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Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union by William C. Harris (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 541-543 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0079

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In a letter to Illinois senator Orville Browning, President Abraham Lincoln wrote, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us.” No single quote better reveals the critical importance of the slaveholding Union border states to the Federal war effort than Lincoln’s September 1861 warning to his longtime friend and political ally. Until recently, Lincoln’s vexatious heartland—Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland—has received only passing mention among historians of the Civil War. Newer scholarship has placed the border south into focus for the first time, including recent studies of slavery and emancipation, guerrilla warfare, and the changing regional identities along the border in the nineteenth century. But William C. Harris’s Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union is the first book to assess, in detail, these states’ relationship with the Lincoln administration.

Harris examines the politics of the three major border states from the 1860 election campaign through the war years. He discusses Delaware and West Virginia as well, noting that the experiences in both states differ in significant ways from those in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. In Delaware, the state’s cantankerous Democratic leadership opposed Lincoln at every turn, but it never seriously threatened secession. West Virginia receives less attention, mostly because its very creation in the midst of the war made for difficult comparison. As for the three major border states, then, Harris explores the complex ties between the shifting Union coalitions within each state and Lincoln’s efforts to bolster loyalty and, eventually, support emancipation. A “product of the border country,” Lincoln “proved equal to the task of retaining the loyalty of these states in the war and ultimately, in the cases of Maryland and Missouri, to the task of securing emancipation” (1, 11).

The organization of the book is a bit uneven. Some of the chapters are entirely thematic in nature, examining all three states and their prewar politics, responses to Lincoln’s compensated emancipation plan, and their reactions to wartime emancipation itself. The other chapters focus on singular border states, drawing out the peculiarities of each in relation to the other. The unevenness does not detract from the analysis, however, as Harris sensibly dedicates the appropriate space to the distinctive themes, dynamics, personalities, and crises within each state. And while there were similar challenges across the three major border states—notably the preservation of the Union in the face of a substantial and armed pro-Confederate minority and the orderly emancipation of hundreds of thousands of slaves, many of them owned by unionist masters—the three states also reveal peculiarities that tested Lincoln’s leadership at every turn.

Lincoln faced his most acute crisis in the earliest days in the state surrounding the nation’s capital: Maryland. Even before rioters in Baltimore assaulted the 6th Massachusetts Infantry en route to Washington, President-elect Lincoln faced the onerous task of arriving at the White House unharmed. Choosing to circumvent the powder keg of Baltimore and slip in to the District of Columbia by way of Annapolis, Lincoln demonstrated his lack of trust in Maryland’s political leadership to protect the inauguration route. As Harris demonstrates, Lincoln’s relationship with the tentative Union leadership in the state—especially after the state was placed under military rule—remained ever in doubt. Still, it may have been the most successful relationship between a border state and the Lincoln administration, especially given the stakes. Maryland did not produce the same kind of guerrilla uprising as occurred in Missouri, or vicious response to emancipation as in Kentucky.

While Lincoln was ultimately the most successful in his handling of relations with nearby Maryland, he gave most of his attention to his native Kentucky. At several junctures, he worked closely with Kentucky’s congressional delegation to at least temper their outrage over compensated emancipation, military rule, and black soldier enlistment. When the state declared itself a neutral party to the conflict in May 1861, Lincoln (and Jefferson Davis, for that matter) never really accepted the Kentuckians’ claim...

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