for a good long while after the surrender at Appomattox. Secession failed, but the political issues surrounding class and race that secession involved were not settled. The result was a widespread question of political legitimacy all over the former slave states.


Breathitt County was controlled by men who steered it toward the Confederacy even though it neighbored some of the most fervently pro-Union areas. Within the county there was a pro-Union minority that refused to accept the legitimacy of continued “neoConfederate” governance after the war; these Unionists had been on the winning side of the national war, but local conditions did not reflect their victory, and they weren’t willing to stand for it.


What was the political situation in the county that contributed to county’s reputation?


The Civil War militarized the two-party system. By the end of the 1870s the Democratic Party had retaken most of the former Confederacy on the state level and settled into an isolated home rule that lasted for generations after the war. Kentucky had an active two-party competition throughout this time, albeit with an abiding Democratic advantage in the capital and in most county courthouses. For this reason, Kentucky Democrats long considered themselves part of the “Solid South.” Most of eastern Kentucky remained a Republican bulwark owing to the section’s wartime Unionism. Breathitt County was one of only a few Democratic-majority counties in the mountains, and Democrats in Frankfort, Lexington, and Louisville were well aware of this.


Many leaders were well aware that part of the reason for Democratic control over the isolated but potentially valuable (due to the untapped wealth of coal in and around the county) piece of political real estate was the violent elimination of political enemies. For this reason, Democrats, like Governor Simon Buckner or newspaper editor Henry Watterson, did one of two things for decades: they either implicitly supported and sanctioned Democrat-directed killing in the county or insisted that violence there had no political import whatsoever. The latter became more and more believable as Americans—North and South—came to believe in the inherent distinctiveness (be it cultural, biological, or historical) of the so-called “mountain white.” It’s worth pointing out that by the end of the 1880s one of the most popular, widespread rumors about this abject group was that they utterly and absolutely rejected the Democratic Party—a half-truth that belied the real political complexities.


The History Channel’s recent miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, drew one of cable television’s highest ever ratings? Why does the topic remain so popular?


I can only speculate on that, but a lot of it has to do with the History Channel and its mostly male, middle-aged white demographic. There’re a handful of things about the Hatfields/McCoys narrative that appeals to certain segments of the U.S. population. To start with, theirs was the one famed “feud” in eastern Kentucky that seemed to be devoid of political (in the most prosaic sense of the word, dealing with our two-party system) significance. Many of the recorded killings had to do with familial violence and pathos, not calculated expediency (as I show to be the case with so many killings in “Bloody Breathitt.”) This frees audiences from having to jibe their political leanings with those of the “characters.” The story is also free from having any racial significance to a white audience by having an all-white cast.


The story has a motif of masculine violence that we’ve typically associated with westerns. Most of all, it serves as a kind of cathartic entertainment for a white America that is undergoing an anxiety similar to that during the late-nineteenth-century—the United States is becoming less “white,” just as it was becoming less Anglo-Saxon more than a century ago. The miniseries presents an American past replete with “family values,” swift justice (if not due process), and bagpipe background music that seemed a direct carryover from the Anglo/Celtic (or somehow both) past idealized by people like William Frost.


I suspect that it draws from the same demographic wellspring that gives an audience to various reality shows featuring white (often southern) families living outside what is considered the American mainstream and maintaining a strong kinship unit. This may also speak to the popularity of the History Channel’s Vikings series as well. I can’t prove it, but I have a hunch that much of it comes down to whiteness.

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