This columnist took the accompanying photograph Saturday, Oct. 27 at the Lyric Theater in Blacksburg.
The trio pictured standing in front of the antique reel-to-reel movie film projector in the Lyric lobby (from left) are Professor Paul Quigley, the Director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech; Owen Munsell, a 13-year-old friend and former next-door-neighbor of this columnist and Professor Brian McKnight, a prominent Civil War historian from the University of Virginia at Wise.
The opportunity to capture the picture was occasioned by the Center’s screening of the 1995 Civil War film “Pharaoh’s Army,” with the screening followed by an on-stage panel discussion of the movie and the war by Quigley and McKnight.
McKnight is the author of the books “Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia” (University Press of Kentucky, 2006) and “Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia” (Louisiana State University Press, 2011).
Saltville features in both these books. In “Contested Borderland,” McKnight notes that Appalachian Virginia’s salt works at Saltville and the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad were essential to the Confederacy because a lack of salt would have crippled the Confederate army by preventing meat preservation.
In “Confederate Outlaw” McKnight provides a thoughtful biography of the notorious confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson who claimed to have killed over a hundred Union soldiers and sympathizers during the Civil War.
Ferguson and others were implicated in the murder of hospitalized black Union soldiers in Saltville in October 1864.
Ferguson was hanged in Nashville in October 1865, one of only two Confederates executed for war crimes.
“Pharaoh’s Army” (the reason for the title is obscure) takes place on a small farm on Meshack Creek in Monroe County, Kentucky, about 65 miles west of the Cumberland Gap.
It was produced by Robby Henson and stars Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Kris Kristofferson.
The pleasant, wooded, mountainous Kentucky scenery where the film was shot (in Casey County, a few miles northeast of Meshack Creek) will remind local viewers of much of the scenery around southwest Virginia.
The film describes what happens when a small, ragtag Union force of five foraging cavalrymen comes up Meshack Creek to a small farm where a mother and her young son are struggling to maintain the farm in the absence of all the adult men who are away fighting for the Confederacy.
When one of the cavalrymen falls from a ladder and impales himself on a rake, the Union soldiers are forced to stay at the farm and tend to him.
What follows is a complex interpersonal drama revealing and displaying the ambiguities of loyalty, brotherhood, and infatuation.
Towards the end of the film, the farm boy follows the departing Union force down the creek and shoots and kills the wounded Union soldier, who is in a bed on a stolen wagon loaded with foraged food and equipment.
The Union captain returns to the farm and seems all set to shoot the farm boy when he wheels, fires into the air, and heads away.
The text scrolled up the screen at the very end of the film reads: “In 1941, a Kentucky mountaineer returned to a remote sinkhole, the place where during the Civil War he had killed and buried a Union Soldier. This film was inspired by his story as told to the folklorist Harry Caudill.”
Online, the movie gets generally good reviews. My young friend thought the film boring. I thought it was principally about the complexities of human nature and only rather incidentally about the Civil War.
After the post-screening panel discussion, audience members asked questions of the panelists. In answer to a question about whether the current political climate in America might lead to another Civil War, McKnight replied: “I prefer not to think about the possibility of another Civil War.”
Most memorable was McKnight’s overall view of the war.
“The Civil War sucks,” he said.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of southwest Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.