The best books about the Hatfield–McCoy feud

Who am I?

My father’s favorite first cousin Ava married Homer McCoy, a direct descendant of the Fighting McCoys. Homer’s aunt married a Hatfield, so my family is distantly related by marriage to both the Hatfields and McCoys. As a girl, Ava witnessed the aftermath of the feud: The elders in her household froze whenever they heard pounding hoofbeats in the night. She assured me that the reasons for the feud were far more complicated than escaped hogs or the derring-do of sociopathic veterans nostalgic for the bloodbaths of the Civil War. I started reading whatever I could find and visiting feud sites, trying to understand what had really gone on and why.

I wrote...

Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance

By Lisa Alther,

Book cover of Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance

What is my book about?

America’s most notorious family feud began in 1865 when a Confederate relative of “Devil Anse” Hatfield allegedly murdered Harmon McCoy, a wounded Union soldier home on leave. Nearly three decades of violence and murder ensued. Attempts to arrest the perpetrators resulted in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The feud events were not isolated atrocities. Other feuds were erupting all over the Southern Appalachians during that time, and Blood Feud examines some of the many issues involved in this carnage. The image the feuds spawned of bloodthirsty mountaineers permeated American culture and set the stage for industrialists to invade those mountains and extract their coal and timber, guarding the profits for themselves and leaving behind a legacy of poverty, ill-health, and environmental devastation.

The books I picked & why

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Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area

By Harry M. Caudill,

Book cover of Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area

Why this book?

Having grown up in an industrial town in East Tennessee, I read this 1962 classic by a Kentucky lawyer and legislator and first realized that my homeland was regarded as disadvantaged by the rest of the country. Caudill summarized the history of our Appalachian region, depicting the poverty and poor health of its inhabitants and the degradation of its natural environment. He described how extractive industries had removed the region’s coal and timber and funneled the profits into the pockets of distant shareholders. He also discussed the feuds at the end of the nineteenth century, as subsistence farmers fought to maintain their way of life against the encroaching forces of capitalism.

Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900

By Altina L. Waller,

Book cover of Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900

Why this book?

As a child, I always heard that the Hatfield-McCoy feud started because someone left a gate open and a hog escaped. Later, I read versions that portrayed the feud as a swashbuckling adventure story of murder and retribution, with a Romeo and Juliet romance thrown in. But Waller’s study treats the feud as a serious historical event with grave political and economic consequences. She outlines the genesis of the ugly and insulting stereotype of the Depraved Savages of the Southern Appalachians (popping up most recently in the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy) and the ways it was deployed to justify the region’s exploitation by timber and coal companies.

This well-researched book is the most authoritative account yet of the Hatfield-McCoy feud and its ramifications for the subsequent economic and environmental destruction of Appalachia.

A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War

By Daniel E. Sutherland,

Book cover of A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War

Why this book?

In researching Blood Feud, I discovered that some of my ancestors were Union guerrillas who operated near the future feud area. Devil Anse Hatfield led a unit of Confederate home guards in that same region. Hatfield’s uncle, who is widely believed to have murdered Harmon McCoy in the opening salvo of the feud, was said subsequently to have killed a cousin of my father’s uncle during a guerrilla skirmish. I had always understood the Civil War to entail vast battalions of uniformed soldiers mowing each other down as they marched toward enemy lines. A Savage Conflict made me realize that the brutal depredations of guerrillas played a major role in the war and left a legacy of bitter factional hatred that factored into the subsequent feuds.

Days of Darkness: The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky

By John Ed Pearce,

Book cover of Days of Darkness: The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky

Why this book?

This book by a Kentucky journalist, based on the sparse court records and on interviews with descendants of the feudists, helped me understand that the Hatfield-McCoy feud was not an isolated occurrence. In addition to the Hatfield-McCoy feud, it describes five other feuds being conducted in Kentucky at the same time. There appear to be similar patterns governing the combustion and ferocity of all these feuds, having to do with a struggle for control over the shifting social, economic, and political hierarchies following the upheavals of the Civil War and the invasions launched by lumber and coal companies.

Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South

By Richard E. Nisbett, Dov Cohen,

Book cover of Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South

Why this book?

Studying the Appalachian feuds, I started wondering if this level of violence were normal human behavior. This book assured me that the feud region during those years had a homicide rate more than ten times the national homicide rate today. A newspaper at the time labeled the area “The Corsica of America.” The authors explain that many Europeans who settled in the Appalachians were from the British borderlands. Both locations hosted herding economies and produced herders who prided themselves on possessing the strength, cunning, and violence to protect their livestock and fend off potential rustlers. Stolen hogs, horses, and cattle played key roles in several guerrilla raids during the Civil War and in the feuds afterward.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Hatfield–McCoy feud, Kentucky, and Appalachia?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Hatfield–McCoy feud, Kentucky, and Appalachia.

The Hatfield–McCoy Feud Explore 5 books about the Hatfield–McCoy feud
Kentucky Explore 35 books about Kentucky
Appalachia Explore 23 books about Appalachia

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia, Reformers to Radicals, and This Land, This South if you like this list.