In my youth I must have read nearly every word H.L. Mencken wrote—The American Language excepted, though I did dip into it from time to time before setting the book aside as being dry as the Sahara. A couple of weeks ago I ran into almost the entire set (the successive Supplements and Editions) at a local book shop, bought them on the spot at bargain price, and took another look. In fact, The American Language—which describes how American English developed from the King’s English—is “absolutely fascinating,” as Edmund Wilson said: “Mencken . . . has been writing a part of our social history, and he has brought to it . . . his humor, his excellent writing, his special relish, at once acrid and genial, for the flavor of American life.”
A week or two before, I had discovered at the same shop a volume that describes itself as the “definitive edition” of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse (Hodder & Stoughton). There are some wonderful things in it, extremely various, including the sort of poetry one does not associate with the author of “Recessional” and “Gunga Din.” Certainly, I had forgot what a marvelously descriptive poet he is, how evocative, physical, and exciting (and very male). He is particularly good (I, as a lover of ships and the sea, discovered) at describing shipboard experience—the action of the ship in heavy weather, the tar and salt smells, the waves, the wet marine sky above.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.
Besides gifts for family and one for myself (a quart of moonshine from the Old Forge Distillery), my wife and I brought back from our second honeymoon in the Smoky Mountains a fascinating book, Mountain Rebels: East Tennessee Confederates and the Civil War, 1860-1870 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press). It was a welcome sight to my eyes there in the Cade’s Cove gift shop, as we’d just endured a lecture by a National Parks volunteer who recounted the usual Manichaean view of East Tennessee as a solidly Unionist area. All of history must now be backformed by Abe Lincoln’s insistence that America be all one thing or the other.
The author, W. Todd Groce, is president of the Georgia Historical Society. As his article in the New York Times on Gen. William T. Sherman indicates, Groce is no unreconstructed fire-eater. His book, however, is filled with facts and honest interpretations concerning a region that, like all regions North and South, is fascinatingly complex.
The first part of Mountain Rebels provides a detailed background study of the Tennessee Valley, which underwent massive economic change in the decade leading up to the War. The coming of the iron horse transformed a remote region whose chief agricultural export was hogs, driven by drovers over treacherous terrain to markets in the low country, to the finest wheat-producing region in the Old Republic. The commerce that grew up around this wheat industry forged ties between the Valley and the big cities of Atlanta, Augusta, and Charleston, as well as far away New York City. No longer isolated by geography, the farmers and traders and all their community associates, who became the mountain rebels, were not interested in seeing the Union dissolved, but they were less interested in seeing federal troops marching through their land and firing on Americans. (The description resonates with me as an account of my own ancestors from Tennessee and Arkansas, who never owned slaves, nor “longed to nonetheless,” as the current hysterical orthodoxy demands.)
There were plenty of pro-Union mountain folk, of course, who thought less kindly of the planters and really wished to be left alone, but a particular breed of anti-Confederate zealot was also present, and found as its champion the self-promoting fanatic Parson Brownlow (quoted by Chilton on page 29). Groce recounts Brownlow’s furious campaign against secession in vivid detail—which is a boon for sanity, considering the portrait of the man’s character that emerges, which defies current categories: a temperance-crusading, racist, proslavery sacred-Unionist who fled Tennessee for a Northern speaking tour, then returned in 1865 to be governor and punish Confederate soldiers and sympathizers who survived the bloodbath.
During the War, the Richmond government did no favors for the mountain rebels. They were viewed with suspicion, and abandoned to occupation. Following the conflict (and before the Klan was formed), the Brownlow men turned vigilante, and “Rebels were beaten, horsewhipped, and even murdered, and lost much property as a result of civil litigation.” Many fled the region, which then became “the staunchest Republican stronghold of the South, the land of the ‘Lily White’ faction of the party.”
This book recalls the mountain rebels’ names from obscurity, and their story from the memory hole.
—Aaron D. Wolf