Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Harris: "LINCOLN AND THE BORDER STATES: Preserving the Union"

[ Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union by William C. Harris (University Press of Kansas, 2011). Hardcover, map, photos, notes, index. Pages main/total:363/430. ISBN:978-0-7006-1804-0 $34.95 ]

The conservative pro-slavery politicians and citizens of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware are all too often presented in the literature as barely loyal obstacles in the way of President Lincoln's war and emancipation policies. The truth is, these Border State citizens, buffeted by both sides, were absolutely critical to Union victory, supporting to the end the preeminent aim of the war -- restoration of the Union -- even in the face of numerous indignities stemming from a brand of harsh military rule that often treated them as occupied enemies. William C. Harris's Lincoln and the Border States navigates all of these complicated issues with admirable depth and understanding. The word 'comprehensive' is overused in describing scholarly works, but it is entirely appropriate here.

Coverage of Delaware is very brief, centering on the Lincoln administration's early failed attempt to get the tiny state to accept compensated emancipation. In contrast, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri issues are examined in much more depth. The 1861 crisis in Maryland is a very familiar story, but its events are handled by Harris with refreshing sensitivity to the viewpoints of all concerned. Instead of the traditional assumption of the blackest of motives on the part of men like Governor Thomas Hicks and Baltimore's Mayor Brown and Police Chief Kane, Harris seeks to convey a fuller understanding of the difficulties imposed on these men by a mistake filled military transit strategy, one that added greatly to the state's already overexcited political passions. He provides a more nuanced portrait of those holding an understandable yet confounding mindset, one that both opposed secession and the forcible suppression of it.

The 1861-62 attempts by Missouri and Kentucky to maintain an armed neutrality (the former's obviously less sincere) are also capably outlined. In contrast to Claiborne Jackson of Missouri, the portrait of Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin's handling of his state's difficulties is largely sympathetic.  It may disappoint some readers that the guerrilla mess in Missouri is only handled in broad brush strokes.  Additionally, although the author does briefly discuss the command arrangements of the Missouri State Militia, it might have been fruitful to go into more depth about the Lincoln's administration's involvement in this unique joint initiative between the state provisional and federal governments.

Harris is generally approving, and often admiring, of the Lincoln administration's political skill in handling political disputes with the Border States, but he also astutely points to many of Lincoln's flaws as chief executive when it came to handling prickly state officials who were staunchly loyal to the Union yet wanted nothing to do with Republican policies and ideology.  For instance, in Missouri, the president would appoint and sack in rapid succession commanders overseeing military affairs in the state, fostering the appearance of rudderless federal leadership. Also, instead of establishing policy guidelines from the outset, he was always rushing to douse crises created by military district and department commanders left to their own devices in difficult places like Missouri and Kentucky.   Along this same line, the president, tone deaf to the feelings of the majority of Border State loyalists, also repeatedly erred in appointing a succession of politically radical officers in Border State department and district commands [ex. John C. Fremont and Samuel R. Curtis in Missouri and Stephen Burbridge in Kentucky].   This guaranteed constant and needless friction with state officials, without improving peace and security.  Also done well is the book's tracing of the Border States's evolving stance on freedom for their slave populations, from early rejection of administration derived compensated emancipation plans and heated popular opposition to the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to a final acceptance of abolition's inevitability and the drafting of new state constitutions abolishing the institution.

The book deals at length with how the Border States dealt with the ramifications of the Emancipation Proclamation and the instate raising of large numbers of black military units.  Civil unrest and guerrilla warfare was a constant concern, but a close reading of Harris's treatment leads the reader to conclude that Lincoln's July 1864 declaration of martial law in the state and the suspension of habeas corpus was a clear overreaction to events.  As Harris demonstrates, the level of sustained anti-administration rhetoric among politicians and newspaper editors reached highest levels in Kentucky. This is reflected in the text's emphasis, with Missouri and Maryland accorded far less space than the Bluegrass State. Space limitations undoubtedly force many omissions upon such a broad study, but it is somewhat disappointing that inquiry into fact and myth surrounding predictions of mass desertion by Border State soldiers spawned by the proclamation is neglected.

In terms of obvious flaws, the decision to omit a bibliography was unfortunate. Lincoln and the Border States will likely be considered by many to be the modern standard for the subject, and a listing of sources, or at least a bibliographical essay, would have been greatly helpful to readers and scholars. In addition to some readers being disappointed with the favored status of Kentucky in the volume, one might make the argument that West Virginia should have been included in the analysis.

Even so, a collective and thoroughly detailed examination of the turbulent Civil War political relationships of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware with the Lincoln administration is unprecedented in the literature, and Harris carries it all off with scholarly authority and a deep concern with analyzing the views of all sides. As a result, Lincoln and the Border States represents a body of scholarship of considerable value to Civil War students and is highly recommended.


More CWBA reviews of UP of Kansas titles:
* Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals
* A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign
* The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth
* Guide to the Atlanta Campaign: Rocky Face Ridge to Kennesaw Mountain
* Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla
* Civil War St. Louis
* The War Within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War
* Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era

1 comment:

  1. I was totally dumbfounded by his exclusion of West Virginia from the book, just as I was by West Virginia's exclusion from "Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia" by Brian McKnight. Many of those Confederate Virginians were "west" Virginians, which is why Gov. Pierpont wanted Lincoln to create a special military dept. for the West Virginia/KY border called Dept. of the Big Sandy.

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