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Response to Review of The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil war and the Remaking of the American Middle Border

As a devoted reader of Reviews in History, I must first thank the editors for selecting my book for review, and for extending an invitation to respond to Robert Cook’s excellent review essay. Second, I thank Professor Cook for his trenchant insights and analysis, and for his overall support of my book. I particularly commend him for his elegant summation of its themes and ideas.

As he notes, in the West, particularly along the nation’s middle border – the slave states of Kentucky and Missouri and in the free states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kansas – raged a bitter and encompassing ‘People’s contest‘, as Abraham Lincoln dubbed the war as a whole, one that has largely evaded historical scrutiny. The conflict in the region Lincoln called home was an uncivil, lived war that was ultimately overshadowed by broader, traditional narratives of the clash of arms. Unlike the war on the front lines, the middle border’s conflict was fought largely by politics, formal and informal, antebellum, wartime, and postwar. Although the ‘real war’ only occasionally visited parts of it, innumerable clashes occurred at every level: in state, county, and municipal governments; within and between communities, families, neighbors, and friends; in parlors, dining rooms, barns, churches, schools, stores, groves, and fields; at public meetings, polling places, and recruiting stations; and along dusty roads, wooded paths, and fences, wherever people met within during their daily routines. By robust negotiations over the right of secession; neutrality and neutralism; loyalty and disloyalty; emancipation and the draft; and the war’s social, constitutional, and racial outcomes; and by the misery of internecine violence, residents redefined themselves and others like and unlike themselves. This often painful process forced white border residents to create politicized identities that were central to waging this inner struggle in the midst of what many there considered an outsiders’ war.

My book explains how a western political culture that traditionally largely accommodated slavery was transformed by the Civil War – its coming, its lived experience, and its memory – into the cultural politics of region. It explains how slavery could organize the life of an entire region even as it became the foundation of the conflict, while being at once its least attributed and most unreconciled cause among those white residents who endured it. It also explains how in their haste to make a fully formed sectional border divided by slavery historians have largely ignored the centrality of Lincoln’s home region – the West –to perhaps the war’s most lasting outcome. Beneath the edifice of post-war American nationalism lay newly formed regional identities that were anything but unifying and have proven more enduring than their sectionalized predecessors. By sustained and irreconciled politics that surrounded the war and its divisive outcome, emancipation, claimants of the former West’s promise of liberty changed what was once a lived border of confluence into an imagined and antagonistic border of separation, defined as North, South, and more complicatedly Middle West and Midwest. The formation of regional identities completed the nationalistic struggle that brought the war, accomplishing the moving frontier not by conquering physical space or its inhabitants but by creating a new regional geography understood as culture. In doing so, the West was effectively written out of the binary war narratives.

Having placed primary focus on those with less alloyed politics – Peace Democrats (or ‘Copperheads’), Radical Republicans, and secessionists in Confederate states’ polities – historians have ignored vast polities within free and slave states who lay between the ideological and political extremes. In the border states west of the Appalachians, the mass of civilians there lived the war neither as an exercise in mass politics nor as a test of ideological purity. Yet by dint of experience, they were as profoundly affected by the evolving conflict as those who committed themselves to political or ideological gain by it.

I certainly do appreciate Professor Cook’s claim of my ‘impressive empathy’ for border slave state residents. His comment reminded me of an evening conversation I had while working on this book with a Missouri friend and published historian of the Civil War in that state. Surely things would have turned out differently there, he claimed, ‘if it hadn’t been for all those damned do-nothing Whigs’. Perhaps not ironically, among those do-nothings was this friend’s ancestor, Thomas Shackelford, an elected representative to the state convention that voted overwhelmingly against Missouri’s secession in 1861. That conversation in turn reminded me of a caustic editorial published in 1860 in the influential Nashville Union, referring to the presidential candidacy of John Bell, former US senator and secretary of war from Tennessee, regarded by many as a border state alongside Virginia and North Carolina. Bell represented the short-lived Constitutional Union Party, an alignment of Old Line Whigs, proslavery moderates, and nativist ‘Know-Nothings’ that drew strength mainly from the border slave states. ‘Nobody’s man‘ the Democratic editor sniffed. ‘Stands on nobody’s platform. Fights nobody. Loves nobody.’


Whether ‘do-nothing’ Whigs or the ‘Nobody’ Bell-Everett ticket, which carried 40 per cent of slave states’ votes and three states: Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, I recognized that a moderate ‘silent majority’ in the Civil War era has largely been ignored. More than from my own ancestors’ experiences on both sides of the rivers (ironically perhaps, these Kentuckians ended in the home county of abolitionist and Radical Owen Lovejoy, where I was raised and learned a different narrative than they surely did about the war), my thinking received support from William W. Freehling’s The South v. the South and Edward L. Ayers’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies. These books appeared while I was working on mine, and I recognized that their arguments about civilians in wartime buttressed my own body of work on the sectional borderlands as a proving ground for nationalist tropes of ascension and declension. Studying the tensions and incongruities between them required a certain empathy for hitherto forgotten peoples.


Affecting their positions and understandings as often as possible certainly caused me to walk a fine interpretive line between scholarly judgment and advocacy. I also confess to caring about how people then saw things. So I began the writing of my book, having initially wanted simply to understand how border state residents lived the Civil War not entirely behind the front lines, the Iraq War was triggering social and political divisions at home and the erosion of civil liberties in wartime. I recognized the more recent conflict as something of a window into the border home front’s experience during the Civil War, something historians Jennifer L. Weber and Stephen Berry have similarly noted. This likely contributed to errors of commission that Professor Cook points out (Republican control of ‘all branches’ of the federal government certainly was one, and the constitutional right of secession another). Shifting the lens to moderate western civilians caught in the middle of this vast political, military, and social conflict, and offering unique perspectives of skepticism, disillusionment, and anger that contributed to a fuller study of regional politics before, during, and after the war, required accepting gray areas within prevailing contemporary conclusions. Doing so supports Ayers’ splendid 1998 essay ‘Worrying About the Civil War‘ reprinted in his 2005 anthology What Caused the Civil War, in which he calls for ‘a new Civil War revisionism’ and the need for a history of the Civil War ‘without a comforting story already in hand’ (pp. 129–30) in order to learn its fullest lessons. Mine certainly is not a comforting tale.

But empathy is not the same as sympathy. If, by Professor Cook’s suggestion of the book’s ‘neo-revisionist’ tone he means, as he writes, that my interpretation ‘laments the impact of the Civil War on the United States in general and his own region in particular‘ I concede. I similarly argue that his point conforms to my arguments that the West did not largely go to war over slavery, that most westerners primarily supported the restoration of the Union, that those who came to support emancipation did so out of political more than moral convictions, and that the antipathy for emancipation affected the region’s white political culture more than antebellum slavery because white westerners shared the general conviction of black racial inferiority and sought to blunt emancipation’s effects in wartime and after. The new revisionism is not blind to the evils of slavery, although it presumes that wars and politics are inevitably less than noble endeavors, however noble or ignoble the causes that undergird them. I disagree that my book privileges secessionists who, more than abolitionists, drove the nation to war and killed the slave system by their impetuous risk-taking. I also am certain that my book does in fact convey my belief that without the war slavery would have continued indefinitely, best represented by the free and slave West’s moderate and conservative racial constituencies, politics, and resistance to emancipation and black citizenship.

Few modern historians argue seriously that slavery was not the war’s primary cause, and certainly I am among them. If anything, my book speaks directly to this point. But many middle border residents did not. They vehemently opposed abolitionism, disagreed that secession and the Confederacy represented the nation’s greatest threat, and were deeply threatened by the Republican ascendance in national and state governments and the potential for coercion of states by the Lincoln administration. The glue holding together the pre-war Republican coalition was more its opposition to Slave Power than to slavery, and much predated 1854, as Corey L. Brooks’s recent book, Liberty Power, brings to focus. Emancipation broke moderate Democrats from moderate Republicans more fully, as anti-administration Democrats took the reins of wartime dissent. Mark E. Neely’s scolding conclusion offered in his The Fate of Liberty about persistent criticisms of how Lincoln handled civil liberties – ‘the constitutional moralizing of sore losers’ (p. xi) – suggests dissent and dissenters have largely been interpreted in monolith. Certainly they were not always so. As William Blair’s With Malice Toward Some has instructed, many civilians in free and border slave states, Democrats and others, had valid complaints about the constitutionalism of wartime actions of the president and the federal military, and not all were full opponents of the war.

Moderates, anything but ideological purists, either were slow or unwilling to support much of this as part of what they considered an unwelcome, changed direction in the war from what they saw as its primary objective: restoration of the Union. I had hoped that the voices of such Republicans were prevalent rather than shadowy in the book, especially in describing the turmoil and perceived threats posed by dissenters and disloyalists in their communities, and their role in transforming their party in the western states to one of support for Lincoln, as evidenced by the powerful wartime and post-war satire of David Ross Locke written under the pseudonym Petroleum V. Nasby.

Certainly and perhaps ironically given what was to come, the pre-war Lincoln was no Radical, as historians recognize, and he was a moderate on the slavery issue even on the eve of war. Daniel W. Crofts’s important recent book, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery, focuses on the little-known, less remembered 1861 ‘Corwin Amendment’ to the US Constitution, passed by both houses of Congress and ratified by six states (including, less surprisingly, Kentucky and more surprisingly Lincoln’s Illinois, Corwin’s Ohio, and Rhode Island). His contrarian study reminds us that moderate positions on slavery and significant willingness to compromise existed within the Republican Party, especially among westerners, even as the war began. Moderation in other forms lingered as well. Professor Cook’s conclusion that Lincoln and Republicans shared a sense of slavery as a ‘genuine moral evil that required elimination’ finds its challenge in this ‘Other Thirteenth Amendment.’ Within a year, far less political will to compromise would exist among Republicans, whether with the South, Democrats, or moderates in their ranks. Scholars of wartime emancipation have shown the successful impact of Radicals when pushing forward an antislavery agenda. This required a massive shift of ambivalent or reluctant emancipationists among peacetime Republicans to full or fuller emancipationists in wartime. Lincoln himself shifted his positions as wartime events unfolded, more often than not toward the Radicals’ positions on arbitrary arrests, congressional authority, military conscription and confiscation, and slave emancipation.

Professor Cook makes intriguing points about the nuances of Iowa’s politics in wartime and postwar transformation that conform to those of the border states I studied. To his point about Hamlin Garland using the term ‘middle border’ in his 1917 book title, Lewis Atherton’s 1954 study Main Street on the Middle Border makes for a good interpretive pairing. Both presume a reconciliationist East-West border had largely supplanted the sectional North-South border in small towns in the emerging regions, making no reference to the contested political identities as the Middle West, Midwest, or Border South that had emerged there.

Cook’s good book, Baptism of Fire, on the Republican Party in antebellum Iowa, along with Robert Dykstra’s Bright Radical Star, offer important arguments about the antebellum and wartime coalition that emerged there to unseat the Democratic Party, and the political and racial outcomes. I agree there is much to compare Iowa’s pre- and post-war politics with the states I included in my book, geography among them. Despite its proximity to Missouri, Iowa was more like those northwestern states lying farther north – Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska. (Atherton includes all of these states as well as mine in his Middle Border, as well as Nebraska and part of the Dakotas.) Overcoming years of racial conservatism that included black laws and pro-slavery sentiment, already by the late 1850s Iowa was one of the most solidly Republican states in the nation before the war and among the most ardent, radical unionist states during it. Iowa’s narrative supports William E. Gienapp’s assertion in The Origins of the Republican Party that western states with strong Yankee electorates, particularly Michigan, Wisconsin, and the northern portions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, had moved most rapidly into the Republican camp.

But it was in the actual war experience, political and otherwise, and the wartime and post-war politics that so roiled the other free middle border states, that Iowa differed markedly from them. Guerrillas and bushwhackers occasionally beset loyal Iowans, but so did Indians in its still mostly unpopulated northwest counties. (Only a third of Iowa was settled at the war’s start.) Nowhere near was the extent of party warfare as suffered in the other states, all of which had a longer and fuller history of slavery than Iowa, as evidenced by the Republican governors of Illinois and Indiana proroguing wartime Democratic legislatures and the turmoil in Ohio in 1863 surrounding the failed gubernatorial candidacy of exiled Peace Democrat Clement L. Vallandigham. Post-war racial politics in Iowa proved nearly the inverse of those in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. In 1865, Iowa’s legislature endorsed black suffrage and was a cardinal faith of Republicans by the following years. According to Dykstra, by 1868 equal rights found a near consensus of white support in Iowa. No such accord was found in any of the other states.

Very unlike Iowa, antagonisms from the war carried over in the middle border states as decades of bitter politics between white neighbors, undergirding a pervasive irreconcilation over the war and especially black freedom. As my book describes, ‘KuKlux’ and ‘whitecaps’ plagued many areas of these states long before the second Great Migration brought soaring black populations to cities like Chicago, East St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Kansas City. Many of them have experienced racial violence in recent months, as well as others – Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Tulsa, and Minneapolis – that collectively were once border or western cities before they became something else regionally owing in part to unfinished reconciliations of that war. But the countryside and small towns saw even more overt claims to racial subordination. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan boasted its largest membership in Indiana, and sundown towns were a facet of life on both sides of the middle border’s rivers. To obscure pervasive racism and angry traditionalism across the region, including lynchings and racial cleansings, boosters coined the term ‘Midwest‘ associated with pastoral progressivism, to obscure the harsh racial legacy held by former war dissenters who didn’t side with emancipation. Their political heirs now used race to oppose the modern, urban-based growth that ‘northern’ victory had ushered in, as witnessed in the most contested of the new Midwestern states. Brent Campney’s recent book on wartime and postwar racial violence in Kansas, This is Not Dixie, offers a sobering reminder of the irreconciled racial outcomes of the new regionalism in free portions of the former middle border.

Appreciating western moderates’ war experiences and narratives might help us to understand the shocking recent election victory of Donald Trump and the modern Republican Party, led by conservatives and moderates in Southern, Western, and Midwestern states, as having been driven less by firm ideology than by anxieties, disruptions, and resentments over centralization, social engineering, polarization, and alienation. My concluding chapters speak directly to the emergence of regionalism as an antagonistic, post-Civil War political force, and interprets the persistence of it in modern American political culture as a forgotten legacy of the Civil War subsumed within the nationalist binary. Though generally interpreted through the lens of slavery, emancipation in fact blurred this binary into which the middle border has long fit only uncomfortably. Race is an unfortunate facet of this coalescence of the conservative middle as an oppositional force against the nationalizing margins, one that rejected the postwar biracialism that the northern victory appeared to demand and, in its modern incarnation, rejects the multiculturalism that neo-liberal modernization similarly demands.

I’m indebted to Reviews in History to be invited to respond to Professor Cook’s engaging review, which I see as an opportunity to open dialogue over the need for revision in our understandings of the Civil War and its continued centrality in American history.

The author wishes to thank Professors Daniel Crofts and Matthew Stanley for their assistance with this response.