Larry Stephens Brings the Darkest Side of the Civil War to Light

August 2, 2013

Larry StephensAssistant librarian Larry Stephens recently penned a book on a rather unsavory figure in the Civil War South, John P. Gatewood.  His book, John P. Gatewood: Confederate Bushwhacker, tells the harrowing true story of a Confederate soldier who apparently went off the rails after sneaking away from his army camp to visit his family, only to discover that both his mother and sister had been raped and killed by Union soldiers.  He subsequently made it his mission to search for and slaughter anyone he perceived as a Yankee supporter.  And the killings were merciless and vicious.

Stephens grew up near the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, and developed a fascination with the Civil War at an early age.  Even now he takes part in reenactments.  Because of his avid interest in the era he had read many tomes about its history.  Throughout his reading he kept seeing the Gatewood name like a fleeting shadow among the pages.  There was no substantive information about the man, yet he appeared in a number of accounts about the period.  Stephens was determined to learn more.  And learn he did.

“With every passing year,” Stephens said, “Civil War literature is becoming saturated with books about virtually every general, regiment, battle and topic you can think of.  I was drawn to Gatewood because no one – including professional historians – had ever attempted to chronicle the man’s life . . . in large part because of the dearth of material concerning him.  So it was a challenge, to say the least.  I found Gatewood to be a psychologically complex individual.  A lot of folks have written him off as just another psychotic killer, but I think there’s a lot more to his story than meets the eye.  It became a detective investigation for me, and that’s why I travelled all over the South and out west in an effort to flesh out his story.  So it was actually great fun for me. And I still didn’t find everything I wanted to find.”

His library research training came handily to his aid, however.  He searched diligently through newspapers and army reports of the period, but he also traveled to Gatewood’s hometown near the Tennessee-Kentucky border and to Texas, where Gatewood’s ancestors now live.  He began his research in 2009, finishing it up the following year.  Then he began writing in early 2012.  He clearly writes very quickly because the manuscript was published in November of the same year.

The grim story really begins with the Civil War and the events taking place in Appalachia during the time.  While Tennessee claimed legitimate status as part of the very deep South, not all its citizens were avid Confederates.  Many sided with the Union, and many more who were poor, uneducated and struggling to support large families didn’t care for either side.  That group figured they didn’t own slaves and weren’t part of the economic engine that powered the antebellum South.  They were just trying to survive, scraping what living they could from their small farms.   When the Confederacy imposed a draft, the action served only to inflame these tensions, which increasingly turned violent.  Add to the mix the Scottish-Irish lineage of many in the region with its propensity toward quick anger, long memories and feuds in which extended families were embroiled and sometimes slaughtered, and the area became a virtual powder keg.

In 1862 the war had already turned dirty.  Union sympathizers who called themselves scouts were helping the U.S. Army sever telegraphic lines, destroy railroad tracks and burn down prominent families’ homes.  Local citizens on both sides were forming bushwhacker gangs that raided neighboring properties if they perceived their owners to be against their own cause.  Thus communities turned against themselves, destroying property and killing each other.

John Gatewood didn’t start as a bushwhacker in the region.  The son of Pemberton and Nancy Gatewood, one of the largest land owner families in the Wolf River Valley in Tennessee, he joined the Confederate army when he was just a teenager.   Having already seen intense action, he returned home for a brief visit home near Fentress County in north, central Tennessee south of the Kentucky border.  That’s when he learned about his mother and sister.

Apparently, the 17-year-old not only took the news badly, he suffered some kind of traumatic reaction, perhaps psychotic, perhaps not.  But he never returned to his regiment, and from that moment on, began one of the worst recorded rampages against Union officials, soldiers and sympathizers or anyone he perceived to support the Union cause – shooting slashing or otherwise killing first and asking questions later if at all.  In one case he rode up to a farmhouse with his gang and demanded to see the farmer, who was a devoted Union supporter.  Unfortunately, a visitor ventured onto the porch to see who had ridden to the house.  Gatewood demanded from one of his riders confirmation that the person was the farmer he was looking for.  When the man said no, Gatewood was so incredulous he dragged the man into the woods and shot him anyway.

After the war, Gatewood, his family and many of his followers fled to Mexico, eventually settling in Texas.  But he didn’t end his criminal activities.  Accounts report that he was married to two women at once, and indicted for swindling and for theft.  Records of his death don’t seem to exist, and no one really knows when or how he died.  Perhaps fading into history without fanfare was a fitting end to someone who wreaked so much devastation on others.

John P. Gatewood: Confederate Bushwhacker, illustrated by GHC art professor Brian Barr, is available at the GHC library.  Civil War buffs may want to check it out, despite the gruesome details it outlines.  John Gatewood is one of the lesser known figures of the period, and his narrative helps paint a picture of violence, revenge and vigilante activities that were also part of this tragic era in American history.

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