George A. Hall
By the Banks of the Holly: Notes and Letters from the Desk of Bernard Mollohan by Marie Mollohan. 2005 by iUniverse, 649pp., $36.95 softcover; 46.95 hardcover.
Marie Mollohan has done a marvelous job of distilling decades of central West Virginia history through her great-grandfather's desk. Her sharpest focus is on the history and key characters related to Webster County, especially in the years covering the Civil War and Reconstruction.
The genius of her use of the desk is that those records were but a microcosm of what everyone in the region experienced during those years. Bernard Mollohan himself must have been a known union loyalist to have become the county surveyor after the war. Such was an important position when only "loyal" citizens could even vote, and much land was being contested for various reasons. But Bernard's loyalties did not keep Marie from giving a fair account of the tensions experienced by so many. Her family, and neighbors were divided into all three sides, as well, during this period. Why do I say all "three" sides?
Marie captures the irony of there being the obvious Union and Confederate sides of the war, yet none were stationed in Webster County. There were no serious battles about which one would read in a national text. That is because a third "side" existed. They were most often known as "bushwhackers". They were not in either army, and were a law unto themselves. People throughout the region experienced loss of life, destruction of property and a general sort of, unofficial, martial law. In the name of protection "bushwhackers" preyed on others, even apart from professed loyalties at times. It became very personal and dangerous in this period, especially for the families of those who chose to serve in a regular army, and left loved ones with little protection. Maybe we could say that Marie has helped to visualize what Webster County's version of the movie "Cold Mountain" might be. There was an insurgency not unlike what we see today in Iraq, and some took advantage of the ill-defined political chaos. Marie captures the personal side of this from true of accounts of family and their friends in the period.
Marie's chapters on the Civil War (pp.121-460) and related endnotes (pp. 547-592, 615-632) are a treasury of information for those interested in this subject. She has corrected lots of misinformation and added new light to this subject of the Civil War in that region. Key characters are treated with balance and insight. Such names as Tuning, Chewning, Haymond, Spriggs and Connely are among the several cited as leading Guerillas. Incidents such as the burning of Sutton (county seat of Braxton County), Gardner's Store and the march on Addison are given in a detailed and interesting manner.
Webster County's hills and rivers were said to have been a natural funnel through which contraband people and goods would flow when Union forces controlled the main routes. Guerilla forces could more easily hold this ground between the counties along the Little Kanawha River, and Greenbrier County, a doorway to the Old Dominion. Guerillas and others could find a ready market for the horses and goods of their neighbors with one army or the other.
Of special interest should be some little-known material on how the Union's 36th Ohio came to deal with the known and hardened irregulars. The whole tension today of legal rights for "terrorists" was a problem for Union troops. They dealt with people who were repeat offenders in murder, theft and destruction. The 36th Ohio evolved to a position of "take no prisoners" (not meaning "parole"), and all of this long before the national policy had hardened enough toward insurgency to be comfortable with the destruction of Sheridan and Sherman in 1864. There were what many would call "war crimes" today as Union forces fought in Guerilla fashion. One group, called "Snake Hunters", battled with such groups as the Moccasin Rangers. But, for the details, you must read it yourself.
This brings me to the point of where only a few regrets might be noted about the work.
The title doesn't seem to catch the gist of the content for a reader like myself. Because this is a history, done through a family lens, the fact they lived around the Holly River makes the connection to the Holly River seem right. To me, this is a history book, uniquely capable of being told through real people and their real experiences. The title, to me, just seems to miss the mark. But I have no alternative to suggest. It definitely needs to be cross classified as Civil War somehow. The final editing might leave the English major a little unsettled at the number of simple mistakes of punctuation, or subject and verb agreement. I also found myself wanting a better map to keep track of the references to the various rivers and their branches. That would have smoothed my enjoyment of an otherwise well written, well told story of a heroic people, and area, in tough times. It is a story of the founding of Webster County and the state of West Virginia (even our country) through the mysteries of a desk that intrigued a girl who delivered on a promise to tell this story.