- Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland by Bridget Ford
In Bonds of Union, Bridget Ford seeks to explain why men and women in the border region remained loyal to the Union. While antebellum Ohioans and Kentuckians held strong economic and cultural ties, she suggests that “imagined connections” across the Ohio River helped to “join disparate parts into one whole” (xviii). Ford concludes that the Union was understood “in a capacious way, as self-government predicated upon affective bonds among diverse people” (304). According to Ford, this fictive kinship between Ohioans [End Page 88] and Kentuckians was manifested through shared religious practice, shifting racial ideologies, and a burgeoning western branch of the antislavery movement. Ultimately, these bonds became the sinews that kept Kentucky in the Union and checked a growing antiwar dissent movement within Ohio.
Ford suggests that antebellum Americans viewed the West as a “critical battleground” where the “final death struggle” between Catholicism and Protestantism would take place (3). With an influx of German and Irish immigrants, Ford asserts that Cincinnati and Louisville became Catholic strongholds. Concerned by the growing prominence of the Catholic church, Protestant preachers, such as Lyman Beecher, became increasingly alarmist about the specter of popish practice in the West. For instance, Beecher’s A Plea for the West argued that Catholic bishops conspired to convert Protestant children and “subvert enlightened religion and liberal democratic government” (19). Despite Beecher’s appeal, Ford finds that Catholic and Protestant practice conflated in significant ways. As missionaries vied to convert westerners, Ford argues that Catholics co-opted Protestant revival–style preaching and Protestants employed Catholic art. This conflation of Catholic and Protestant practice “took the edge off age-old doctrinal disputes” (63).
For African Americans in Ohio and Kentucky, religious practice took on a decidedly more activist form. In Cincinnati and Louisville, black congregations used the collective support, finances, and manpower of evangelical churches to confront slavery. By viewing the border region as the gateway to freedom for slaves, black churches actively channeled runaway slaves to Canada, attacked colonization efforts, and rigorously demanded funding for black schools. To accomplish these goals, black ministers established connections with white evangelicals, such as students at Lane Seminary and Oberlin College. As a result, Ford argues that black and white activists believed they were initiating “a millennium of freedom” (13).
Despite the efforts of black churches to establish biracial bonds, violence was prevalent across the border region with periodic mob actions directed toward African Americans. Ford notes that white mobs targeted black communities to enforce “rigid control of people of color” and to defend slave property (104). As the South steadily moved toward secession in 1860, Ford posits that the Ohio River became the clear dividing line between slavery and freedom. For instance, she notes that Cincinnatians and Louisvillians “helped to cordon off slave and free sections . . . and were very often at the front lines of these events, manning the barricades” (204).
At the front of those metaphorical barricades was Salmon Chase, who [End Page 89] played an influential role in repealing Ohio’s Black Laws in 1849. As secretary of the treasury, Chase established relationships across the Ohio River that he exploited during the secession crisis to ensure Kentucky’s loyalty. With the antislavery movement entrenched in white and black churches, Chase was able to employ a sizable institutional framework to convince Kentuckians that secession was not in their best interest. While Chase received support from Unionists on both sides of the Ohio River, his persistence—and personal knowledge—of the border region allowed him to craft conciliatory policies toward Kentucky that respected its desire for neutrality. Kentucky not only remained in the Union but, by the end of the war, had enlisted more men in the United States Colored Troops than any state but Louisiana.
In all, Ford writes in a clear, stylish prose that makes Bonds of Union an engaging read. Her discussions on religious practice are enlightening...