The History Channel just dragged viewers through one of uglier chapters of our nation’s past with a three-part miniseries on the legendary feud between the Hatfields (left, in 1897) and the McCoys.
This was a major television production with lots of big names (Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, Tom Berenger, Mare Winningham, Powers Boothe), dozens of extras, authentic costuming and period weaponry. The producers even went to the expense of filming on location in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania—and who knew they looked so much like the West Virginia/Kentucky border of the 1880’s? (I guess the filmmakers were unaware some parts of the West Virginia/Kentucky border haven’t changed much since the 1880’s, at least in terms of the topography.)
The result was an authentically graphic reproduction of the sad bloodbath that was the Hatfield-McCoy feud, a war between two families that lasted for decades, killed dozens and employed the legal machinery of two states in their dispute all the way up to the Supreme Court. (Not until J.Edgar Hoover’s FBI required extraordinary power to cross state lines in pursuit of criminals was the Supreme Court decision in the Hatfield-McCoy case overturned. The case revolved around a Kentucky warrant to pursue Hatfields into West Virginia to return them to Kentucky for prosecution of the murder of several McCoys. Those McCoys, it should be pointed out, had killed patriarch “Devil Anse” Hatfield’s brother.)
The acting in the miniseries was excellent. The historical details were worthy of The History Channel’s name. The six hours were as grim and unrelenting as the subject matter required. And yet viewers were offered this story without any historical or cultural context and every dirty, barefoot, moonshine swillin’, overall-wearin’ stereotype of Appalachian culture ever invented was given full rein. Yes, this feud was stupid, because people are stupid. But some viewers are going to come away with the idea that this could only have happened because these people were stupid hillbillies.
An example: In the Appalachia of the 1880’s there were few roads (and those of dubious quality) cutting through the steep mountains to connect small, isolated communities and homesteads. The only crop that would grow in the mountains, corn, could not be transported to markets over these roads, so it was distilled into whiskey, a higher value, lower volume “crop”.
So, yes, corn whiskey (white lightning, moonshine) was a foundation of the economy and stills were common. People built them away from their cabins because the boilers were prone to explode, thus they needed tending. Does that mean men laid up at the stills drinking all day and night as was implied in the miniseries? Well, probably a few of them did. But everybody? And couldn’t some mention have been made of what this was all about? Since a lot of the mayhem revolved around the stills (and the whiskey), seems like it might have been worth a line of dialogue or two.
Much was made of the incident that began the feud, a split between the two patriarchs, Randall McCoy and Anse Hatfield, toward the end of the Civil War. Hatfield, having fought bravely for the Confederacy throughout the war, had had enough. He quit the field on the eve of yet another battle and went home. McCoy saw this as not only cowardice and desertion, but as a personal betrayal (they had been friends),and made Hatfield the target of his bitterness once he was captured and made a prisoner of war for the rest of the conflict.
The truth is, though, many mountain folk, um, left the war early, seeing that this was not a conflict in their interest. My own West Virginia relatives on the Presley side are officially listed as deserters from the Confederacy (a fact I’m proud to own) early in the war. Clearly they figured they owned no slaves, no one was attacking their hollows, no one was paying them the bounties they were promised, so why were they fighting? Like Anse Hatfield, they went home to tend their fields and, I guess, their stills.
Randall McCoy was portrayed in the miniseries as a rigid, uncompromising man, qualities of character only made worse by his imprisonment and a religious bent. Each slight by Anse Hatfield or a member of his family, every piece of good luck for the Hatfields or ill fortune for the McCoys, only added fuel to the slow burn of his anger until it burned out of control.
Human failures, certainly, but in the Scots-Irish culture of the Appalachians, very common. Folks tend not to talk a lot about their problems in the mountains. The reaction to any emotional stimulus just seems to come from out of nowhere. Anyone standing in the vicinity just never knows what hit him. So a feud is no surprise. A fistfight becomes a stabbing. A stabbing leads to a firing squad. McCoy refuses an olive branch. Hatfield’s uncle presides over the burning of McCoy’s cabin. And on and on.
I would have liked to have seen some more of this kind of context and less of the blood-and-guts byplay of the bounty hunters McCoy brought in to hunt the Hatfields. But then, my family is from that area of West Virginia, and I can even claim some distant relationship to the Hatfields. I get enough of the West Virginia jokes as it is. I imagine those will increase as a result of The Hatfields and the McCoys.
In a way, this story was inspiring, though. It’s not hard to imagine the setting on a planet far, far away, two clans in some inaccessible mountain hollers, plagued by their own fears, greed and violence and set upon by . . . something even more sinister!