The Southern Highlands was a harsh realm of hard people in the best of times before the Civil War.
With the advent of hostilities, subsistence farmers faced starvation as foragers for both sides repeatedly ravaged the countryside, and the region became a battleground as feuding clans of mountain men took up arms for the North or South.
Some of the most brutal battles occurred in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, where Northern partisans led by a husband-and-wife team settled longstanding clannish grievances as military matters.
Author Peter F. Stevens presents their story in the extensively researched Rebels in Blue, The Story of Keith and Malinda Blalock (254, pages, $24.95, Taylor Publishing Co.).
It's the compelling chronicle of an unusual couple who spent the war with a secret: Malinda Blalock had cut her hair, dressed as a man and assumed the name of a cousin so she could serve with Keith.
Even more intriguing, the Blalocks served in the Confederate army for several months before turning into Union raiders.
The Blalocks' marriage began in early April 1861, within days of the war's outbreak with the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter.
The Rebel cause's most ardent supporters were in the Southern lowlands, where planters had massive holdings of slaves. But loyalties were divided in the highlands, where few folks owned slaves.
The Blalocks were "ardent Lincolnites." Keith wanted to join cousins who left Carolina for Kentucky to join Union troops, but the newlywed was concerned about what neighbors who supported the Confederacy would do to his wife, his property and extended family.
Malinda just wanted to be with Keith.
So they enlisted in the 26th North Carolina Infantry, Keith later describing the enlistments as a situation they were pressured into.
Malinda was released after she was wounded in a skirmish and could no longer hide her gender. Keith didn't want to be without her, so he finagled his release from service by rolling a half hour in poison oak. When he reported to the surgeon, he was running a high temperature and the blisters looked like smallpox or "swamp fever."
They returned to their cabin on Grandfather Mountain, but as Keith's wounds healed he faced increasing pressure from his uncles and other Rebel supporters to return to the fight. Soon, the Home Guard had issued a $500 bounty for the capture of Keith, "a shirker and deserter."
The Blalocks had other ideas.
They lived as fugitives in the wild. Keith was twice arrested and twice escaped, nursing grudges against an increasing circle of enemies and detractors.
In the winter of 1862, the Blalocks crossed into eastern Tennessee, where Keith signed on as a recruiting officer and scout for a Michigan regiment. He soon met a kindred soul, Union agent George W. Kirk, described by his enemies as a traitor, bushwhacker and a ruthless killer. "A case can be made that he was all of these, but Kirk also proved a bold, brilliant, and zealous Union officer," according to Mr. Stevens.
With Kirk's blessing and a Union commission, the Blalocks returned to their native Watauga County. They were to recruit other mountain men with Union sympathies to the Union cause, pilot escaped Northern soldiers through the mountains to Union lines and harass Home Guards and regular troops through skirmishes and with supply raids on the homes of Southern sympathizers.
The Blalocks were effective and brutal.
Keith sought revenge for slights real and imagined in the valley. It was part of the heritage of the mountains.
"If a neighbor or a stranger harmed one's kinfolk, retribution came sometimes swiftly, sometimes long after the fact. But in the world of the Blalocks and their neighbors, revenge -- or vengeance, as the aggrieved family viewed it -- would inevitably arrive on some mountain trail or on one's very doorstop. The bloody cycle of countless misdeeds breeding equal measures of retaliation would engulf Keith and Malinda Blalock and virtually every neighbor living under the Grandfather, in the Globe Valley and every tract from Blowing Rock to the Great Smoky Mountains."
Southern and Northern supporters alike engaged in this blood sport of atrocities that intermingled wartime causes with old rivalries.
Keith's stepfather was brutally murdered by a contingent of regular army troops for his open support of his son and his raiders.
Keith in turn sought revenge on his father's killers and anyone related to the killers, slaying one man long after the war was over.
The book has been compared with Charles Frazier's fictional Civil War novel Cold Mountain, an account of a Confederate soldier who goes on a long walk to return to his wife in the Virginia mountains. Indeed, the cover to Rebels in Blue is a cool, stark rendering of mountains similar to Mr. Frazier's book cover.
Cold Mountain was a best-seller, a status few histories can expect to attain. But Mr. Stevens is an able writer. The life of the Blalocks is well documented throughout, and he ably weaves in accounts of the war and of the mountain lifestyle into the book. He never forgets that he has a good story to tell and doesn't let the footnotes get in its way.
Rebels in Blue, The Story of Keith and Malinda Blalock (254 pages, Taylor Publishing Co., $24.95)
Peter Stevens; also wrote The Mayflower Murderer and Other Forgotten Firsts in American History.
Reach Tharon Giddens at (706) 823-3347 or email@example.com.