Which Side Were We On in the Civil War? It’s Complicated.

Looking back from the cool vantage point of the 21st century, the battle lines of the Civil War seem clearly delineated: North vs. South, with Cincinnati proudly on the banks of the winning side. But a new book by U.C. professor Christopher Phillips lifts the veil of history to reveal a city divided by its allegiances more than we might care to remember.

Illustration by Leigh Guldig

John Malvin had come a long way to get to Cincinnati—hundreds of miles on foot, then hundreds more in a flatboat, floating down the Ohio River. His journey must have seemed longer still given that Malvin was a black man living in 19th-century America. He was born in Virginia to a free mother and an enslaved father, which meant he’d always been free. And yet, growing up in the South, Malvin faced the same poverty and violence as slave children. As he traversed Virginia, then Ohio, law enforcement officials and rifle-wielding citizens stopped him to demand proof he wasn’t some runaway slave.

After all that, Malvin finally made it to Cincinnati in 1827. The city was drawing people from all over—whites, blacks, and an increasing number of immigrants—and Malvin, trained as a carpenter, surely hoped for one of the city’s many good jobs: building brick row houses, working on steamboats, or processing pork. But he also came to Cincinnati because it was a Northern city, one with different attitudes and politics than his Virginia home. On this count, however, the city disappointed him, and Malvin left after only two years. “I thought upon coming to a free state like Ohio that I would find every door thrown open to receive me,” he later wrote. “But from the treatment I received by the people generally I found it little better than in Virginia.”

A drawing from Harper’s Weekly in 1862, showing soldiers crossing John A. Roebling’s half-finished “Ohio River Bridge.” The war interrupted construction until 1865.

Image Courtesy of Cincinnati Museum Center



Image Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Today, we think of the Civil War as a great clash between North and South, freedom and slavery—between two ideological opposites neatly divided by the Ohio River. For Buckeyes and other Midwesterners, it feels good to be on the right side of the river, and thus, on the right side of history. Indiana and Illinois can pat themselves on the back for Abraham Lincoln; Ohio can answer with Ulysses S. Grant. In heroic biographies and academic histories, we read about righteous abolitionists defeating faraway racists, and we know what team we’re on. It’s a mindset symbolized by our pride in Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, with its structure of weathered copper and travertine stone sitting majestically on the victorious riverbank.

But a new book by Christopher Phillips, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, is challenging this comfortable view. In The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border, Phillips reminds us that in the 19th century, most white Midwesterners neither uniformly loved nor hated slavery. Rather, they landed somewhere in the murky middle—and were far more interested in protecting their businesses (or cultivating their own deeply racist beliefs) than in advancing the cause of either side.

Christopher Phillips

Photograph by Joseph Fuqua II, University of Cincinnati

Once the war arrived, those Midwesterners reacted with anger, confusion, and fear. Phillips, head of UC’s history department, has written or edited six previous books. The Rivers Ran Backward (published in May by Oxford University Press) is the most important of his career, 505 dense pages on how the American heartland—Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio—made for a darker, messier homefront than we’ve been conditioned to expect. Yet Phillips’s book matters not only because of what he found but where he found it. He spent decades digging through various archives, recovering the diaries and letters of ordinary people, and revealing just how close the war felt, even in the Midwest. “From the very first research trip I took, from the very first letter I read, these people were talking about it,” says Phillips. “They were telling these stories back then.”

One reason the Midwest resisted the designation of either North or South is that it could claim allegiances to both. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance opened up the region above the Ohio River—and prohibited slavery in the states that would form there. Of course, no one called these states the “Midwest” at the time; it was simply the West, the first American frontier, and many of the earliest settlers actually came from the South. Did you like drinking whiskey or hard cider? Were you a Baptist or a Presbyterian? Did you say “whar” and “thar” or “where” and “there”? Each answer helped determine whether you were a Northerner or a Southerner—or, as became more likely with each passing year, some hybrid of the two.

That jumbled heritage meant racist laws and bigoted beliefs (and even slavery itself) were far more prevalent in the region than we might expect. “It wasn’t a pretty picture,” Phillips says.

Part of this was proximity; Cincinnati was only the width of a river away from the bustling slave trade in Kentucky. Even within Ohio, residents circumvented the ban on slavery through legal loopholes or by counting on their white neighbors to look the other way. “There were people who actually held slaves in Ohio for a decade or more after statehood (in 1803),” says Phillips. Ohio joined Indiana and Illinois in passing so-called Black Laws, which imposed exorbitant fees on any African-American who wanted to move there and prevented them from serving on juries or testifying in court. More than that, the Black Laws broadcast a culture of discrimination and contempt. “I found every door closed against the colored man,” said John Malvin, the Virginian who came to Cincinnati, “excepting jails and penitentiaries, the doors of which were thrown wide open to receive him.”

Over the course of the 19th century, the Black Laws slowly receded, but the attitudes and emotions behind them intensified. The fact that America was becoming more industrial and interconnected only made things worse. Consider the case of Cincinnati: The story of the city’s rise is well-known—its prime river real estate, its factories and slaughterhouses, its growth from a frontier outpost to one of the nation’s largest cities (which also boasted one of the largest black populations). Less well-known is Cincinnati’s early dependency on the South. Those factories sent thousands of freshly built steam engines and cotton gins down the river to southern clients; those slaughterhouses sent them much of their pork, as well. This link explained why one could read defenses of slavery and the status quo in the pages of The Cincinnati Advertiser and Journal, a newspaper that would soon change its name to The Cincinnati Enquirer. Or why local abolitionists became frustrated while trying to recruit new supporters. “One man told me with a grave face, that it would not do for him to take an active, open part in the cause,” a Cincinnati abolitionist complained in a letter, “for it would injure his business!”

Abolitionists in the North and Fire Eaters in the South grew increasingly agitated by events like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. (There was local violence, as well, including a series of riots in Cincinnati’s streets throughout the first half of the century.) But in the nascent West, many citizens refused to embrace either extreme. “In truth, they tried as much as possible not to talk about slavery and emancipation,” says Phillips.

One revealing episode in his book centers on a young woman named Josie Underwood. Underwood lived with her family in a stately, whitewashed home in Bowling Green, Kentucky; it overlooked a sprawling farm, which was tended by slaves. When it came to the national debate, though, Underwood found her family to be conflicted. “We have every phase of sentiment represented in our own home,” she wrote in her diary. Her father cared most about keeping the country together; her mother, a devout Southerner, wanted to preserve her region’s rights. One family friend despised slavery but didn’t think the federal government should intervene. Another thought slavery would always be “an essential condition of the inferior races—ordained by God.”

It might seem like these diverse and contradictory opinions would dissolve once the new Confederate army fired on Fort Sumter. And it was true that, in places like Cleveland or Chicago, the start of the war was marked by parades, church bells, and patriotic fervor. But in places like Cincinnati and Bowling Green, uncertainty reigned—perhaps because many residents sensed that these family debates would soon unravel into bitter division. It was a rainy, dreary day when the news of Fort Sumter reached Ohio, and the reactions matched the weather. In Columbus, one resident described that night as featuring “no torches, no music. A dark mass of men filled full the dimly lit street.” Ohio and her sister states supplied many of the men who would fight and die for the Union cause, often exceeding the recruitment quotas set by President Lincoln; Cincinnati contributed its share, with many of them coming from its strongly pro-Union population of German immigrants. But as Phillips points out, there was still an increasingly angry blend of people and opinions—some for the war, some against it, some more demonstratively ambivalent. “If you peel back the layers,” he says, “you find that one of the counties with the nation’s highest percentage of federal draft evaders was Hamilton County, Ohio.”

One night in the early 1990s, when Phillips was still a graduate student at the University of Georgia, he grabbed a beer with his advisor, William S. McFeely. McFeely had recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and Phillips asked how long the book had taken to write. “He said 10 years,” remembers Phillips. “I sort of quietly chuckled. I was still young, and I thought, I will never spend 10 years on one book. I spent 20 on this new one.”

The Rivers Ran Backward took two decades thanks to Phillips’s efforts to pack it full of fresh archival research. But in many ways he’s been thinking about this subject his whole life. Phillips grew up in a tiny town in Illinois, complete with cornfields and a consolidated school, and he remembers being frustrated that he lived in a state where the Civil War hadn’t seemed to matter. One childhood summer, he went with his grandparents and their camper-topped pickup to visit the national military park at Gettysburg. While his grandparents were setting up camp, Phillips slipped away and walked two miles to inspect some cannons he’d noticed on the drive in. “Not bad for a 5-year-old,” he says.

That passion for history continued through college to a job teaching middle and high school social studies, and finally to grad school at the University of Georgia, a school he chose in part because its students and setting offered a direct connection to the Civil War. Phillips moved to Cincinnati in 1999 to teach at UC, and today he lives on the north side of town with his wife, a high school teacher, and their two sports-playing sons.

Phillips’s research for The Rivers Ran Backward convinced him that the Civil War made an everyday impact not just in states like Georgia, but in Illinois and Ohio as well. His breakthrough came in 1996, when a grant allowed him to spend the summer at the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections Research Center. Phillips expected to find most wartime Kentuckians striving for an uneasy neutrality. Instead, he found them turning on each other. “That’s when I knew I was on to something,” he says.

The best place to see this shift was in the church records of small, forgotten Kentucky congregations—congregations such as William Moody Pratt’s. Pratt was a Baptist preacher and a slaveholder himself. But in 1862, a point by which the North had almost entirely secured the region, he made the mistake of praying for Abraham Lincoln in front of his church. In the middle of the prayer, Pratt realized his members were storming out, promising they’d never return so long as he was the church’s leader. Once the service finished, Pratt went outside and found that one of the members had broken the wheel on his family’s buggy. It wasn’t long before the congregation dismissed him.

During his summer at the University of Kentucky, Phillips found church after church devolving into similar spats. He buzzed through hundreds of spools on the library’s microfilm reader; he reviewed clergy diaries, sermon texts, attendance logs, minutes from meetings, and more, looking for patterns and homing in on telling individuals. “Churches are the community institutions in small towns and rural places,” says Phillips. “I got a real pulse on how bitter and divisive it was.”

Phillips realized that to write this book—and to tell this neglected narrative—he needed to study not presidents or generals or even the work of most historians. Instead, he needed to spend more time with caches like those church records. “I had to go directly to the sources of the people who lived this war,” he says, “and see what they made of it.” In all, Phillips spent time at 25 different archives across the Midwest, learning about people like Pratt, John Malvin, Josie Underwood, and hundreds more. There was the Illinois schoolteacher who felt isolated because of his pro-Union beliefs. “I have no associates,” he wrote, “only the school children…. [The other adults] are Secessionists and I will not have anything to do with any such.” There was the Union soldier who tried to forge a truce with his Confederate-leaning fiancée. “I won’t quarrel with you if you are a rebel,” he wrote. “I had so much trouble to get you to fall in love with me.”

These overlooked sources helped Phillips uncover a story of the Civil War much different than our modern version, peddled in high school classrooms and pushed by an entertainment industry so invested in a binary conflict that it made a TV miniseries called North & South—twice. Phillips writes in his book how that North-South narrative quickly took hold and has guided many historians ever since, drowning out the more muddled reality in places like Cincinnati. “That story just got lost,” he says. “For lots of reasons, some deliberate and some not. But mostly because it was not the story people wanted to remember.”

That misremembering started before the war even ended—and much of it took place on the western frontier. States like Kentucky and Missouri spent the war sharply divided. (Both sent more soldiers to the Union army than to the Confederate one.) And yet, once the conflict began to wind down, they both embraced a purer Southern identity than ever before. America’s first Confederate monument, Phillips points out, was erected not in the deep South but in Independence, Missouri, in 1864. The North, for its part, pushed its own kind of purity, emphasizing emancipation and turning the war into a crusade. A handful of Westerners protested these narratives and argued that the “loyal west” fought for unity, not ideology. But in more and more of the country, the Civil War was spun as simply North vs. South, freedom vs. slavery. After the real battles were over, new battle lines were drawn.

And so our modern version of the Civil War began to emerge—a simpler, more polarized version, with less room for the ambiguity that defined ordinary people’s experiences in places like Cincinnati. The only way for Phillips to rediscover those experiences was scouring microfilm reels in Midwestern archives. “It’s not just a conflict between soldiers or politicians,” he says. “This was a conflict between people living next door to each other, attending the same churches and the same schools. The war obliterated that. This was the most shattering national event that’s ever occurred because it shattered lives.”

One of those shattered lives belonged to a relative of Phillips, a great-great-great-great uncle on his father’s side. During another of his archival missions, again in Kentucky, Phillips remembered that his family had roots in the area. At the end of a long day, he asked the archivist to search for anything under his last name. She found one match: a letter written by David C. Phillips, a name the author recognized from his family tree. “I thought, My God, those are my people,” he says.

Phillips knew this branch of his family had been prominent slaveholders, but he’d always assumed they wanted to preserve the Union and avoid local conflict. Once he read the letter, he realized how wrong he’d been. In the summer of 1865, David Phillips wrote to an old friend with the latest news. The war had officially ended, of course, but Kentucky remained anxious—especially when it came to the state legislature and its upcoming decision on whether or not to ratify the 13th Amendment, which would inscribe a ban on slavery in the Constitution. David described the two men running to represent his district; one of them supported ratifying the amendment, the other opposed it. Both men had recently come to Caneyville, a small town in central Kentucky, to debate the issue. When their speeches ended, the pro-Amendment candidate, who was favored in the election that fall, hopped on his horse and left. But just as he crossed the creek outside of town, another man popped out of the brush, raised his shotgun, and shot the candidate in the back. He died later that night. In his letter, David Phillips relayed it as a necessary sacrifice: “That was the only way to beat him.”

Reading it more than a century later, Christopher Phillips’s hands were shaking. He was holding proof that his family’s reality was much different than his family’s lore—that a man like David Phillips was more passionately pro-slavery than our revisionist history would suggest. The western frontier began the war ambivalent and ended it angry and divided; it seemed as if David Phillips found himself in a similar place. It was all there in his own handwriting.

Still, Christopher Phillips, ever the historian, knew he needed to verify his relative’s account. Eventually, he tracked down a photo of the slain candidate’s Kentucky tombstone. The date of death matched the letter: August 25, 1865—long ago, perhaps, but not so far away.

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