Fluker on Earle and Burke, 'Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border'

Jonathan Halperin Earle, Diane Mutti Burke, eds.
Amy Fluker

Jonathan Halperin Earle, Diane Mutti Burke, eds. Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013. xii + 346 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-1928-3; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7006-1929-0.

Reviewed by Amy Fluker (University of Mississippi) Published on H-CivWar (December, 2014) Commissioned by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz

The Border War Comes of Age

After a long period of neglect in which the border war was dismissed as a mere “sideshow” of the Civil War, the publication of Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border represents a hallmark in Civil War historiography. This book reveals the diverse range of largely unexplored topics now being pursued by historians of the border war. Drawing from the scholarship of some of the field’s preeminent historians, including Michael Fellman, Nicole Etcheson, Christopher Phillips, and Diane Mutti Burke, the essays in Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri offer a dynamic history of the border region, including the perspectives of men, women, African Americans, and American Indians from both sides of the Kansas-Missouri line and both sides of the larger sectional struggle. By adopting a variety of methodological approaches, including military, political, religious, gender, and cultural history, it is a volume that positions the border war at the heart of the Civil War era and, in the process, redefines the parameters of Civil War history.

Drawing on the themes of power, politics, race, and gender in the border war, Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri comprises a wide variety of essays divided into three sections. The first addresses the politics surrounding the causes of the border war, with a particular emphasis on the importance of slavery. The second section deals with the wartime experiences of border residents, their intersection with national politics and attitudes about masculinity, and the evolution of total war. Finally, Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri addresses the memory of the border war, speaking to the persistence of old hatreds across the Kansas-Missouri border as they bled over into the postwar press, politics, and even athletic contests between the two states. Its scope is vast and ranges well beyond the conventional chronology of the Civil War era, covering topics from the earliest period of settlement in the region all the way to 2011.

In keeping with the evolving historiography of the Civil War in the West, Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri does not present the border war as an aberration from the larger Civil War. Instead, it explains the violence and brutality of the border war as a product of larger cultural and political forces. In his essay, Fellman paints the border war as a product of centuries of endless religious warfare. The “ritualized collective slaughter” of the border war, he writes, was the consequence of educated, reasonable people imagining themselves as “avenging angels” executing God’s judgment against traitors and radicals (p. 14). Other contributors, however, link the violent conduct of the border war to the role of gender, particularly masculinity, in the Civil War. Burke, Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel, and Joseph Beilein Jr. demonstrate how competing sectional and racial conceptions of gender shaped not only the politics of the war but contributed to its brutality as well. For the men of the border, violence became an important expression of their masculinity—a way to demonstrate mastery, exhibit self-determination, and impose law and order.

Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri demonstrates that, far from behaving like irrational, lawless ruffians, the residents of the border were simply acting according to fundamentally different understandings of law and order. Taking the controversy over the Kansas constitution and the caning of Charles Sumner as examples, Etcheson explains that both sides viewed themselves as upholding justice. For their part, the proslavery party believed the violence in “Kansas was a part of a larger pattern of disregard for ... the government’s authority,” which had consistently protected the property rights of slaveholders (p. 56). Meanwhile, abolitionists read these events as evidence of the determination of slaveholders to have their own way at the expense of due process. The implementation of martial law also complicated the execution of law and order on the border. Within the state of Missouri, as Phillips demonstrates, the government evinced its intention to “preserve ‘law and order’ indiscriminately, whether against rebel insurgents, fugitive slaves, or abolitionist marauders” (p. 139). As a result, officials enforced loyalty oaths and other punitive measures, sacrificing civil liberties in an effort to discourage rebelliousness.

Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri is a pioneering work and, as such, raises important questions. Primarily, to what extent is the border war really representative of the larger Civil War? Much of the work in this volume treats Kansas and Missouri as microcosms of the North and South, the Union and the Confederacy. This is no doubt a result of the volume’s self-conscious attempt to make “the experience of Missouri and Kansas residents during the era of the border war ... a window on the issues and circumstances that shattered the union during the Civil War” (p. 4). The unintended consequence, however, is that too little attention is paid to the fact that the Kansas-Missouri border lies on an east-west axis. It is not a border between the North and South or the Union and Confederacy at all, but one between two Union states with broadly similar cultural values. In fact, only Brent S. Campney’s essay situates the Kansas-Missouri border within the more complex geographic space of the Midwest. Perhaps by making Kansas and Missouri stand in for the North and South, other historians have overlooked an important point. While the violence in Kansas and Missouri certainly loomed large in the debates that pulled the nation apart, it also emerged from a unique set of circumstances relating to the peripheral location of these two Union states.

Nevertheless, Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri is a compelling volume whose chief value lies not only in its breadth and in its power to stimulate new scholarship, but most importantly in its contributions to Civil War history. Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri demonstrates that the forces that fractured the Union emanated not from the Mason-Dixon Line, but from the Kansas-Missouri border, thus situating the border war at the heart of the major political and cultural events of the Civil War era. In the final estimation, the border war was an all-consuming affair which involved a diverse group of people in a nearly decade-long period of conflict—a conflict that did not end in a day, but one that continued to resonate with Kansans and Missourians for years to come.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=42118

Citation: Amy Fluker. Review of Earle, Jonathan Halperin; Burke, Diane Mutti, eds., Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. December, 2014. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=42118

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