September 11, 2011


War and Peace on the Big Sandy River (Dean H. King, September 2011, Granta)

Far from the canyons of lower Manhattan or the rugged peaks of Afghanistan, 9/11 led to an unexpected breakthrough in an ancient feud. From the remote hollows of Appalachia issued some bold words of peace: 'Our families stand as a symbol of unity to let the world know that we will not allow our freedom to be taken from us. We stand together to oppose any force that would threaten our country. A country made of people from all nations in the common bond of freedom.' Reo Bentley Hatfield II wrote these words.

Reo's ancestors were responsible for the most notorious feud in American history. He was an expert on the topic.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud stretched from the end of the Civil War to 1890, causing mayhem and the deaths of dozens of people along the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, the West Virginia-Kentucky border. A series of murders, clandestine executions, ambushes and a house-burning later, the two states nearly went to war with each other. The feud, heavily sensationalized by yellow journalists in the national media, was adjudicated in a US Supreme Court hearing and resulted in a public hanging.

It was the refusal of Reo's great-great-grandfather, Bad 'Lias, The two states nearly went to war with each pay a debt for a fiddle to Tolbert McCoy on Election Day in 1882 that led to a fistfight that went very wrong. In the end, Tolbert and two of his brothers stabbed Bad 'Lias's bearish cousin Ellison Hatfield, a hulking Confederate veteran, twenty-seven times and shot him for good measure. Even so, he lasted long enough to tell his brother Devil Anse what had happened. Feud on.

In 1947, decades after the last gun was fired, the feud almost started up again. This time Reo's grandfather, Allen Hatfield, the chief of police of Matewan, West Virginia, was to blame. When he went with another officer to raid a bawdy house, an angry patron grabbed the gun of the other officer and shot Hatfield twice in the back. 'My grandfather turned and shot him dead', says Reo.

The man happened to be a McCoy.

Afterward, Allen sat on his rocker coolly talking to a reporter about the incident. The infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud had long been over. But now a Hatfield, who had a bullet hole through his shoulder and a slug in his hip, had just killed a McCoy. Hatfield finally ended the chat by saying that he believed he'd go on down to the hospital now to get the bullet removed from his hip. 'Hatfield shoots McCoy at scene of famous feud', the paper blazed the next day. Feud revived.

Reo Hatfield II disliked the McCoys on principle, and never had any intention of making amends with them: 'Never even considered it', he says. 'Never planned on doing it.'

But that changed after 9/11.

Posted by at September 11, 2011 6:53 AM

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