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  • The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border by Christopher Phillips
  • Michael S. Green
The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border. Christopher Phillips. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-1951-8723-6. 528 pp., cloth, $34.95.

Mention border areas in nineteenth-century America, and western scholars might cite the borderlands field that focuses mainly on old Spanish colonies that now comprise much of the Sun Belt. Others will point to the border states in the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's statement on emancipation that he wanted God on his side but needed Kentucky. Identifying western border states seemed easy: Kentucky and Missouri, slave states that remained in the Union. But Christopher Phillips's remarkable new book should make all who study the nineteenth century think differently and deeply about the Civil War's border regions and perhaps borderlands history.

The Rivers Ran Backward focuses on those traditional border states, and the lower northern border—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas—then considers the west. According to longstanding arguments, "Once settled, the new states west of the Appalachians formed a fixed boundary between freedom and slavery, extending the border that inevitably produced the war. None of these beliefs is, or was, accurate" (5). Phillips explains, "This book is about how a traditional western political culture that traditionally accommodated slavery was transformed by the era of the Civil War—its coming, its lived experience, and its memory—into the cultural politics of region. It explains how slavery could organize the life of an entire region even as it became the foundation of the conflict while being at once its least attributed and most unreconciled cause among those white residents who endured it" (9).

To explain how the Civil War did and did not shape the region, Phillips travels a necessarily long and winding road from the early nineteenth century into the early twentieth. He examines how upper southern border states never relied so heavily on slavery as deeper and coastal southern states did, how slavery affected [End Page 92] the culture of the North's lower western border, how regionalism developed and its effects, and how historical memory shaped the Civil War's outcomes on the western border. A rich series of character portraits, statistics, descriptions, and analysis shows how slavery existed north of what traditionally has been considered the institution's northernmost boundary and how it and responses to it shaped race relations and politics. It seems as though every page has facts or analysis that historians of the era and its numerous subfields, as well as scholars of place and the places Phillips discusses, will find useful and thought-provoking.

Even a book this brilliantly researched and ambitious cannot do it all. Phillips states—maybe warns—that it "is largely organized chronologically and topically, moving back and forth as events occurred across the interior rivers, central to the region's history, between the middle border's slave and free states," which makes it difficult at times to follow a complicated story (10). For example, James Rollins appears as a proslavery Whig urging his West Point–cadet son to say "that you belong to neither section—that you are a true son of the great West" but never reappears as a border state unionist who votes and speaks for the Thirteenth Amendment—a niggling point, but the kind of information that might have done more to unify the story (94). The anecdote brings up Lincoln's role: Phillips calls him the "central figure" in the traditional narrative and "a lifelong resident of the border states of this region"; increasing his presence might have better underscored the evolution of the people, issues, and place (5). One way he puts Lincoln at the center is in the 1858 Senate debates: he sees the debates in the context of Illinois as part of the western border region is welcome, but calling Lincoln "still a Whig in a Democratic world" that year misstates his political evolution, the region's, and the result (Lincoln won more votes and legislators than Stephen Douglas) (102). More substantively...


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