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New Civil War Book Examines How Loyalty “Reversed Course” in Border States

Border states that considered themselves the “West” before the Civil War dramatically redefined themselves during and after the war. A new book by a UC Civil War historian examines that process and the end result.

Date: 5/20/2011 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824

UC ingot   Cincinnati’s John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge is a key symbol and metaphor University of Cincinnati Civil War historian Christopher Phillips uses for the issues he  examines in his just-published book, “The Rivers Ran Backward” (Oxford University Press).
Cover of book by Christopher Phillips

The book, intended for both a popular and scholarly audience, examines how what was called the “West” before the war – border states Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri – redefined their loyalties and identities during and after the Civil War, thus creating the border that we now know.

He explained, “Before the war, loyalties and how people defined their local communities and regions ran in one direction. After the war, they largely ran in an opposite direction. The war caused a seismic shift that still echoes today, where states like Kentucky and Missouri became ‘southern,’ and Ohio, Indiana and Illinois became ‘northern,’ or, for others, ‘Midwestern.’”

The Roebling Bridge is a metaphor for these developments in that the bridge project was originally proposed in the late 1830s by the Lexington, Ky., business community, a community that did not consider itself in the “South” at the time but as the self-styled “Athens of the West” and aligned with Ohio at the time, which also defined itself as the “West.”

When the Civil War began in April 1861, construction on the Roebling Bridge stalled, and throughout the war, it consisted of nothing more than two stone support piers rising out of the Ohio River, not to be completed till after the war.


It was not until after the Civil War that the border states definitively decided their loyalties in that contest. For instance, during the war, Union troops from the Cincinnati area were not – largely – comprised of native-born residents but of German immigrants, said Phillips, UC professor of history.

He stated, “The whole region was deeply divided. Those with deepest roots in the region generally did not enlist until forced. Cincinnati’s Union troops drew heavily on the German immigrant community that had grown here after failed revolutions in Germany in 1848. In Kentucky and Missouri, residents enlisted far more in their state and local militias than in federal service. They would protect their local communities in the event of invasion or slave uprising.”

“Basically,” he added, “the border states that later came to define themselves as ‘southern’ had, like their free-state neighbors, a strong commitment to ‘union’ as a national concept. They placed a bet that by not seceding, they could protect their tradition of slavery. They remained in the Union, and Lincoln excluded them from the Emancipation Proclamation. (The proclamation, which took effect Jan. 1, 1863, freed slaves only within states then in rebellion.) By 1864, they realized they had bet wrong, that slavery would end. Those who were not secessionists at the war’s outset and did not define themselves as ‘southern’ changed to do so late in the war or after it was over.”

In other words, the meaning of this identity – “southern” – changed with the war’s changing nature.

And border states had reason to believe that slavery in loyal states would be protected. Though most people don’t know it, slavery existed in the border states later defined as “northern” up until 1845, according to Phillips. Though slavery was officially banned in these states as part of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, there were many loop-holes in that law, and it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that slavery, or forms of it, definitively ended in several “northern” states.

“That is not well known today,” said Phillips. “It’s a part of these states’ histories that was definitely downplayed after the war. But it shows how the border states originally had a lot more in common with one another as the ‘West’ than they did with either the ‘North’ or ‘South’… .”

Phillips is able to draw upon the stories of individuals, families and small communities to explore redefined loyalties during and after the war. These include historical letters by his own relatives, letters he found in the archives of the Kentucky Historical Society.

He found that “my family ancestors were typical for Hardin and Grayson counties in Kentucky. They did not fight in the Civil War. They even called it a ‘hellish business’ when after the war, a local candidate for office was assassinated because he favored ratification of the 13th Amendment (which outlawed slavery, and which Kentucky refused to ratify until 1976.) But they too came to define themselves as southern.”

Diaries, letters and other materials of the era proved rich sources for Phillips. One diarist of the time from Bowling Green, Ky., seems to epitomize the broader currents at work. The diary of Josie Underwood tells of how the family’s farm (what would have been called a plantation in the deep South) was first occupied by Confederate troops from Kentucky and Missouri and then burned by those withdrawing troops in 1862.

The family, having lost everything, traveled to Washington, D.C., for assistance. Entries made at that time include meetings with Abraham and Mary Lincoln. In fact, a diary entry found by Phillips is the only eyewitness account specifically relating to President Lincoln on the day he finished the drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation, worked on   at the Soldier’s Home, a nearby summer retreat for the Lincoln family.


After the war, mixed loyalties were redefined by war-driven narratives. For instance, meeting sites for Copperheads (“southern” sympathizers living in the “North”) went unmarked while “pro-Union” sites received recognition and designations. And for decades, few politicians in these border states got elected without referencing military service, even wounds received, for the “North” or the “South.”  

“These politicians are actually called ‘Bloody Shirt’ politicians,” explained Phillips.


Phillips has been conducting research for this book since 1995. Support for his work has come from the American Philosophical Society, Kentucky Historical Society, Missouri Historical Society, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the University of Cincinnati.

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