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Over the last two decades Christopher Phillips has emerged as the dean of the border states Civil War historians. His work on African American life in Baltimore, the antislavery general Nathaniel Lyon, Missouri governor Claiborne Fox Jackson, and his forthcoming magnum opus on the Ohio River Valley makes Phillips the preeminent scholar of the region. It was only natural that John David Smith, editor of Praeger’s Reflections on the Civil War Era series, would commission Phillips to write a “concise, informed and readable synthesis” (p. x) of the Civil War in the border states.
As the first synthesis on the region since Edward Conrad Smith’s 1927 book, The Borderland in the Civil War, Phillips’s The Civil War in the Border South incorporates the scholarship of dozens of historians (including his own) who have reassessed the conflict in [End Page 723] the slaveholding Union states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. With chapters arranged both chronologically and thematically, Phillips examines the politics of secession and loyalty, the arrival of large-scale military conflict, the emergence of internal resistance and guerrilla conflict, the civilian experience of war, and the destruction of slavery. With a fine bibliographic essay following the text, the book offers a sophisticated, readable, and usable account for scholars and lay readers alike.
Phillips makes a few arguments that guide the synthesis throughout. First is the contingent interplay between national and local forces in shaping the course of war in the border states. Nowhere was this truer than in Kentucky, where the state’s unique decision for “neutrality” helped forestall war for several months and gave time for the state’s conservative Unionist majority to consolidate its hold over the state in 1861. While other border states quickly devolved into guerrilla war (Missouri) or military occupation (Maryland), Kentucky’s pragmatic tradition of compromise kept the war out of the Bluegrass State until September of that year.
A second major theme of the book is the centrality of slavery and emancipation during the course of war in the border states. Phillips highlights the attempt by border slaveholders and politicians to maintain both slavery and Union in the face of internal slave resistance and increasingly emancipationist federal military policy. Much of this is familiar territory for readers of the Register, but the comparisons to other border state experiences underscore how much Kentucky’s struggle was part of a broader regional balancing act.
A third theme, picking up on the late historian Michael Fellman’s work, is the experience of guerrilla war. As Phillips shows, timing is key to understanding guerrilla warfare in the region. Guerrilla activity began early in Missouri and expanded in scope and destruction as pro-Confederate civilians found themselves permanently “trapped” behind Union military lines. Always aided by conventional military activity, including what Phillips calls the “Confederacy’s Tet Offensive” in 1862 (the invasions of Kentucky and Maryland), guerrilla war carried [End Page 724] the war’s carnage to civilian homes. As the war reached the hearths, barns, and homes of the border states, women became increasingly active in defending the homestead, both economically and militarily.
A fourth theme is that of shifting regional identities, a subject that has most clearly defined Phillips’s scholarship over the years. The complex interplay of sectional politics, war, emancipation, Reconstruction, and broader memorial traditions has placed the border states more solidly in the South after the war than before it.
One wonders about the broad region between Phillips’s Maryland and Kentucky, however. Here stands the Appalachian South, which exhibited many of the same characteristics of the rest of the border South but also some peculiarities that further add nuance to the border story. How, for example, did the emergence of West Virginia play into the Civil War experience of the border states? And how do we incorporate the pro-Union upland strongholds of East Tennessee and northwestern Arkansas into the explanation? For that matter, what role did communities on the northern side of the Ohio River and Mason-Dixon Line...