[The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border by Christopher Phillips (Oxford University Press, 2016). Hardcover, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:359/526. ISBN:978-0-19-9335879. $34.95]
It's no surprise that a number of current and upcoming books are comparative studies of nearby Civil War era communities located on opposite sides of the traditional border between North and South. Perhaps nowhere else in the United States were the identity of citizens and their views on politics, society, commerce, and race more resistant to easy generalities.
Markedly widening this locally focused lens, The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border instead brings a vast geographical expanse under consideration. In the book, author Christopher Phillips asks readers to cast aside preconceived notions of a sharply defined sectionalized U.S. in the decades preceding the war and, in its place, think of a more plastic border not confined by geographical barriers and with a large population strongly influenced by a new western identity. In defining the sprawling "middle border" (or the "West") for the purposes of this study, Phillips is referring to "those states bordering the Ohio and Missouri Rivers west of the Appalachian Mountains and south and east of present-day Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan."
The Ohio River has often been used as a generally agreed upon shorthand for the geographical line separating North and South, free and slave, but this book argues that such a sharp division did not exist. Rather a Middle Border cultural consensus, one moderate on the slavery issue and hostile to both fire-eater and abolitionist extremes, existed over wide swaths of territory above and below the Mason-Dixon Line. In the decades prior to the Kansas troubles of the mid-1850s, citizens of the Middle Border eschewed northern and southern labels and instead proudly proclaimed themselves part of a new "West" section1, one that not only would guide the future of the country but would help hold it together against the forces of extremism. However, as the book demonstrates, this alternative identity could not maintain itself in the face of the national cataclysms of the last half of the nineteenth century. According to Phillips, antagonistic and mutually exclusive "North" and "South" labels reasserted themselves during the Kansas troubles, were solidified during the Civil War, and persisted throughout Reconstruction and far beyond.
Very early in the Civil War, Middle Border citizens found that the middle ground they cherished so much would no longer be respected by either side. Phillips shows that conciliatory Union military policy (interpreted by many to have been in force until mid-1862 in most theaters) often lasted mere days or weeks in the Middle Border. Whatever the orders from conservative commanding generals and the army's civilian leadership, lower ranking officers and the rank and file of Union regiments entering Missouri and Kentucky were demanding, and implementing, hard war from the very beginning. When Confederate forces were pushed out of both Missouri and Kentucky by early 1862, many Middle Border residents breathed a sigh of relief that perhaps military control would be relaxed but quite the opposite occurred. Flustered by pockets of local resistance, by the summer of 1862 Union authorities firmly established in the Middle Border what Phillips calls their "dominion system." It had six fundamental precepts, all of which worked toward the elimination of any middle stance on loyalty — (1) military districting, with a relatively free hand given to local commanders to interpret and implement federal directives using federal troops supported by home guards and militia, (2) use of Unconditional Unionists to provide intelligence on the loyalty status of neighbors and gather evidence for arrest, (3) creation of a provost marshal system with expansive policing powers, (4) establishment of loyalty through oaths and bonds, with severe penalties for refusal, (5) imposition of martial law and suspension of civil liberties, and (6) creation of a system of economic coercion through strict trade regulation. As Phillips and other scholars have discovered, the army found trade restrictions to be a particularly effective means of civilian control.
The Emancipation Proclamation comprised one of the deepest wedges driven into Middle Border society during the war, on both the home and military fronts. It is commonly recognized that emancipation caused hundreds of Union officers to resign and some number of soldiers in the ranks to desert, but the overall effect on the war effort has been generally deemed minimal. Phillips suggests the problem was more serious, citing among other examples the case of two southern Illinois regiments that were so riven by desertion and mutiny that they had to be disbanded entirely. Emancipation also alienated loyal home front opposition to the Lincoln administration from the soldiers in the field, who increasingly regarded civilian resistance toward freeing the slaves as treason against the government and a betrayal of the considerable sacrifices made by the men in the ranks. This is a common theme in the recent Civil War literature and is one that is substantially reinforced in the book.
Phillips also discusses the region's guerrilla conflict in the context of emancipation and black enlistment in the Union army. Emancipation led to an uptick of violence in already guerrilla infested states like Missouri and Kentucky, but army recruitment of both free blacks and the slaves of loyal masters set the Middle Border aflame. Support for emancipation became an ironclad test of loyalty and pro-Union slaveholders found themselves constantly harassed and pressured by military authorities and recruiting agents, regardless of official enlistment policy. When President Lincoln removed all recruitment restrictions in May 1864 and appointed hard line officers to oversee martial law in the Border States, an explosion of violence and retaliation occurred.
The sharp Middle Border divisions created by the Civil War extended well into the post-war period. It took most of a decade for the most draconian measures of the radical Drake Constitution to be overturned in Missouri, but politics in Kentucky quickly reverted to a favorable environment for formerly pro-slavery conservatives and ex-Confederates. Mob and paramilitary violence occurred throughout the region but was heightened within, and particularly endemic to, both ex-slave states. The book explores the powerful forces of Civil War commemoration that for decades created war narratives and memories (often inventing artificially exclusive ones) that reinforced divisions along North-South lines. According to Phillips, the resulting cultural schism proved to be a permanent break from the Middle Border's antebellum white consensus.
The bibliography of The Rivers Ran Backward is impressive. The book very effectively combines extensive original research with mastery of an immense and rapidly growing secondary literature. The vast reach of the author's manuscript research personalizes in a very potent manner the book's many macro-political discussions. For example, an early chapter discusses a free state entrepreneur's extensive use of slave labor in the Illinois salt industry. This vignette forcefully illustrates the plastic reach of slavery and reinforces the author's argument for the existence of a fluid Middle Border in the first half of the nineteenth century. Another chapter, this one examining Shaker colonies in Kentucky, offers a profound example of the war's politicization of religion and the inability of religion (even that of pacifist sects) to escape the war's demands for a binary system of loyalty with no middle ground permitted.
Keen readers will recognize that important parts of The Rivers Ran Backward draw upon previous books and articles written by Phillips and that this study integrates these wide ranging subjects and themes into a cohesive and much expanded new whole2. In many ways, The Rivers Ran Backward is a wonderfully deep distillation of a career's worth of scholarly investigation into the people, politics, society, and warfare of the western borderlands during the Civil War era. It is highly recommended.
1 - Other historians have written about this idea of a West that would unite the country by diffusing conflicts between North and South and strengthen the country through its own vigorously expansive economic and cultural force. A particular fine example from the literature is Adam Arenson's The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (Harvard, 2011).
2 - Over the past three years, Phillips has produced two related works, this one and The Civil War in the Border South (Praeger, 2013). The latter is a very useful introductory volume to many of the themes explored here and elsewhere throughout the author's professional career.