Forney on Phillips, 'The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border'

Christopher Phillips
Andy Forney

Christopher Phillips. The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 528 pp. $36.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-518723-6.

Reviewed by Andy Forney (Texas Christian University / US Army) Published on H-War (February, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

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“War finds its meaning in death.” (Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, 144)

Popular history teaches us that the American Civil War pitted North against South over the interminable issue of slavery. This historical binary provides an easy reckoning of the conflict: the South sought the perpetuation of slavery along political, social, and economic lines while the North pursued the end of this system. While inherently correct, this simplistic rendering of the conflict lacks nuance. The interpretation of this two-sided formation through the “waving of the bloody shirt,” the “Lost Cause,” the civil rights movement, and today’s debate over Confederate monuments has amplified the various aspects of the duality but has not challenged the preeminent geographic and ideological divide. 

This is why Christopher Phillips’s The Rivers Ran Backwards is so important. His study of the “Middle West” before, during, and after the Civil War muddies the dominant perspective of a purely North-South divide. As Phillips shows, many citizens of the antebellum United States perceived the country as a tripartite structure: North, South, and increasingly, West. This West did not represent the Rocky Mountain West of later characterization but a trans-Appalachian West bounded by the Appalachians to the east and the still-sparsely populated Great Plains to the west. As the Secession Crisis loomed, many residents of this West saw themselves and their region as the means to broker compromise and determine a way forward for the nation, much as had been done by the Missouri Compromise in 1820. By the war’s end, however, the region had been split into new constructs—the Midwest and Upper South—demarcated by the “middle border” of the Ohio River that previously knit the states together through trade. War and slavery served as the change agents.

The drive for compromise prior to the war morphed into an initial push for neutrality along the middle border. Kentucky and Missouri, both slave states, argued for a political neutrality that foreswore secession but saw the 1860 Republican electoral victory as “Yankee” assertiveness. Phillips argues that the notion of neutrality gained traction north of the Ohio River as well. Although legislated “free” by the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois shared much politically, economically, and culturally with its southern neighbors. The middle border served as little border at all, proving porous in the transit of people, ideas, and interestingly enough, slaves. Phillips portrays the Ohio River Valley as outside of the North-South/abolitionist-slavery dualities, existing on a spectrum of political and social thought regarding secession and slavery that culturally extended the southern border well into the current Midwest.

This reality did not last long, though. “In wartime ... truth is among the first casualties,” Phillips writes, “so too is in-betweenness” (p. 120). This stood for both political and geographic “in-betweenness.” The movement for neutrality in the middle border worked in inverse, creating space for political extremism on both sides. Within the first year of the conflict, partisans had redefined loyalty, forcing residents to choose sides. This did not follow a strictly North-South narrative. Republican-aligned governments seized control of the region’s slave states, leaving Kentucky and Missouri notionally within the Union. And Democrats, even if not formally aligned with secessionists then at least partial to a negotiated peace, won several electoral victories north of the Ohio River throughout the war.

That this process of political decision making often occurred at gunpoint speaks to the role played by localized coercive violence in the American Civil War. While historians in recent years have shone a light on this aspect of social violence, it has often appeared as an offshoot of the primary campaigns. Phillips’s narrative achieves a full description of the disruptive nature of this social conflict. Kentucky and Missouri remained slave states throughout the war yet did not secede. In reality, federal forces policed these states and used military force to legitimize Republican rule. As occupied territory, Kentucky and Missouri witnessed both formal combat and regressive bouts of insurgency-like warfare. The fact that this violence could—and did—spill across the Ohio River created a delineated North-South dynamic in the minds of midwesterners. Kentuckians and Missourians became villainous ruffians in the eyes of many residents of Indiana and Illinois, severing preexisting cultural linkages.

While Phillips challenges the dominant North-South interpretation, he reinforces the centrality of slavery within the historiography of the American Civil War. The antebellum West’s desire to form a compromise position on slavery reflected not just economic and demographic interrelationships but cultural ones as well. Residents north of the Ohio River often ascribed to the same paternalistic views of slavery espoused by their southern neighbors. “Yankee” abolitionism seemed alien to them; many midwesterners decried the election of Abraham Lincoln as an abolitionist coup. “Westerners and Yankees,” Phillips writes, “lived uncomfortably together yet apart on the middle border” (p. 25). Mass volunteerism never defined federal mobilization in the Ohio River Valley, particularly in its early stages.

As the war carried into the slave states, however, slavery became a cultural identifier to both sides. Advancing federal forces associated slaveholding with the secessionist cause, often freeing slaves or destroying the property of slaveholders, no matter the slaveholders’ political leanings. This united neutralists and tepid secessionists behind the Southern cause; federal depredations, to them, reflected a Northern assault on Southern values, here wrapped up in the society’s relationship to chattel slavery. That these affronts often affected women managing homes alone in the absence of men either at war or fleeing federal imprisonment drove home the Southern narrative of the conflict as social warfare.

Emancipation made the divorce of the states north and south of the Ohio River final. While Phillips does chart the pockets of dissatisfaction in the North to emancipation, he clearly articulates how “emancipation broke open a region rent by political and ideological fault lines by splintering the moderate western consensus and driving a wedge between the middle border’s free and slave states” (p. 211). The fact that emancipation did not legislate the freeing of slaves in Kentucky and Missouri mattered little, for residents recognized the reality on the ground: the war had transformed the nature of politics and society on the middle border. Loyalty now, to both sides, became measured in terms of sacrifice, not just affiliation. While such sacrifices might be typified in bloodletting and battle, for many south of the Ohio, Phillips claims, these sacrifices came to represent years of hunger, depravation, and social upheaval. The momentum of emancipation and the reality of slaves taking their own actions to either flee or resist slavery remade the antebellum West into postbellum North and South. While black outmigration from former slave states into the Midwest did create localized political issues out of race and labor after the war, “the politics of race would not easily undo the politics of war sacrifice on the middle border” (p. 309).

The best portion of The Rivers Ran Backwards rests in its last few chapters. Phillips’s analysis of the postbellum contest to draft the narrative and history of the war is situated within the historiography exemplified by David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2002). According to the narrative, the drive to bind together turn-of-the-century white America came through the assumption of a narrative of Southern exceptionalism—the “Lost Cause”—and through the suppression of African American political rights and renewed racial violence. Phillips agrees ... to an extent. He argues that the generation and assumption of the “Lost Cause” maintained a regional focus. Kentucky and Missouri, decidedly western before the war, identified culturally with the defeated Confederacy in the conflict’s wake. As Phillips states, “In the region’s slave states, white residents did more than distort a quasi-Confederate past. Pushing past war boundaries, they articulated a southernized narrative of their states in order to transcend the immediate celebration of a Confederate heritage and achieve cultural identification with the Old South” (p. 328). Residents of Kentucky particularly strove to generate an image of an antebellum past of plantations, mint juleps, Confederate sacrifice, and benign slavery. 

Northern states would not match this narrative of Southern ascension. The war’s sacrifice and the region’s troubled relationship with race—both before and after the war—proved too big a hurdle for midwesterners to overcome. For them, their neighbors no longer seemed cultural cousins but instead hyper-violent country bumpkins, oftentimes putting on airs of false nobility. Herein lies the great paradox of the war for Phillips: “Loss as much as victory thus defined the new regionalism on both sides of the rivers.... In its place there would be two regions, two core communities created by exclusivist politics that imagined as much as they experienced the war” (p. 338). In this instance, the imagining of war, the mythmaking and storytelling, chronologically extended the war and contested its outcome at the same time as it remade the region’s geography.

Citation: Andy Forney. Review of Phillips, Christopher, The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2018. URL:

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