Sunday Burgs book review
Reviewed by Hilbert Campbell of Christiansburg. Campbell is professor emeritus of English at Virginia Tech
As a native of one of the Civil War border states (West Virginia) and even of what could be called a border county in the southern part of that state (Fayette), I have long been fascinated by the stories of chaos, conflict, and outrage that have been told of the “border” section of our country during a bloody civil war. Lying between the seceded states to the south and the loyal states to the north, bitter divisions and clashes were perhaps inevitable. Communities – and at times even families – were divided in their loyalties.
Professor Harris writes in detail of Lincoln’s dealings with Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware. He does not include West Virginia in his discussions because its history is so different from that of the other states. Tennessee, although a part of the Confederacy, is also sometimes considered a border state because of a relatively large loyal Union population. All these states, including West Virginia and Tennessee, sent large numbers of soldiers to each side in the war.
The book is meticulously researched and written in clear and coherent – if hardly lively – prose. With its highly detailed accounts of Lincoln’s dealings with the border states, it likely will appeal more to those who already have some basic knowledge of Civil War history and at least some rudimentary understanding of the features and challenges of the Lincoln administration than to a relatively uninformed casual or general reader.
Lincoln believed that the loyalty of the border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware was essential for the preservation of the Union. Harris argues persuasively that – although prevailing thought has held that these states were considered safe because they had not left the Union by the end of 1861 – they actually required Lincoln’s constant attention and negotiation throughout the war on a variety of complex subjects, including federal-state relations, military vs. civilian authority, emancipation movements and reactions to them, recruitment of black soldiers, imposition of martial law, and the periodic suspensions of the writ of habeas corpus that Lincoln felt were necessary to maintain order.
It is important to remember that, although they remained in the Union, these states were slave states which remained fiercely protective of the institution of slavery and soundly rejected plans floated by Lincoln for “compensated emancipation” of slaves. When Lincoln announced his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, the border states reacted negatively, not because the proclamation applied to them, but because they recognized it for what it was, an entering wedge that certainly would affect them eventually.
The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, also opened the way for the recruitment of black soldiers for the Union army, another development which met stout resistance in the border states. It was reported, for example, “that bands of guerrillas were organizing throughout Kentucky with the purpose of preventing the enrollment of African Americans.”
Although Lincoln had always been against slavery, considering it morally reprehensible, he also fully realized that any premature attempt to emancipate the slaves in the border states would certainly drive them into the arms of the Confederacy.
Thus when abolitionist-minded generals like John C. Fremont and David Hunter issued unauthorized proclamations freeing the slaves in their departments, Lincoln promptly revoked the proclamations, bringing down immediately upon his head the wrath of Northern abolitionists, including many in his own party.
Although Lincoln’s adversarial relationships with Maryland and Delaware tapered off somewhat as the war progressed, Missouri and Kentucky continued to be scenes of lawlessness and violence. Guerrilla bands of Southern sympathizers continued throughout the war their reign of terror in Missouri; and, in July 1864, to forestall a “rebel insurgency” in Kentucky, Lincoln “boldly acted by suspending the writ of habeas corpus and establishing martial law in the state.”
Keeping the border states in the Union turned out to be one of Lincoln’s toughest challenges. Caught between those who pressed for immediate emancipation and those who, although loyal to the Union, considered any move toward emancipation a betrayal by Lincoln and the Republican government, his patient and skillful leadership was the main reason not only that the border states remained in the Union but also that slavery was abolished in America forever.
Learn more about Lincoln by visiting the display (through Oct. 19) called “Lincoln: The constitution and the Civil War” at the Newman Library, Virginia Tech.
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