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Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union by William C. Harris (review)
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“I think to lose Kentucky,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in September 1861 to Orville H. Browning, “is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us.” Thus did our sixteenth president acknowledge that keeping the border states in the Union was of paramount importance for northern success in the Civil War.

Yet until now there has not been a book-length study of Lincoln and the border states. William C. Harris, professor emeritus of history at North Carolina State and author of several books on Lincoln, including Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency (2007), winner of the Henry Adams Prize, has addressed this gap with Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union. Harris’s thesis, as noted in the introduction, is that Lincoln’s “patient and judicious management of border-state affairs, though not free from error, proved crucial in keeping the border states in the Union, gaining their support for the war effort, and ultimately securing the end of slavery” (p. 8).

For the most part, Harris ably supports his thesis. Following an informative chapter on the future border states and the presidential election of 1860, Harris devotes two chapters each to Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri (understandably, Delaware gets shorter shrift), as well as another two chapters on Lincoln, the border states, and emancipation. Although early in the war Lincoln was often tentative regarding matters relating to the border states—his vacillation in relieving John C. Frémont from duty as commander of the Department of the West, for example, is downright embarrassing—he became firmer and more competent as the conflict proceeded. His deft handling of the slavery issue is particularly instructive here, as he gently prodded Maryland and Missouri to abolish slavery by the end of the war. Above all else, of course, Lincoln managed to keep the border states in the Union—by no means a sure thing, notes Harris, given their ties to the South, because of slavery, contempt for the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party, and suspicions of the authoritarianism of the Lincoln administration.

Unfortunately, this otherwise solid study is marred by several flaws. West Virginia, which became a border state during the war, is not included (although Harris, to his credit, does explain this omission). There is neither a conclusion nor a bibliography (to be fair, the decision not to include the latter might have been out of the author’s hands). This reviewer counted approximately two dozen instances in the endnotes where quotations from the text are cited as “as quoted in” or some variant thereof. One would think that Harris should have been able to track down the original sources for at least some of these quotations.

Most regrettably, the author seems not to have utilized a number of potentially valuable resources. A key component of the book is the president’s interactions with the border-state governors. All told, there were nine governors of Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri who served during Lincoln’s time in office. A brief online search reveals manuscript collections concerning each of these men at locations such as the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, the Maryland Historical Society, the Missouri Historical Society, and the Missouri State Archives. Yet Harris apparently used none of these collections, thus weakening the case of the dust-jacket claim that it is a “well-researched book.” Frankly, one expects better from the cowinner of the 2012 Lincoln Prize, an honor Lincoln and the Border States shares with Elizabeth Leonard’s Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky (2011).

Nevertheless, Lincoln and the Border States is informative, persuasively argued, peppered with interesting tidbits (such as the fact that the mayor of Baltimore himself shot and killed a rioter during the riot of April 19, 1861), and smoothly written (there are remarkably few typos or factual errors). And as the first of its kind, it makes for a solid addition to any Lincoln enthusiast’s bookshelf.

Ed Bradley  

Ed Bradley is an assistant editor for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln...

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