WYTHE COUNTY, Va., May 27, 2012 — On Monday, Memorial Day at 9 p.m., the History Channel will air its first segment of the historical drama series telling of the storied feud between the Hatfields and McCoys of Appalachia.
Calling on an award winning ensemble cast headed by Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, and Tom Berenger, this mini series is sure to be a hit with History Channel’s predominantly male audience.
The fight over ownership of a pig is often given credit for the start of the feud, but this long running and deadly rivalry had much deeper roots than a dispute about pork.
Like much of the rest of the country, the Civil War had drawn battle lines between the supporters of the North and the South that ruled virtually all parts of societal interaction. This rule held firm where the feud took place, in the Tug Valley, on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia. Both families were amongst the first to settle this part of Appalachia.
During the Civil War, the South was patrolled by roving bands of men calling themselves the Homeguard, but sometimes the distinction between maintaining the peace and perpetuating a more personal agenda was blurred.
The Homeguard Raided and Killed
The scope of the raiding and killing that went on in the borderland of Kansas and Missouri makes the local feud between families in the Tug Valley little more than a passing afterthought in comparison. Both were a sign of the times, and reveals just how deep allegiances ran during the Civil War.
Just consider how pervasive those views have been through history. President Harry Truman, from southern leaning Missouri, invited his mother to stay at The White House during his presidency. She stated she would like to visit, as long as she wasn’t made to sleep in Lincoln’s room.
All those years later, the deep animosity was still alive and well in the hearts and minds of those who endured the Civil War. So it does not take much imagination to predict the conflict would be at the root of many battles long after the war was over.
The McCoys, led by Randolph “Ole Ran’l,” McCoy, (played by Bill Paxton,) were predominantly Northern in their beliefs, while the Hatfields, led by William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield (played by Kevin Costner), fought for the Confederacy.
The first bloodshed between the two families started when a group of ex-Confederate Homeguard called the “Logan Wildcats” shot and killed a returning Union soldier, Asa Harmon McCoy on January 7, 1865.
The Tug Valley was almost entirely pro-South, so this, along with the fact that the Hatfields were more affluent and better connected politically, made the chance of convicting anybody for the killing a long shot. Even some of the members of Asa’s own family thought he got what he deserved for fighting for the Union in the first place. No one was ever brought to trial for the murder.
The Romeo and Juliet of Appalachia
The next recorded conflict between the two families didn’t happen for another 13 years until 1878, this time over ownership of a pig. The presiding judge of the court case was Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield. (Played by Powers Boothe.) The McCoys lost the court battle over the pig because of the testimony of Bill Staton, a relative of both families. For his testimony Staton was killed in 1880 by two McCoy brothers.
The conflict further escalated when Devil Anse’s son Johnson “Johnse” Hatfield began courting Roseanna McCoy, and she moved in with the Hatfields, only to leave him and return to her family. When the couple decided to reconcile, her family arrested Johnse Hatfield on a bootlegging warrant. Roseanna made a midnight dash to alert Devil Anse who then led a posse to rescue his son before he could be tried.
For Roseanna McCoy, the story ended unhappily, when Johnse abandoned the sweetheart who had saved him and married her cousin instead, leaving her unwed, pregnant, and an outcast.
She lost the baby and died herself eight years later.
The escalation continued in 1882 when Devil Anse Hatfield’s brother Ellison was mortally wounded by three of Rosanna McCoy’s younger brothers. The brothers were initially arrested and were headed to Pikeville, Ky. to await trial, when a large group of followers, headed by Devil Anse Hatfield took them by force back to West Virginia to await the fate of Ellison. When Ellison finally succumbed, the three McCoy brothers were themselves murdered.
New Year’s Night Massacre by the Hatfields
The feud reached its peak during the 1888 New Year’s Night Massacre when a gang of Hatfield partisans opened fire on a house full of sleeping McCoys. The cabin was set on fire to drive Randolph McCoy into the open. McCoy eventually escaped, but not without a high price. Two of his children were killed and his wife was beaten and left for dead.
That same year, nine of the men involved in the incident were arrested and brought to trial for the New Year’s night raid. Of these men, seven received life sentences. One man, Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts, was hanged in front of an audience of thousands in Pikeville, Kentucky.
Between 1880 and and 1891 the feud claimed more than a dozen members of the two families, drawing national attention and prompting the governors of both states to call up their state militias to restore order.
Contemporaries of the two families officially buried the hatchet in 2000, when a joint family reunion was held at which more than 5000 Hatfields and McCoys attended.
So what better way to end the weekend than with an evening of Americana mayhem, especially when you can just sit at home, be transported to another time and be amazed at what once passed for law and order, frontier style.
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