Sunday, May 17, 2009

Oertel: "Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas"

[Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas by Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel (Louisiana State University Press, 2009) Cloth, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 155/207. ISBN:978-0-8071-3390-3 $32.50]

Part of LSU Press's Conflicting Worlds series, historian Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel's Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas takes on a decidedly unconventional approach to the study of the "Bleeding Kansas" conflict. With it, she places her own stamp upon the recent surge in Civil War era race and gender role studies.

Oertel's work is organized thematically in five self-contained chapters. The first takes the reader back long before the better studied Kansas strife of the mid to late 1850s, integrating the region's Indian tribes into the race-based ideological discussion, one that the previous literature often limited to black and white. It examines how decades of religious, economic, and intermarriage between whites and Indian groups affected the notions of white supremacy in Kansas that would be so bitterly contested during the years immediately preceding the Civil War.

Oertel's writing agrees with much of Nicole Etcheson1's contention that both sides had similar priorities in terms of white liberty, but differed in the means by which it would best be achieved. Chapter two highlights those small but influential groups -- white, black, and Indian -- that generally opposed the stricter proposals addressing the social and political establishment of white dominance in the territory.

The third and fourth chapters propose distinct sectional differences in gender roles. The author argues that northern women involved themselves in social and political causes to a higher degree than southern women, who found themselves part of a more restrictive patriarchal system. In her book published earlier in the year, historian Nina Silber2 formulated a similar argument. With issues like women's rights and certainly anti-slavery agitation, this argument appears persuasive, but it seems more a matter of degree, with the women of both sections having far more in common culturally than not.

Chapter four outlines differences in masculine ideals between the sections. Southerners generally acknowledged northern superiority in commercial enterprise, but decried their reluctance to use violence in defense of their ideology and personal honor. Northerners, in turn, mocked the southern male's apparent lack of self control, likening it to behavior more bestial than gentlemanly. Of course, "Bleeding Kansas", John Brown's Raid, and the Civil War would help sort all this out, most likely to the entire satisfaction of none.

The arguments earlier raised in chapter one lead directly into the book's fifth and final chapter, which studies competing fears about and efforts in limiting miscegenation. Pro-slavery adherents believed that abolitionists sought to create a society that freely mixed (socially and sexually) the races, while the latter countered that masters' frequent fathering of mixed race children with their slaves similarly threatened a racially 'pure' society.

Other historians have examined, by book or article, the broad themes outlined above (and Oertel explicitly acknowledges and critiques their pioneering work), but their scholarly application to "Bleeding Kansas" is largely an original contribution on the part of the author3. While accessible reading, due to its subject matter Bleeding Borders will probably appeal most to an academic social history audience, and is a deserving candidate for placement in reading lists for upper division university courses.

Additional Notes:
1 - Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2004).
2 -
Gender and the Sectional Conflict by Nina Silber (UNC Press, 2009).
3 - Another book length scholarly publication of similar focus of interest is Kansas Territorial Reader (Kansas State Historical Society, 2005), a wide ranging essay compilation edited by Virgil Dean.

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Other Civil War Books and Authors Reviews of LSU Press titles:
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock

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