- War Upon Our Border: Two Ohio Valley Communities Navigate the Civil War by Stephen I. Rockenbach
Today we look on the Ohio River as an obvious marker between North and South, with all the social, cultural, and political connotations that come with these designations. It is difficult to cross a bridge from Indiana to Kentucky without pondering the fact that slavery, almost entirely absent from the Hoosier State, was an institution that was very much alive in the state of Kentucky until after the Civil War. As a result, residents of the United States in the twenty-first century might view the former slave state as irreconcilably different from the free state. Yet, as Stephen I. Rockenbach explains in War Upon Our Border: Two Ohio Valley Communities Navigate the Civil War, the Ohio River served not just as a boundary between slave and free states throughout much of the nineteenth century but also as a conduit that perpetuated the social and cultural linkages between settlers in both areas.
By focusing on the border region, Rockenbach follows the tradition of recent studies that concentrate on states such as Kentucky and Missouri during the Civil War era. He describes the social, political, and cultural milieu of two border towns—Corydon, Indiana, and Frankfort, Kentucky—located on opposite sides of the Ohio River. Situated just seventy-eight miles apart and at nearly the same latitude, these towns and the counties in which they are located serve as useful points of comparison that help us better understand how settlers in the Ohio River Valley perceived themselves and one another. Rockenbach makes two significant contributions to this field of study. First, while the structure of War Upon Our Border bears some similarities to Edward L. Ayers's In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, [End Page 168] 1859–1863 (New York, 2003), it also significantly departs from Ayers's book by concentrating on two communities that were closer to one another and connected, rather than divided, by a geographical entity—the Ohio River. Building on the work of historians such as Nicole Etcheson, Rockenbach reveals that citizens of border towns intentionally emphasized their similarities with one another and avidly worked to maintain peace as war loomed. United in their efforts to build a herrenvolk democracy, these settlers shared a potent desire to create and maintain a social order founded on white supremacy. Second, Rockenbach traces the breakdown of conciliation and the increasing divergence between the political cultures of northern Kentucky and southern Indiana as the Civil War progressed. He points to a variety of breaking points that turned the two areas against one another, including the Abraham Lincoln administration's decision to emancipate slaves in the Confederate South. In so doing, Rockenbach highlights his conclusion that although settlers in the two areas had much in common with one another, the "fragile regionalism" they created before 1861 "could not withstand the pressure of war" (p. 7).
I found chapter 6, which focuses on John Hunt Morgan's raid, to be Rockenbach's most interesting chapter. Perhaps I could not help being drawn to the excitement of the raid, imagining how a quiet southern Indiana town feared invasion yet remained insulated from the battles farther south. Rockenbach contextualizes the relationship between northern Kentuckians and southern Indianans and breathes even greater life into Morgan's raid, rendering this single event more fascinating as readers realize how slowly the conciliation and reconciliation of border towns came to such a complete and conclusive end.