- The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border by Christopher Phillips
The border between slavery and freedom occupies a contradictory place in histories of the Civil War era, in which it appears at once central and peripheral. In recent years, a growing number of scholars have attempted to reconcile these contradictions in narratives that identify the border—however it might be defined—as crucial to our understanding of sectionalism and war. Christopher Phillips’s meticulously researched and well-evidenced The Rivers Ran Backward is a welcome addition to this body of work. Phillips brings together insights gained over several decades of writing and publishing on the topic to construct a new and comprehensive interpretation of the border region and the sectional crisis.
Phillips contends that the West constituted a third important antebellum region that was neither northern nor southern. The West, which he dubs the “middle border,” consisted of “those states bordering the Ohio and Missouri Rivers west of the Appalachian Mountains and south and east of present-day Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan” (xvii). People living on both sides of the rivers in this region shared common cultural and political practices and identified themselves in opposition to divisive easterners, north and south. In order to develop his argument about the coherence of the West, Phillips begins well before the war, during the early national period. As Americans settled the region, they brought unfree laborers with them. Phillips argues that a social consensus accepting [End Page 135] unfree labor and presuming white supremacy existed throughout the middle border—in both slave and free states.
Despite the efforts of residents who attempted to remain neutral through the contentious war years, the sectional crisis ultimately divided the middle border politically. Phillips astutely recognizes that Unionists and Confederates alike viewed neutrality as disloyalty. He does not, therefore, focus only on Union efforts, but he also recounts Confederate attempts to secure loyalty in the region. Pressure from occupying forces on both sides hastened divisions in the middle border. Phillips effectively challenges our notions of sectionalism by using “northern” or “southern” as designations of political affiliation, not geographic origin. Identifying as northern or southern was a political choice middle border residents made in response to the circumstances of the sectional crisis and war. Phillips argues that emancipation was the turning point of the war for white residents. It, more than anything else, disrupted regional consensus.
In The Rivers Ran Backward, Phillips persuasively argues that the war experience in the middle border was distinctive. By examining the region from within, he is able to reconstruct how residents experienced the war. Phillips describes how Union authorities established a “dominion system” of military authority to maintain control of a divided population (185). The dominion system created a climate of heightened suspicion within which “shadow wars” emerged. These struggles involved everyone—including African Americans, women, and children—in an often violent contest for political control. Phillips argues that the experience of war led to a shift in regional identity. Residents no longer shared a political culture of accommodation and acceptance of slavery and instead saw themselves as living along the border demarcating North from South. Border narratives interpreted the war through a “North-South binary” that was projected backward to transform the middle border from one region into two.
Phillips brings familiarity with the border region to bear on three questions that appear repeatedly in scholarship on this topic. The first of these is the matter of defining the region and determining which states are included. The most limited definition of border states includes only slave states that did not join the Confederacy—in this case, the border is defined by secession and war. Phillips, like many historians of the past twenty years, uses a more expansive definition, one that includes free states and acknowledges the gradations of unfree labor that existed in those states.
How the border is defined, of course, helps determine its characteristics. The inclusion...