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Professor Christopher Phillips Recognized for Groundbreaking Civil War Scholarship

The prestigious Tom Watson Brown Prize is the latest accolade for UC history department head Christopher Phillips.

Date: 5/15/2017 5:00:00 PM
By: Jonathan Goolsby Other Contact: Julie Campbell
Other Contact Phone: (513) 509-1114
Photos By: Joseph Fuqua II, University of Cincinnati
CINCINNATI, Ohio — The Society of Civil War Historians has announced that University of Cincinnati Professor Christopher Phillips’s The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border has won its most distinguished annual award. The book was published by Oxford University Press last year.

Book Cover of The Rivers Ran Backwards.

The $50,000 Tom Watson Brown Prize, funded by the Watson-Brown Foundation, is given annually to the “best book published on the causes, conduct, and effects, broadly defined, of the Civil War.”

Explaining its 2017 selection, the prize committee noted that Phillips’s book brought a “complex, fully realized, and provocative depiction of the ‘middle border’ states.”

The Rivers Ran Backward, they felt, made efforts to generate, “a deeper understanding of the failure of the Reconstruction (and beyond) to realize emancipationist goals while preserving a country still divided by race, class, and region.”

Phillips grew up in rural Western Illinois and earned his PhD at the University of Georgia.

“When I went south, I found a comfort level I didn’t expect,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a stranger in a strange land, and I found just the opposite. I connected with Southerners more quickly and more intuitively than I expected. I think there’s a connection about a loss narrative that Midwesterners share with Southerners.”

Photograph of Dr. Christopher Phillips.
Professor Christopher Phillips

Such a shared narrative is one of the central points of his book, Phillips explained. Rural Midwesterners, he asserted, are “Southerners once-removed — politically, ideologically, socially and culturally.”

Whereas the South was embarrassed by its loss of the war and angered by what it viewed as a missed chance for independence, white, rural Midwesterners were angered by loss of various forms of societal control associated with Union victory.

“The loss in the Southern perspective is very obvious,” Phillips said. “Faulkner wrote about it: ‘For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863...it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet.’”

“There’s another loss, that Midwesterners suffered, that was somewhat different. It wasn’t so much attached to the war per se, but to what the war created,” he postulated. “For these people — again white in particular — there was modernization, there was centralization, there was industrialization, there was urbanization.”

The Great Migration of newly-emancipated slaves occurred against the backdrop of all those economic and sociopolitical upheavals. And, Phillips suggested, when rural Midwestern whites perceived themselves as threatened by new economic competition from black Americans, they lashed out.

“There were a lot of people who, particularly after emancipation and Reconstruction, saw the war in a different light,” he said. “And that doesn’t square with the [Union] victory narrative.”

“[Many Midwesterners] resisted it for a very long time, in ways that are very Southern,” Phillips noted. “We have, in the aftermath of the war, the phenomenon of sundown towns.”

“The very first incident of what one journalist has called ‘racial cleansing’ in the United States was in Washington County, Indiana, where whites literally expelled the entire black population in 1864,” he said. “We don’t hear those stories [growing up] in the Midwest.”

Rather than directly attaching to the South’s well-described “Lost Cause” mythos, Phillips asserts that many Midwesterners disguise their ingrained cultural resentments, consciously or unconsciously, behind a curtain of stoicism. His book attempts to pull that curtain back.

“Our identity here is more contested, and more opaque,” he argued. “But it does [contain] planted seeds. And those seeds, I think, have been seen in the most recent election.”

"We’re altruistic in the way we see ourselves,” he said. “But there’s an ugly side of this story that we have in many ways ignored. We’ve ignored the fact that this was a deeply, deeply divided place during the war. This was the epicenter of the Copperheads. This is the epicenter of the Klan — Southern Indiana in particular. Now it’s Michigan.”

“This is also the epicenter of the militia movement,” Phillips noted, “of people who distrust the centralization that the federal government represents.”

That distrust, he argued, was born 150 years ago, in the aftermath of a war that saw the nation’s view of progress shift away from “civilizing” the later-named Midwest, toward accelerating white America’s push toward the Pacific.

“Although the ‘middle’ story of the war got lost, it reverberates in modern regional identities and understandings,” Phillips clarified.

Phillips’s fresh take on the Civil War, on Midwestern history and its relationship to the larger body of American history, has attracted quite a bit of attention from his academic peers.

The Rivers Ran Backward won the Ohio Academy of History’s 2017 Publication Award for Senior Faculty — part of a Cincinnati sweep of this year’s OHA book prizes.

The book also won the 2017 Jon Gjerde Prize, given by the Midwestern History Association (MHA), which recognizes scholarship that engages the history of the broader Midwest. That award will be presented in June to Phillips at the MHA’s annual meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

All the accolades may not yet be in. Rivers has been announced as a Non-Fiction finalist for the Ohioana Library’s 2017 Book Award. That prize will be announced in July.

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