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War in the mountains

Diligent research and family connections inspired J. L. Askew’s compelling saga of the Macbeth Light Artillery brigade in its service to the Southern Confederacy in what the author refers to as the “War Between the States.”

First deployed from Union County, S.C., to bolster the burgeoning wartime efforts, the seasoned Macbeth contingent was sent to Asheville, N.C. in 1864. Initially, the weary warriors looked forward to the change, but soon found the high mountain terrain daunting, with its potential for surprise attacks, difficult transport, and the raids of lawless deserters hiding in crags and hollows. One of the worst enemies they encountered was notorious “Yankee raider” George Kirk, a Tennessean who left the Confederates to join the Union cause, becoming a hated adversary whose brutal tactics were feared.

The Macbeth participated in the struggle for control of Saltville, Virginia, a natural salt marsh. Salt was crucial to the survival of rural people and armies, as salt-preserved foods could mean the difference between life and death. The Macbeth also engaged in the lengthy defense of Asheville, a mountain town strategically located along one of the region’s few highways.

Askew examines battlefields, leaders and combat strategies in fine, critical detail, while adding breath to his work with human-scale events and local lore seen through the eyes of ordinary soldiers and some non-combatant onlookers, all immersed in the hell of war. His book reminds us that while academic sources may provide a broad landscape of battle and important names and dates, for those on the ground, war is an every-minute slog through unknown territories dogged by constant peril.

Askew based much of his research on the work of H. F. Scaife, who served as a lieutenant with the Macbeth and wrote a remarkable series of newspaper articles about the regiment’s exploits. In addition to Scaife’s accounts, Askew dug for numerous concomitant source materials, determined to offer this work in tribute to his Confederate soldier great-grandfather.

This in-depth examination of the Macbeth company, which proves Askew’s abilities as a dedicated wordsmith and scholar, should capture the attention of any serious student of American history and the inner workings of war.

Also available as an ebook.

~ BlueInk Review

In his nonfiction debut, Askew reflects on how he was first inspired to write a history of the Macbeth Light Artillery unit during the Civil War, due to his familiarity with his own family history: His great-grandfather had fought in the conflict and received a severe head injury—and, according to family lore, he’d been saved by a doctor who’d placed a silver dollar in the hole in his skull. The author eventually came to believe that much of what he’d learned about the Civil War was “half-truth and myth.” While doing some research, Askew came across a cache of newspaper articles that were pseudonymously written by Lt. Hazel Furman Scaife, a veteran of the Macbeth Light Artillery. After reading Scaife’s comment that the “Macbeth Light Artillery has an unwritten history that must be wrested from oblivion by the surviving members of the company,” the author decided to take it upon himself to write this history. The book offers a detailed account of the unit as it traveled around the Asheville, North Carolina, area in the last year of the war. Askew follows the men on boring marches, during their encampments in town and field, and into combat, always paying attention to the men’s moods and the weather. Askew also consistently echoes the point of view of his principal source: “Most stories of conflict depict good against evil, protagonists versus antagonists,” the author writes at one point. “While these concepts are blurred in war, the Confederates in Western North Carolina knew the villain in the drama being played in the mountains and his name was [Union Army Col.] George W. Kirk.”

The intensely local flavor is one of the book’s more notable qualities, as is Askew’s skill at bringing the day-to-day life of an artillery unit to life. Time and again, thanks to the author’s granular research, readers will feel as if they’re standing right there with the men of the Macbeth: “They followed an old mill road, quite steep and rugged and after struggling with the cannons to the mountain top had to secure the gun carriages with ropes gripped by teams of men holding the conveyances in check ‘to keep them from running over the horses.’ ” Askew thoughtfully adds an overlay of historical awareness to the account—noting, for example, the moment that the disbanded Confederate soldiers pass the Cowpens, a battle site where, as the author puts it, the soldiers’ “dreams of Southern Independence had been crushed.” His extensive research appears sound and careful, and his book joins a large bookshelf of similarly specific regimental histories. Readers of such histories will note Askew’s own argumentative stances on larger Civil War issues, and many will take issue with them; he asserts, for instance, that “slavery was an important factor in the War Between the States, [but] it was not the definitive cause of the conflict,” which he sometimes refers to as “WBTS.”

An exhaustively detailed account of the movements of the Macbeth men, as told from their point of view.

War in the Mountains is a fantastic book that delivers a clear and informative account about a little-known American artillery group that was active during the Civil War and played an important role in several battles. I found it extremely fascinating, not just because of the brave men in the Macbeth artillery, but also because the book is full of small facts that I never heard before. I have been to many of the places mentioned and wish I had read this book first. It’s easy to read and isn’t dry or too focused on gore.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of history and likes learning about something new. There is plenty of information about what life was like during this time. It’s also perfect for Civil War buffs as there is plenty of information about the generals and strategics of war at work at the time.

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.

War In The Mountains by J. L. Askew portrays the civil war in North Carolina and East Tennessee between 1864 and 1865. The book documents the war that the Macbeth Light Artillery fiercely fought. The book throws more insight into the facts and analysis about the war and reflects on soldiers who dedicated themselves to bring an end to the war.

War In The Mountains shared in detail how the troops traveled and battled in Charleston, James Island, Antietam, Kinston, and North Carolina (where they fought with the Yankees). They engaged in many other battles which some were led by J.B. Palmer, head of the western district of North Carolina, who was also deployed to aid the situation in the mountains. Askew presented more details of the civil war that were not told; he gave a clear idea of the war, ranging from the fierce battle of both rivals, the courage with which the Macbeth Light Artillery fought, and how the soldiers and other people were affected by it. In writing this book, Askew tried to joggle between accuracy and truth.

I must commend the author for his narrative style, as he painted a picture in his book, making it seem real to the reader. The author's detailed research gave more insights into what happened during the civil war. Askew's creative writing takes the reader to the historical era, evoking fear, sadness, and relief from the occurrences during the war. The overall theme is that war brings loss in the state, death of many innocent lives, loss of home, and grief to those who witness it. This was one out of the many lessons this book would teach the reader about war.

The level of research that went into this work is mind-blowing. There were so many research materials that the bibliography took up nine pages. The study was supported with images of some of the locations mentioned in the book. It would be hard to dispute the authenticity of the events in this book.

The book was professionally edited, as I found a couple of errors that didn't affect my reading flow. I expected to see a plethora of mistakes, considering the book was about 530 pages. Thankfully, I was pleasantly disappointed in this regard.

The only thing readers could be worried about would be the flagrant use of war jargon. It might be difficult for someone unfamiliar with these terms to flow with the narrative ultimately. Unfortunately, there was no glossary to explain these terms; I had to look up some of the words in the dictionary. This was a tad distracting. However, this wouldn't be enough reason to deduct points from the book, as the book was about war.

Putting everything in perspective, I would rate War In The Mountains 4 out of 4 stars. I will recommend this book to readers that love to read war books and fans of history.

During the War Between the States, the mountains of North Carolina were a hotbed of internecine strife where the phrase "brother against brother" truly applied. By late 1863, the Confederate government took measures to tighten control of the region, establishing the Western District of North Carolina under command of General Robert Vance, covering the area from the Blue Ridge Mountains westward to the borders of adjacent states.

In less than four months, in the largest military operation conducted by the fledging department, General Vance was defeated and captured during an incursion into East Tennessee. Colonel John B. Palmer, Vance's replacement, had barely taken command at Asheville before Confederate General James Longstreet pulled his army from East Tennessee, leaving the Western District exposed and threatened by the growing Union presence at Knoxville.

Palmer travelled to Richmond to plead for more troops, especially a gun battery, to counter recent Federal raids where he was outgunned by Yankees armed with artillery. The Confederate high command found the Macbeth Light Artillery at Charleston, ordering the unit to Asheville where they arrived late May 1864. Hardened veterans of Second Manassas and Antietam, the Macbeth would see a different face of war in the mountains, fighting a different kind of enemy, often not in any uniform, native Southerners disloyal to the Confederate cause, conscript evaders, deserters, disparagingly called "Tories" and "Homegrown Yankees."

This book is a panorama of the mountain war in Western North Carolina and Upper East Tennessee, of raids, skirmishes, and battles where rebel commander John B. Palmer defended the Western District against the likes of the notorious Yankee Colonel, George W. Kirk, and his raiders. The Macbeth Light Artillery is covered in a first book length account within the context of a comprehensive study of military operations during 1864 and 1865 in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee.

J.L. Askew's WAR IN THE MOUNTAINS is a comprehensive look at a forgotten theater of the war, the fighting in the Appalachian region between eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina throughout 1864 and 1865.

WAR IN THE MOUNTAINS ostensibly centers on the Macbeth Light Artillery, a rebel division from South Carolina sent to Asheville, North Carolina to defend against Union incursions into the region in 1864, but the book spends a lot of time on other aspects of the war in lower Appalachian region. There are surprises here for even the most learned Civil War buff, as readers learn of the battles in the area, the skirmishes in between and the men who fought them. We learn about Confederate Colonel John B. Palmer, head of the Western District of North Carolina and the Macbeth’s commanding officer, who brilliantly thwarted Union advances with his knowledge of the local topography; George W. Kirk, a daring Union captain who led several raids on the locals in North Carolina and was as ruthless and feared as British commander Banastre Tarleton had been in the American Revolution; Alvan C. Gillem, a Tennessee-born Union general who led his forces in the battle for control of the region, and: John H. Morgan, a Confederate general who led raids against Union positions as far north as Ohio and commanded rebel troops in southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee before being killed in a Union raid on Greenville, Tennessee. Commanders who are better known, such as Confederate General John C. Breckinridge (a former U.S. Vice President) and Union General George Stoneman, are shown to be much more important than they were thought to be in the final months of fighting; Stoneman’s campaigns in Virginia and North Carolina, for example, are as vital to understand as Grant’s and Sherman’s campaigns in those same states.

   Askew’s chronicle of the war in the Appalachian region is a story of numerous battles in which the opposing armies pushed against each other for dominance in a battle of wits and endurance. The stories show great heroism but also villainy, such as the way Confederate deserters and draft dodgers were punished and the brutality of Union raiders against civilians, as well as daring tales of escape from the enemy. WAR IN THE MOUNTAINS reaches its apex in describing the battles of Saltville, fought for control of a salt mine, in which both Breckenridge and Stoneman were key players, as well as the Macbeth Light Artillery’s participation in the Battle of Morristown (Tennessee) and the defense of Asheville. The book concludes with a horrifying description of Union atrocities in North Carolina that occurred after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

    Few people have a greater right to tell this story than Askew, the great-grandson of a Confederate veteran, and readers will finish this book thinking, “I didn’t know half this stuff.” But theyll also finish it dissatisfied with its epic length, its excessively minute details of battles, and a cast of historical figures so large they’ll have to turn back the pages once in awhile to refresh their memory of the names. Also, Askew suggests that the war was fought less over slavery than over the charge that the free states prospered at the slave states’ expense while the slave states paid more of the taxes collected by the federal government, an idea that’s bound to offend some readers.

Despite its epic length and overabundant details, WAR IN THE MOUNTAINS is a stunning eye-opener that illustrates and educates the reader of a forgotten theater of the Civil War.

~Steven Maginnis for IndieReader

A reader-friendly recollection of events: I thoroughly enjoyed this book, from beginning to end. With its extensive research it was thorough and insightful, but at the same time the author wrote it the same way the best storytellers would, engaging the reader. The whole book was easy to follow and understand, and at times I felt like I was part of the action myself. Can only recommend to fans of history and war retellings

Loved this book. I'm always a big fan of history, and studied civil war maritime history in college. I really enjoyed reading about a lesser-known part of this history, and this book wasn't too stodgy or stuffy like some war history books can get.

War in the Mountains is a fantastic book that delivers a clear and informative account about a little-known American artillery group that was active during the Civil War and played an important role in several battles. I found it extremely fascinating, not just because of the brave men in the Macbeth artillery, but also because the book is full of small facts that I never heard before. I have been to many of the places mentioned and wish I had read this book first. It’s easy to read and isn’t dry or too focused on gore.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of history and likes learning about something new. There is plenty of information about what life was like during this time. It’s also perfect for Civil War buffs as there is plenty of information about the generals and strategics of war at work at the time.

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