Monday, July 28, 2014

Soike: "BUSY IN THE CAUSE: Iowa, the Free-State Struggle in the West, and the Prelude to the Civil War"

[Busy in the Cause: Iowa, the Free-State Struggle in the West, and the Prelude to the Civil War by Lowell J. Soike (University of Nebraska Press, 2014). Softcover, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:231/304 ISBN:978-0-8032-7189-0 $30]

Author Lowell Soike is probably correct in his assertion that the involvement of other states in the Kansas Troubles of the 1850s has been neglected in the literature of the Civil War era. His new book Busy in the Cause: Iowa, the Free-State Struggle in the West, and the Prelude to the Civil War seeks to redress this deficiency by examining the contributions of the Hawkeye State to the bitter conflict more famously prosecuted by those from Missouri and Kansas Territory.

While the book's characterization of the free soil conflict in Kansas and western Missouri is not entirely one of heroes versus villains, better rounded background accounts of the Bleeding Kansas era exist, among the best Nicole Etcheson's Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (2004). That said, Busy in the Cause is full of fascinating insights and specifics. As an example, commercial interests in St. Louis and other points along the Missouri River profited greatly from the transit of settlers, and when proslavery forces blockaded and harassed Free-Staters to the point of their seeking new routes outside the state the lost business turned many Missourians against the more radical slavery proponents. With much of the literature focusing on aid societies fostering the creation of a free state Kansas, Soike also points out that greater numbers of northern emigrants relocated to Iowa and even western Missouri than settled in Kansas during the 1850s period under consideration, the territory's violence and lawlessness undoubtedly making the new lands less appealing to many citizens. Figures like that serve as useful reminders that Kansas, though seizing all the headlines at the time, was just part of a broader struggle for the future of the West.

In addition to profiling many Iowans who supported the antislavery movement in Kansas, men like John A. Wakefield, Dr. Ira Blanchard and Rev. Pardee Butler, the book does a fine job of tracing the development of emigrant trails through the state, the northern alternative route that grew out of the increasing danger and uncertainty surrounding Missouri's faster and cheaper water based transportation network. Soike's narrative relates the experiences of several groups using the Iowa trail and explains how communities and evangelical religious groups assisted them along the way. The town of Tabor became an important antislavery outpost. Iowa's newly realigned political machinery also proved helpful, the fallout from the Kansas-Nebraska Act having broken the stranglehold over state government that Conservative Democrats previously enjoyed. According to the author, the governor even transferred two thousand muskets from the state arsenal into the hands of free state emigrants, a shockingly illegal action that was never fully investigated.

Soike also discusses at some length the assistance Iowans rendered to runaway Kansas and Missouri slaves, the newly developed emigrant trail in some ways converted to a series of Underground Railroad stations. Several episodes are detailed, including revelations about how well armed many escaping slaves were, with the author crediting their success as having at least some effect toward weakening the institution of slavery in Missouri [Soike cites the 1859 Jackson County assessors' figure of a 17% drop in slave numbers during that year alone, mostly due to fearful owners selling their human property "down south"].

A large proportion of the study is devoted to the activities of John Brown and his followers. While Soike does place a certain amount of appropriate focus on Brown's Iowa connections (ex. recruiting Iowans to his guerrilla band, using Tabor as a secure base, and building local alliances in sympathetic communities like Grinnell), he perhaps strays a bit too much from the Iowa-centric theme by exploring Brown's Kansas and Missouri operations in such detail. While the work is fine and documenting these events is important, page space could perhaps have been more profitably reserved for topics more specific to Iowa. For instance, while Soike does mention in passing the opposition opinions of several Democratic newspapers and the lukewarm attitudes some communities held toward the most radical antislavery forces, the full spectrum of Iowa political views and party politics in relationship to the most critical years of the free state struggle is distinctly lacking.

Relatively minor complaints aside, Busy in the Cause is a unique and important contribution to Iowa history and to the literature of the 1850s Free Soil movement in the unsettled West. If someone would create a similarly themed volume for Nebraska Territory (perhaps a companion piece to James Potter's fine Civil War history), the northern border context of the Kansas-Missouri conflict would finally have the kind of coverage it deserves.

More CWBA reviews of UNL Press titles:
* Manassas: A Battlefield Guide
* Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 (Bison)
* The Enemy Never Came: The Civil War in the Pacific Northwest (For Caxton Press)
* The Settlers' War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s (for Caxton Press)
* Of Duty Well and Faithfully Done: A History of the Regular Army in the Civil War
* Antietam, South Mountain, and Harpers Ferry: A Battlefield Guide
* Counter-Thrust: From the Peninsula to the Antietam
* Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign
* The Peninsula & Seven Days: A Battlefield Guide
* Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road

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