The geography of civil war : conflict and legacy in upper East Tennessee /

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King, Spurgeon
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Middle Tennessee State University
This dissertation, "The Geography of Civil War: Conflict and Legacy in Upper East Tennessee, 1861-1865," documents how geography shaped warfare in Upper East Tennessee during the American Civil War, and how contemporary terrain holds significant instructive potential for modern observers. East Tennessee's topography, which features a long valley with low ridges surrounded by high mountains, suggested logical points of attack and defense to Civil War commanders, depending on strategic and logistical requirements of each occupying army. Heavily forested terrain facilitated partisan and guerilla warfare, with nearby states providing sanctuary for irregular combatants. The region's single railroad, the East Tennessee and Virginia, assumed enormous logistical importance as the major means of supply for both armies, North and South. This dissertation shows how each side used the unique geography of East Tennessee under changing operational circumstances to pursue strategic ends, and suggests that natural terrain features influencing military decisions during the Civil War embody potential to inform contemporary observation today.
East Tennessee's geography helped determine both strategy and tactics. The Great Valley, actually a series of smaller valleys separated by low ridges, is oriented along a northeast axis from Alabama all the way up to Virginia. Surrounded on all sides by high mountains, the Great Valley is accessed through mountain passes, which assumed major strategic importance for defense, particularly during the period of Confederate occupation from 1861 to 1863. When the Union army finally captured Knoxville in 1863 and fighting erupted throughout the region, mountain valleys became convenient avenues for flanking movements, while interior gaps in the ridges became points which cavalry could exploit to appear behind an enemy. Rivers, natural impediments to transportation, also fueled fertile farmlands filled with food and forage, sparking battles for possession of these vital resources. The Great Valley's most valuable strategic asset east of Knoxville, however, remained the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, which wound its way through the lesser valleys up to Bristol, and thence into Virginia. Throughout the war, much military activity revolved around defending or targeting the vital railroad lifeline.
Geography stands not only as a legacy to the natural world, but to the workings of humankind, as well. And if geography shapes human actions at a defined period of time such as the Civil War, then it stands to reason that later generations can better understand past events through observation of the setting where those events occurred. By standing on the mountain at Bull's Gap, Tennessee, for example, one gets a sense of what it was like to charge up the mountainside, or, conversely, to defend against such a charge. Through an examination of terrain, one can better understand why commanders chose to locate railroad facilities north of the Gap, and how they orchestrated what came to be known as the first "railroad" war in history. Bull's Gap is thus a good representative example of the military uses of geography, suggesting how a contemporary examination of topography can lead to a better understanding of Upper East Tennessee's civil war past.