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  • War upon Our Border: Two Ohio Valley Communities Navigate the Civil War by Stephen I. Rockenbach
  • Matthew Stanley (bio)
War upon Our Border: Two Ohio Valley Communities Navigate the Civil War. By Stephen I. Rockenbach. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016. Pp. 256. Cloth, $45.00.)

Eschewing the pervading state-history models of his era, historian Edward C. Smith looked instead to topography and waterways as social connectors and dividers. In his 1927 study, The Borderland in the Civil War, he argues that the lower halves of northern states often had more in common with the upper parts of southern states than they did with the rest of their own state. Indeed. Although the study of this "middle ground" has advanced a great deal since Smith's pioneering work—Edward L. Ayers's In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863 (2003) and Christopher Phillips's The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border (2016) detail how both daily interactions and long-term identity in the sectional borderland were shaped by deeply nuanced and historically contingent cultural politics—many scholars still adhere to a rough North-South model, neglecting divisions within sections and among regions.

In a corrective to this binary, Stephen I. Rockenbach's War upon Our Border alleges that the antebellum Ohio River functioned far less as a [End Page 668] perforated sectional line between slavery and freedom than as a connecting artery of political and commercial life. The slave state–free state border, Rockenbach maintains, served as a physical, economic, and ideological intermediate, centered on western identity. Yet the War of the Rebellion shattered this ostensible cultural and political mutuality, and the liberalization ushered in by the war—emancipation and destruction of slavery, black enlistment, and the fate of freedpeople—proved the point of cultural divergence between neighboring slave and free states, leading eventually to contrary identities and popular memories of the conflict.

Rockenbach skillfully crafts this argument through case studies of two cities in adjacent states: Corydon, Indiana, and Frankfort, Kentucky. On nearly identical lines of latitude, Corydon and Frankfort were territorial settlements that quickly became economic centers and (for a time) state capitals. Both were the derivatives of frontier conquest; both were populated largely by migrants from Virginia and the Carolinas, and shared those states' mannerisms, language, and folkways; both were overwhelmingly Democratic in their politics; and, despite being separated by the institution of slavery, both were committed to de jure systems of white supremacy and entrenched notions of Herrenvolkism. Following James Oakes's take on slavery as a dynamic, capitalistic institution, Rockenbach argues that slavery did not make Frankfort less progressive or modern than its free-state analogues. In point of fact, it was no more "southern" than Corydon in 1860.

Secession tested these bonds of border culture and kinship. Unionist elites in both communities urged compromise and conciliation, as most white Kentuckians, their state having adopted "neutrality," deemed secession an even greater threat than abolition. The first year of the war saw people in Corydon and Frankfort, who genuinely viewed themselves as moderates, caught between sectional extremes, each looking to preserve the status quo, even as differences arose in political organization and military enlistment.

Indeed, what Karl Marx termed the "revolutionary waging of war" slowly undermined their genuine but often fragile regionalism. As recent works by Aaron Astor and Patrick Lewis also reiterate, confiscation, emancipation, and black enlistment threw into disarray the concepts of loyalty and Unionism in Kentucky, but they did not have the same immediacy on the north bank of the Ohio River. Liberal war aims were debated in Indiana; in Kentucky they threatened to overturn the entire social and economic order. For Hoosiers emancipation was a political issue; for those in the Bluegrass it was a life-or-death experience. Braxton Bragg's Confederate Heartland Offensive in the fall of 1862 and John Hunt Morgan's invasion [End Page 669] of southern Indiana and Ohio in the summer of 1863 exacerbated political polarization. The Ohio River "widened" further as resistance to the disruption of Kentucky's racial-labor framework led to an escalation...


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