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Illuminating Liminal Spaces and the U.S. Civil War

UC historian Christopher Phillips to be recognized with two 2018 All-University Faculty Awards for his groundbreaking scholarship.

Date: 3/27/2018 9:00:00 AM
By: Jonathan Goolsby
Phone: (513) 509-1114
Photos By: John Fuqua, Amazon

UC ingot  
"Liminal spaces," said University of Cincinnati historian and 2013 Fulbright lecturer Christopher Phillips. "I've always been drawn to them."

Liminal (transitional) spaces have always informed his scholarship, for which he will this year receive the University of Cincinnati's George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Creative and/or Scholarly Works and its Distinguished Research Professor Award

And it's no wonder. He's a product of them.

Phillips was a son in a Kentucky family that had transplanted, in the early 20th century, to "Forgottonia"—a rural region of Western Illinois that decries its cultural alienation from more urbanized and industrial areas of the state.

Photograph of U.C. historian Christopher Phillips
UC historian Christopher Phillips

"There's a long history of that place not feeling very connected and having mixed influences from Southerners who moved up the rivers," he explained. "It's by no means a Yankee suburb, and it's certainly not a suburb of Chicago. Chicago is a foreign city."

Phillips' area of expertise is the American Civil War and how it played out in such liminal spaces: in the border states, in the West, between cultures during the Reconstruction period, and following on through today's charged, regionalist politics.

"There's the old cliché that the North won the war and the South won the peace," he said. "The aftermath of the war wasn't as clean and neat and separated from the war as maybe we commonly assumed."

"Scholars are beginning to look at the aftermath of the war and say, well, there was no peace," Phillips noted. "There was actually just more violence. Even the shooting war continued."

Is the Civil War still being fought?

Phillips' 2016 book, The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border, probes that question.

It  traces the roots of the rural- and suburban-centered, modern American right, from wartime borderland Copperhead-ism, through pro-Confederate insurgencies of the Reconstruction period and development of early 20th century myths of the "Lost Cause," through Jim Crow laws, segregation, "States' Rights" rhetoric and white backlashes against the Civil Rights movement, to today's populist-emboldened white supremacists.

Book Cover of
Christopher Phillips' award-winning book explores the Civil War cultures of the Middle Border states.

The work has garnered Phillips glowing critical praise and several prestigious recognitions — including a 2017 Tom Watson Brown Prize from the Society of Civil War Historians and a 2018 Distinguished Book Award from the Society of Military History.

"I'm not a military historian and the book's not military history," he said, recalling his surprise at receiving notification of the latter. "I thought, I don't know if there's an irony in this, or if maybe it's pushing an envelope that military history is moving."

"I think historians may be looking back and asking if wars really begin or end at a certain time, or maybe asking if there are maybe more long-lasting effects that perpetuate the period of wartime, meaning that peace isn't fully peace and war isn't fully war," Phillips conjectured.

And there are, of course, modern parallels: Korea, Vietnam, the interrelated conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

"People like me are now asking questions about long-term occupations that don't seem to be war, or that carve out a new definition of war and war landscapes," he observed. "The politics surrounding peace are, in some sense, perpetuating war by different means."

Kinship in frustration: Do southern and midwestern whites see through the same "other" lens?

The crux of Phillips' thesis is that the politics of hate are born in “othering.”

Political tensions between urbanized, mercantile Northerners and rural Southerners date back to the late 18th century and are well-documented not only in historical criticism, but in the very fabric of our government.

A recurring theme in the Southern narrative, Phillips argues, is that the North seeks to colonize it. Yankees are, to Southerners, foreign overlords. Many in the South today still refer to the Civil War—not always so tongue-in-cheek—as "The War of Northern Aggression."

Phillips said he experienced such tensions as a PhD student at Georgia 30 years ago 

"When I moved there in the '80s, it wasn't a full Sun Belt the way it is today. It was still kind of a localist place," he recalled. "The University of Georgia was still a place where mostly Georgians went to school."

To his native Southerner classmates, who Phillips said called his Yale-educated adviser, Bill McFeely, "that Yankee imperialist" behind his back, "if it wasn't being taught in a Southern accent it was, to use today's parlance, 'fake news.'"

And, even though Phillips himself came from a rural part of the country, his classmates seemed to exhibit mild distrust of him, as well.

Rural? Maybe. But a Northerner. An outsider. A Yankee.

"I was the only Midwesterner in the crew, and I got 'Yankee'-ed," Phillips remembered. "I said, 'I'm not a Yankee, I'm a Midwesterner.' And they all laughed. The joke was that all the states north of the Ohio River were Ohio. They wouldn't even remember what state I was from."

"It was all in good fun," he clarified. "It wasn't designed to be mean-spirited. But sometimes the knives would come out in small ways. Knife pokes. Not slashes, but pokes, because there was that recognition that I was from elsewhere."

One instance stood out.

"We were in a seminar, "The Modern South," that Bud Bartley was teaching," Phillips remembered. "The question came up, when did the South modernize? What was the most important event? We went through a whole litany of things: the boll weevil, mechanization, Civil Rights, the New Deal. And I'd been mostly quiet, listening to a lot of native Southerners talking about their land."

"I just threw in air conditioning. I said, until air conditioning, you couldn't create the kind of business climate that would attract people from other places, that would consolidate cities.

"I remember it was crickets. They all just looked at me. And then, without saying anything, they all just went back to the debate. And that was one of those knife pokes," he reckoned. "I knew what they were saying to me: Yankee boy, stay out of this one." 

"I bristled, and I didn't know why," said Phillips. "I could feel I was being othered—and that's not so unusual, we all experience that at some point in our lives—but I'd never been 'Yankee'-ed before."

It shook him a bit. Rather than being offended by it, though, Phillips sought to better understand it. While at Georgia, he chose to live out in the countryside, instead of living in collegiate and bohemian Athens, so that he could better experience and digest Southern culture. 

"I drank it in, so that then I would understand how to teach it and how to think about it in a different way," he explained.

"I learned a way of life that I didn't really have much of an understanding of yet seemed really familiar as a small-town farm boy from the Midwest. There were a lot of things that made a lot of sense to me, except they had a different narrative than I had."

Gradually, his willingness to engage his Southern colleagues on their own cultural turf bore fruit.

"They got to know me. And they realized that I wasn't from Chicago or New York, and that I was something more like them than they realized," he remembered. "After a couple years of being there, they'd say, 'That's Phillips. He's a Midwesterner.' And I thought I won that little battle."

"It sent me on a different career path, because I realized that Midwesterners and Southerners—particularly rural ones—are cousins," Phillips asserted. "Real close cousins. We fall back on some of the same narratives of loss, dispossession, being forgotten."

Examining the intersection between regional identity and his own family's story

Phillips, of course, isn't the only person asking questions about the development of anti-federal, anti-urban politics today.

In popular media, much has been written—pro and con—about Middletown author JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, which articulates narratives of rural and Rust Belt America suffering after having been "forgotten."

Likewise, Vance isn't the only author interrogating such narratives through the lens of personal experience. Phillips did, too, while writing Rivers. He wanted to know how his family Southern cultural heritage might have affected their standing in the community when they moved to Illinois in the 1920s.

 "As I was thinking about this book, I was talking to relatives of mine and asking them to tell me what they remembered about what it was like," he explained. "In asking my family about these things, I detected that there were narratives that hadn't been told very well."

"My great-aunt sent me a five-page letter," said Phillips. "She said, 'Nobody ever asked before what it was like to be a Southerner in the Midwest.'"

"'We got taunted for the way we talked. We got taunted for the way we dressed. We got taunted because we were rebels. We got taunted because we were poor,' Phillips remembered his aunt wrote. "And she stopped, and said, 'So, I had to prove them all wrong by being valedictorian of our little country school.'"

"I thought, a little country school and this is going on. Among neighbors," Phillips marveled. "They're reminding each other that that war is not over."

"In the living rooms, the parlors, the farmhouses and the schoolhouses, the politics of that were being fought," he observed. "And they were being fought by people who had come long after, but in whom those perceptions had been crystallized."

"I was thinking about how I missed all these stories. Either missed them in what I was taught about the Civil War—that it was fought in Pennsylvania and Virginia—and in not really being taught much about what had happened in my region."

Part of his research for Rivers included reading the personal accounts of people who lived in liminal spaces during the Civil War. In one source— the diary of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, resident Lizzie Hardin, an avowed Confederate sympathizer living in what was at the time a Unionist stronghold—he found the answer to a question that had bothered him since his Georgia days.

Why had he bristled when his colleagues called him a Yankee?

Lizzie Hardin, describing Illinois soldiers garrisoned near Harrodsburg during the war, wrote: "Those Northwestern soldiers would rather you call them devils than Yankees."

"That's from 1863, when she's writing that. And I thought, it's not just me," Phillips said, sounding almost relieved. "To be 'Yankee'-ed, and to be sensitive about that, is actually part of the narrative I learned. And that is: we're not part of Chicago."

"We're not urban people. We are rural and small-town people and we have our own stories. We have our own histories."

From high school teacher to historian

Phillips traces his decision to become an historian back to that basic discomfort with widely accepted narratives about the Civil War.

"I didn't start out intending to be an historian. I knew I wanted to teach," he said. But, when he was fresh out of his undergrad program, teaching high school history and coaching boys basketball and baseball in Missouri, he felt he wasn't giving his students a complete picture.

He thought there were additional stories—important stories—in those liminal spaces.

"I could tell that there was a huge gap in the scholarship on the war. And that gap was the middle. We told the story about the North and the South, but there was an entire story that remained to be told, and that was the West," he asserted. "All of these characters and influences that have meaning, that people are ignoring because they're being driven by this great binary narrative."

"The more I got to thinking about it, there seemed to be a whole set of interpretations that were being ignored. Grant and Lincoln, Sherman and Jefferson Davis, and all these people, were Westerners before they were grabbed by the great national forces that came out of that war. They become nationalized."

So, to find out more of those stories, Phillips went back to school. He took night classes in history.

"It came down to being frustrated that I had to teach a certain story line that I thought I could maybe contribute to," he said. "I had a couple professors ask me, 'Why are you here?' And I told them, I just like being immersed in this, and I want to be a better teacher."

That made an impression.

"I got a phone call, and they said, 'We've got an assistantship, and we'd like to offer it to you,'" he remembered.

Even though it was the middle of the school year, and he was forsaking steady income, Phillips decided to make the leap.

"I ended up feeling like there was another direction. I wanted to be part of creating history [scholarship], and not just teaching it. The only way to do that was to go back to grad school."

"When I have students who aren't sure where to go with their lives, and they ask me for advice, I tend to tell them that you have to listen to your heart. You have to satisfy that before you satisfy anything else," Phillips advised.

"They shouldn't be afraid even though they're told—and I was told many times—that there are thousands of people out there looking for jobs with the same credentials."

Sometimes, he said, smiling, "you have to damn the torpedoes."

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