Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South by T. R. C. Hutton (review)
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Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South. By T. R. C. Hutton. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013. Pp. ix, 444. $50.00 cloth)

Modern society often associates Appalachian mountaineers with blood feuds—especially eastern Kentuckians. In particular, Breathitt County garnered a reputation for prolonged, retributive, and clannish violence. T. R. C. Hutton’s meticulously researched study examines “Bloody Breathitt’s” violent history from the Civil War era through the early twentieth century, underscoring how perceptions of the brutality changed over time. The feud concept implies a deep-rooted and trivial familial conflict in which social equals exact needless acts of violence on one another. However, Hutton claims this does not explain Breathitt’s “feuds.” Supplementing the findings of Altina Waller and Otis Rice, Hutton links the violent outbursts to complex local political struggles. He argues that conservative leaders often apologized for calculated partisan homicides by portraying them as depoliticized feuds. Hutton asserts, “the feud helped Americans—northerners and southerners—write off, excuse, and forget atrocities, [End Page 91] and helped preserve racial and economic inequality—even in a seemingly homogenous place like Breathitt County” (p. 7).

Hutton’s chronologically and thematically organized study initially traces the roots of Breathitt’s “feuds” to the county’s formation and its Civil War experience. Jeremiah South and his affluent Bluegrass cohorts officially established the county in 1839, buying up large swaths of land for profit. South and his constituents dominated the Democratic political mechanisms, yet hostilities arose with many yeomen and landless residents who had once taken advantage of the unenclosed commons. Surrounded by Unionist counties and beset with internal socioeconomic divisions, the county was wracked by irregular warfare during the Civil War. William Strong led an interracial Unionist guerrilla band against local Confederate authorities and brutally killed South’s sons. According to Hutton, years after Appomattox “the war’s political rupture remained” and “commentators often mentioned the war’s legacy in later violence there, but they scarcely considered the contingencies involved … instead, the horrors of guerrillaism were attached to the county’s supposedly inherent ferocity” (pp. 4, 67).

Hutton goes on to examine local feuding during Reconstruction. Besides surveying Ku Klux Klan and “regulator” violence across the state, he focuses on the skirmishing between William Strong’s Red Strings and Wiley Amis’s Black Stock—dubbed the Amis-Strong feud. The sporadic bloodletting between 1872 and 1873 illustrated statewide Unionist infighting over black citizenship. To keep federal officials from deploying troops, Democratic state leaders employed the feud trope to whitewash Klan brutality and political unrest. Reports of feuding also fueled northern disillusionment in Reconstruction. Hutton asserts that Governor John W. Stevenson, Louisville editor Henry Watterson, and other conservative Democrats “attributed violence against white Republicans to ‘family feuds’” and that “Feud, a word for apolitical violence … was useful … the idea of Bloody Breathitt was only one manifestation of white Democrats’ need to depoliticize the violence that helped them maintain control over Kentucky” (pp. 78, 74). [End Page 92]

After detailing how media coverage of various late-nineteenth-century feuds—as well as the murders of William Goebel, William Strong, and James Marcum—fueled evangelical missionary and industrial development campaigns in Breathitt, Hutton concludes with an intellectual history on the idea of feuding. Scholars, such as Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, had provided some insights into the conflicts, but most contemporary Americans understood feuding through popular literature—especially Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Sir Walter Scott. Ethnocentric explanations also helped strip the violent outbursts in Breathitt County of their political implications. Hutton concludes, “‘Bloody Breathitt’ was recorded and created according to a combination of the wants and needs of outsiders as well as those of the county’s own inhabitants” and that “rather than face the internal problems that had caused political violence in Breathitt County, the rest of Kentucky, the South, and the United States, Americans relied upon the relatively easy answers provided by the idea of feuds” (pp. 234–35, 210).

Hutton’s local history is insightful, and his compelling arguments will certainly intrigue scholars. While the author highlights the complex socioeconomic and political issues surrounding Breathitt’s “feuds,” some may find the work...