Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016, ISBN: 9780195187236; 528pp.; Price: £22.99
University of Sussex
Date accessed: 22 May, 2022
In 1850 Abraham Lincoln’s most celebrated rival, Stephen Douglas of Illinois, delivered an impassioned speech in the United States Senate. ‘There is a power in this nation ...,’ he averred, ‘That power is the country known as the great West – the Valley of the Mississippi, one and indivisible from the gulf to the great lakes, and stretching on the one side and the other, to the extreme sources of the Ohio and Missouri – from the Alleghanies [sic] to the Rocky mountains. There, sir, is the hope of this nation – the resting-place of the power that is not only to control, but to save the Union ... This is the mission of the great Mississippi valley, the heart and soul of the nation and the continent’.(1)
In the end no amount of western chest-thumping could resist the polarising forces of the 1850s. The resulting Civil War of 1861–5 was messy as well as bloody. It was certainly at its messiest in the border slave states of Kentucky and Missouri. Neither of these states seceded from the Union to join the breakaway Confederacy and both mustered more Federal volunteers than Rebels. In this important new book, Christopher Phillips attempts to answer an intriguing question. Why was it that by the end of the 19th century these antebellum ‘western’ states – polities that had much in common with their free-state neighbours above the Ohio River – regarded themselves, and were regarded by outsiders, as southern, whereas Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were defined as northern? He finds the answer, first, in the testing wartime experiences of the people living in the slave and free portions of what he calls ‘the American Middle Border,’ and, second, in the strikingly different commemorative practices of those residents after 1865. ‘Loss as much as victory...’, he concludes, ‘defined the new regionalism on both sides of the rivers’. By 1900 two new regions had been created by ‘exclusivist politics that imagined as much as they had experienced the war. The national confluence once represented by the West was remade as South and North’ (p. 338).
The book breaks down easily into three non-delineated parts. Part one (chapters one to three) details the history of the middle border before the Civil War; part two (chapters four to seven) assesses the war’s impact on the region; and part three, chapter eight, explains the shift to a North-South binary divide in the late 19th century. Throughout the discussion Phillips makes it clear that the rivers referred to in the title of his book are metaphorical as well as actual ones. Fast-flowing streams of war-driven politics, racial violence and historical memory refashioned the broadly unified middle border into two culturally distinct American regions.
In part one Phillips argues forcefully that the existence of slavery in two of his five states did not initially divide the white settlers who moved into the region in the early national period. Taking his cue from a previous generation of historians including V. Jacques Voegeli and Eugene Berwanger, he argues convincingly that colour prejudice transcended any notional boundary between free and slave states. Illinois, Indiana and Ohio may have been the fruit of the 1787 North West Ordinance that barred slavery above the Ohio River, but many of their residents proved reluctant to see the back of the ‘peculiar institution’. In 1824, for example, the Illinois legislature sanctioned a referendum on calling a constitutional convention to retain slavery. Although the proposition was defeated with the assistance of Virginia-born governor Edward Coles, there were still 331 slaves in the state as late as 1840, many of them the property of Kentuckians and Missourians. Phillips observes that hostility to slavery in the 1830s and 1840s was concentrated mainly in areas of the New England diaspora, most notably the Western Reserve around Cleveland, and that several leading abolitionists in this period actually hailed from the slave state of Kentucky. Most residents of the middle border had little interest in slavery as a moral issue and even less in providing free blacks with equal rights. The free states of the region all passed legislation to curb black in-migration and prevent persons of colour from sitting on juries, serving in militias and voting. Mainstream parties fought battles during this period not primarily over slavery but over whether federal government assistance for infrastructural development was a good or a bad thing.
Party conflict over slavery extension in the 1850s began what proved to be a disastrous process of sectionalisation for the people of the middle border. Yet even during this turbulent decade, notes Phillips, most whites in the region eschewed radicalism. Although the rise of the anti-southern and anti-slavery Republican Party played a major role in polarising national politics, Phillips contends that the ideological gap between Lincoln and Douglas during their famous debates in Illinois in 1858 was relatively small. Both men claimed the mantle of Henry Clay, the slaveholding Whig leader from Kentucky who had dampened sectional passions thrice in his eventful congressional career, while Lincoln’s ‘reasoned racialism’ and Douglas’s ‘overtly racist rhetoric’ concealed the fact that ‘their arguments were often parallel’ (p. 102). During the tense secession crisis of 1860–1 support for the Republicans ebbed away in many parts of the region’s free states, while demands for peaceable compromise swelled on both sides of the Ohio.
Phillips is at his best in part two where he describes the appalling impact of civil war, ‘wolfish war – less to be won or lost than endured or survived’ – on the middle border (p. 170). Although the conflict afflicted the free states by dividing anti-war Democrats and pro-war unionists in the southern counties of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, its worst effects were felt in the border slave states. Here, the majority of whites were conditional unionists hoping to avoid being caught up in the spiralling violence between Federal and Confederate forces. Their hopes were dashed by northern and southern military authorities, abetted by local hardliners on both sides, who saw no virtue in lukewarm support for their respective cause or, in the case of Kentucky, Swiss-style neutralism. Phillips is particularly critical of Federal leaders like President Lincoln and some of his western military commanders for drawing a clear line in the region between loyal unionists and treasonous Confederates. Hard-war policies, he argues, such as the confiscation of property, ad hoc declarations of martial law, the imposition of coercive loyalty oaths, and wholesale arrests, proved counterproductive because they induced many conditional unionists who regarded themselves as ‘southerners of culture’ to become ‘political southerners’ by rendering overt or covert support for the proslavery Confederacy (p. 132).
The most controversial hard-war policy of all was emancipation which, contends Phillips, finally splintered ‘the western consensus’ and drove ‘a wedge’ between free and slave-state residents (p. 211). The division was not at first a clear one. Emancipation received little support in the lower ‘butternut’ tiers of the free states. Hundreds of Federal officers and soldiers from these counties, especially the many Democrats among them, resigned from the Union army after Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamations in 1862 and 1863. Two Illinois regiments virtually ceased to exist as a result of mutiny and desertion. But the scale of hostility toward abolition in the wake of these edicts was much greater in the slave than the free states of the middle border because the majority of white Missourians and Kentuckians could not imagine living in a society in which blacks dwelt among them as free men and women. Phillips argues convincingly that emancipation was closely linked to a rise in guerrilla violence in both his slave states. Guerrillas targeted draft officials and unionist legislators and burned scores of courthouses to the ground. Lincoln’s decision in 1863 to muster blacks into the United States armed forces further enraged whites hostile to emancipation. ‘Waves of racialized guerrilla violence’, writes Phillips, swept the lower border, intensifying Federal hard-war policies and bringing black enlistment to a virtual halt in Missouri by the summer of 1864 (p. 261).
White women were both ‘participants and victims in this shadow warfare’ (p. 262). They suffered as refugees, as the victims of guerilla depredations and, in the case of slaveholding women, as the objects of intense Federal suspicion. The 1863 Lieber Code defined women who offered succour to the Confederacy as ‘quasi-combatants’ (p. 263). As a result hundreds were incarcerated in prisons in Louisville and Newport, Kentucky, or banished to the Confederacy. Women furnished material aid to regular and irregular forces on both sides and contributed to the backlash against emancipation. Perhaps because of the paucity of reliable sources Phillips has relatively little to say about the wartime experiences of black women. But he is surely right to observe their inability to protect themselves and their children from angry whites opposed to emancipation and from insensitive treatment at the hands of United States military authorities who crowded vulnerable black civilians into insanitary refugee camps.
The book’s final part demonstrates the importance of post-war cultural politics, grounded in these searing wartime experiences, in cementing the destruction of the antebellum western consensus. Bolstered by persistent racial violence during Reconstruction, white supremacist Democrats seized political control of Kentucky and Missouri. Their victory, combined with widespread local white hostility to equal rights for freed blacks, provided the perfect environment for Confederate commemorative practices. White women belonging to Ladies’ Memorial Associations and, later, the United Daughters of the Confederacy joined with Rebel veterans in seizing the mnemonic initiative from former unionists, many of whom were disenchanted with emancipation and congressional Republican support for equal rights. The result was what historian Gaines Foster called ‘the Confederate tradition,’ a remarkably durable and heavily politicised historical memory that rendered both Kentucky and Missouri bastions of the South’s Lost Cause.(2) Meanwhile Union veterans in the old free states formed their own groups like the Grand Army of the Republic which commemorated their unique civic service and sacrifice and disseminated the somewhat false impression that Illinois, Indiana and Ohio had always been bulwarks of the free North rather than, as Douglas had put it, ‘the great West’.
This book has many strengths, most of which stem from the author’s refusal to endorse binary accounts of the Civil War. The result is, by his OUP editor’s admission, a ‘sprawling’ work, but one that conveys superbly the damage done by war to the diverse residents of a no less sprawling region that had once had grand hopes of saving the republic from the disastrous consequences of sectional conflict (p. xi). However, there are flaws. Phillips creates something of a straw man when he claims that ‘historians of the sectional crisis commonly portray the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ... as having awakened a somnolent North to the dangers of a “slave power” conspiring to spread the peculiar institution to the western territories’ (p. 88). This isn’t my opinion nor is that of political historian Michael Holt whose influential Political Crisis of the 1850s is not cited in the otherwise impressive bibliography.(3) Most northerners were not ‘awakened’ to the idea of a slave power plot until Douglas introduced his fateful Kansas-Nebraska bill into Congress in 1854. Phillips errs too in contending that Republicans controlled ‘all branches’ of the federal government when they came to power in 1861 (p. 122). They certainly did not control the Supreme Court and their power in the Senate was enhanced greatly by the withdrawal of so many slave-state delegates. This mistake has serious implications, for his statement imparts greater legitimacy to the secessionist cause than it deserves. The same is true of his debatable claim that ‘the federal government’s coercion of states, more than the question of slavery, most threatened the nation’s stability’ at this time (p. 122). The greatest threat to national stability surely came not from the Lincoln administration but from the creation of the Confederacy in February 1861. Equally dubious is his suggestion that in December 1860 South Carolina ‘voted unanimously to exercise a state’s ultimate right to withdraw from the Union’ (p. 108). In saying this the author implies that South Carolina actually possessed the right to secede. But, of course, therein lay the rub. Such a ‘right’ was not enumerated in the Constitution and was vigorously denied by northern unionists like Abraham Lincoln.
At an early stage of the book the author announces that he is descended from slaveholding Kentucky neutralists who opposed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States (p. 6). This revelation may help to explain his impressive empathy for, and predominant focus on, the people of the border slave states. Phillips’s account has a distinctly neo-revisionist feel to it. In common with an older generation of historians like Avery Craven and George Fort Milton, he clearly (and with good reason) laments the impact of the Civil War on the United States in general and his own region in particular. This approach enables him to deliver a fine account of the conflict’s devastating impact on the middle border, but hinders him from considering a point made robustly during the late 1940s by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that slavery was a genuine moral evil that required elimination.(4) He is an especially harsh critic of the Republicans for sectionalising political debate in the 1850s and for advocating hard-war policies in the war itself. Greater empathy for what, in this book, are the rather shadowy Republicans of the upper middle border would have enabled him to paint a more nuanced picture of the sectional conflict. Indeed, had he incorporated the state of Iowa into his analysis, his interpretation of events could have been very different.
There is no obvious reason why Phillips could not have included the free state of Iowa in his definition of the middle border. Hamlin Garland, a well-known ‘regionalist’ writer, spent much of his early life in the state and titled his 1917 autobiography A Son of the Middle Border. Iowa lies north of the slave state Missouri, just as Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio lie above Kentucky. Its lower-tier counties were settled by large numbers of white southerners in the antebellum period, as were the southern portions of these other western free states. It was similarly dominated by white-supremacist Democrats until passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Robert Dykstra’s Bright Radical Star (1993) demonstrated how anti-slavery activists in Iowa, many of them devout Quakers and New England Congregationalists, joined forces with pragmatic politicians to seize control of the state government from the Democrats and, in 1868, secure a popular vote in favour of the enfranchisement of local blacks.(5) For many, though certainly not all, of these crusading Republicans, slavery and racial prejudice were sins that sapped the health of the nation. Although their radicalism may have contributed to the onset of the violence that Phillips describes, they had good reason to regard human slavery and racial prejudice as repellent. What was a real dilemma for many white residents of the middle border (Lincoln provides a good example) is also a dilemma for modern scholars who know that only a bloody civil war could have ended slavery in the United States as early as the 1860s. This book would have been strengthened by a clearer acknowledgment of that quandary. It is, nonetheless, essential reading for anyone interested in the American Civil War and its unforeseen consequences.
- Robert W. Johannsen, The Frontier, the Union, and Stephen A. Douglas (Urbana, IL, 1989), p. 85Back to (1)
- Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South (New York, NY, 1987), pp. 4–5.Back to (2)
- Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York, NY, 1978).Back to (3)
- Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ‘The cause of the Civil War: a note on historical sentimentalism’, Partisan Review, 16 (Oct. 1949), 969–81.Back to (4)
- Robert R. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star: Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (Cambridge, MA, 1993).Back to (5)
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.