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The Hatfields and McCoys
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 • Posted May 23, 2014 3:42 PM

While serving as principal of an alternative school, I was holding a parent conference. In attendance were a tall, athletic student and his mother. Representing the school, besides myself, was a counselor, an assistant principal and a former Marine drill sergeant who served as one of the boy’s teachers. In the course of the meeting the boy swore at his mother. I reprimanded him and told him that I would not tolerate that kind of language directed at his mother. Scarcely had I uttered the words when he literally dived over the table bent on doing me bodily harm. If it hadn’t been for the strong arms and quick reflexes of the former drill sergeant, who quickly wrapped his brawny arms around the boy, the boy would have mopped the floor with me. That student believed that life had dealt him a bad hand and he was angry with everyone and everything. He wanted revenge.

Have you ever read the full story of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys? It’s fascinating and interesting but sad, too. This was a violent chapter in American history that was more than just a tragic quarrel between two backwoods families. It was a strife that eventually developed into a dispute involving two states that was carried to the U.S. Supreme Court for resolution.

For a short distance the border of Kentucky and West Virginia is made up by Tug Fork, which flows into the Big Sandy and eventually into the mighty Ohio River. After the Civil War, the men of this mountain country wore extra-long mustaches and/or beards that made them look like the men of Duck Dynasty. Standard wearing apparel included high-top boots into which their pants legs were stuffed.

Devil Anse Hatfield was a tall, stooped man in his mid-forties. Randolph McCoy, almost twenty years older, wore a black beard that seemed splotched with patches of stiff gray. These mountain people usually owned razorback pigs which were allowed to roam wild among the fields and forests. Only the curious-shaped notches in the ears served as a brand indicating the family that owned each pig. This pork was the delicacy in their diet.

One time in an angry scuffle that was fueled by plenty of whiskey, one of the Hatfield boys was killed by a McCoy. The McCoys claimed the fellow had it coming to him, while the Hatfields claimed it was downright murder and must be avenged. This started a feud that was to run a long and bloody course.

A short time later Ellison Hatfield tangled in a fist fight with one of the McCoys. Before many serious blows had been struck, three other McCoys joined in, and the result was a terrific beating plus a few stab wounds for poor Ellison. He died a few days later. Sometime later three other McCoys were seized by a good-sized gang of the enemy and put to a speedy death. The feud spread with intensity as each family picked up recruits and confederates from among the other families of the area. On one occasion a group of Hatfields laid siege to a house where a number of McCoys were trapped. The house was set afire, resulting in the death of two of the younger McCoys.

There was a romantic sidelight to the wild affair that seemed to add even more fuel to the angry coals of revenge. It seems that Johnse Hatfield, son of Devil Anse, had a secret and rather torrid love affair with Randolph McCoy’s daughter Rose Anne. The young couple were madly in love, but old Randolph took firm steps to prevent little Rose from even getting a glimpse of Johnse.

The whole feud was an example of the futility of revenge. The product of revenge is almost always an increased hatred and deeper involvement that can erupt in violence. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” In Ephesians 4:31 we read, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.”

Abraham Lincoln had not expected to be re-elected. He had been misunderstood, condemned, humiliated in public and in private, assailed alike by friend and foe. One newspaper had called him “the obscene ape of Illinois.” As the Civil War wound down, many both in the South and in the North hated him and blamed him for the deaths of their sons and the disruption in their lives. He could have been bitter and angry. Instead, he harbored no resentments, had no slightest wish for retaliation against those who had cruelly slandered and abused him. The sentiments expressed in his second inaugural address give us the measure of the man. This closing paragraph, said Elihu Root, “is a living principle of action”:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”


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