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Chris C. McKinney - Introduction and Index

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Introduction to the Chris C. McKinney Letters

By George Rugg

Christopher C. McKinney (10 December 1825-29 October 1902) was born in Lincoln County in middle Tennessee. His father, a farmer, was a native of Virginia; his mother was a native of South Carolina. In 1849 he married Mary Luna. From 1854 until the outbreak of war McKinney was a tradesman in Petersburg, Tennessee, operating first a grocery store, and subsequently a dry goods store. On 17 May 1861 he was mustered in to the 8th Tennessee Infantry, as 1st lieutenant in Company B; one week later he was chosen regimental adjutant. He would serve with the 8th Tennessee for the duration of the war, rising to lieutenant colonel. After the war he worked as salesman and bookkeeper, and in 1884 again opened a grocery store, in Richmond, Tennessee.

The McKinney group comprises five letters, all written by McKinney to his wife Mary in Petersburg. Four of the letters, dated 31 August to 27 November 1861, were written from present-day West Virginia, where the 8th Tennessee was attached to the brigade of Daniel L. Donelson in the Confederate Army of the Northwest. The final letter was written on 16 February 1862 from South Carolina, where Donelson's brigade had been sent in December to help contain the Federal enclave around Port Royal.

West Virginia — or northwest Virginia, as the area was called before statehood — was an early focal point of the war for both political and strategic reasons. Following Virginia's secession in April, delegates from 35 counties in the state's mountainous northwest met at Wheeling and declared their own "restored government", faithful to the Union. Both North and South moved troops into the area to influence the political situation — and to secure two key communication lines between East and West, the Ohio River and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Through mid-summer the Federal army maintained the upper hand, but in August there came a new Confederate military effort, under the supervision of Robert E. Lee. McKinney's letter of 31 August dates from the so-called Cheat Mountain campaign, Lee's effort to oust the Federals from the Allegheny passes near the current Virginia-West Virginia border. McKinney describes the brigade's march down the Tygart River Valley, from the Confederate camp at Valley Mountain toward the Federal positions at Cheat Summit and Elkwater. The campaign was a failure; Lee scarcely succeeded in engaging the Federals, and withdrew leaving their positions intact. Several of the reasons for his lack of success are alluded to in the letter: persistent rain turned the steep mountain roads to mud, making troop movement and supply extremely difficult. Others reasons are not mentioned: the inexperienced troops, many of whom were sick and all of whom were supplied with antiquated smoothbore muskets, fought less effectively than their Union counterparts. By the time of McKinney's November letters the 8th Tennessee was encamped just inside northwest Virginia; the area would remain in Union hands for the remainder of the war.

In December Donelson's brigade was reassigned to the Department of South Carolina and Georgia to reinforce the Confederate positions around Port Royal. In his letter of 16 February 1862 McKinney touches on an issue then much on the mind of the Confederate government: in the spring, the 12-month enlistment terms of perhaps half the Southern army would expire, and who then would fight the Yankees? The result was the first conscription law in American history, enacted on 16 April; among other things, one-year volunteers like McKinney were obliged to remain in service for two additional years. Thus, McKinney's reassurances to his wife of his return from service in May — "three months time is not much" — would prove illusory.

McKinney often speaks of matters pertaining to his faith. He was himself an elder in the Presbyterian church — and like many religious men, he found camp life morally reprehensible. As he writes on 16 February 1862: "Mary I am sorry to say that many in the army who were professors at home do not act like porfessors here. Many are gone they are ruined cards whisky and profanity have got them." The prevalence of gambling, drinking, swearing, and other vices make the army "one of the most degrading places I ever was, the Grocery not excepted."

Bibliographic note: A 300-word biographical entry on McKinney appears in Goodspeed's History of Tennessee from the earliest time to the present: together with an historical and a biographical sketch of Maury, Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, Bedford, and Marshall counties. . . ., Nashville, 1886. An obituary was published in the monthlyConfederate Veteran following McKinney's death in 1902; this is accessible via the web at For Cheat Mountain, see Jack Zinn, R. E. Lee's Cheat Mountain Campaign, Parsons WV, 1974.

Index of Letters

MSN/CW 5003-1LetterAugust 31, 1861near Valley Mountain, VirginiaChris C. McKinney
MSN/CW 5003-2LetterNovember 2, 1861camp near Huntersville, VirginiaChris C. McKinney
MSN/CW 5003-3LetterNovember 26, 1861camp near Lewisburg, VirginiaChris C. McKinney
MSN/CW 5003-4LetterNovember 27, 1861camp near Lewisburg, VirginiaChris C. McKinney
MSN/CW 5003-5LetterFebruary 16, 1862Camp Stoney Creek, South CarolinaChris C. McKinney

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