HARROLD: Border War (2010)

Posted: 11/23/2011
Reviewed By: Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz

Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War by Stanley Harrold. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Cloth, ISBN: 0807834319. $30.00.

In this well-researched and convincing work, distinguished historian Stanley Harrold departs from a traditional North-versus-South tale of sectional breakdown in the decades leading to the Civil War. Instead, he presents a narrative focused on violence and ideological clash in the borderlands, areas along the Ohio River, Mississippi River, and Mason-Dixon line where “sectional identities, economies, and moralities intermeshed, interacted, and clashed” (xi). Harrold offers an intriguing, well-researched, and deftly argued study of conflict between the Upper South and Lower North, compelling his reader to agree that states such as Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, and Missouri are critical—and not at all peripheral—to the story of the Civil War. In doing so, he recasts familiar episodes such as the Fugitive Slave Law, Bleeding Kansas, John Brown’s Raid, and the caning of Charles Sumner into a longer history of “extended cross-border conflict” (14).

In the early chapters of Border War, Harrold reaches back to the beginning decades of the nineteenth century to look at early clashes, perceptions, and reactions between the two sections. Slave escapes into the Lower North led to fear and reaction along the southern banks of the Ohio, while by the time of the abolitionist circular campaigns of the 1830s, southerners were predisposed to view them as assaults upon their rights. In return, the Lower North believed the southern opposition to be “border miscreants” bent only on kidnapping fugitive slaves, free African Americans, and even white men (54). Mounting worries about increasing numbers of escaped slaves led the state of Kentucky to attempt diplomatic negotiations with Lower North states, particularly Ohio. But diplomacy failed as far back as the late-1830s, and in the two decades before the Civil War tensions and suspicions escalated on both sides of the border.

In this context, Harrold convincingly contends that more abolitionists looked approvingly on fugitives’ forceful resistance—and even more aggressive antislavery violence—than is commonly understood. One of the most intriguing (and sorrowful) anecdotes in Border War comes when Harrold recounts the case of Robert and Margaret Garner, two slaves who escaped to Cincinnati in 1856. Facing capture and re-enslavement, Margaret killed her two-year-old rather than see the child re-enslaved. And, Harrold notes, Cincinnati officials charged her with murder not to punish her but to claim and protect her from return to Kentucky. In the end, local officials could not hold out against the rights of the state of Kentucky, and Margaret Garner and her family were sold down the river to New Orleans (156-157). By the mid-1850s, North and South were adept in defining the other section as the aggressor, and this animosity was rooted deeply in such occurrences in the borderlands.

In his broadly chronological treatment, Harrold covers the familiar terrain of sectional breakdown, but he offers new takes and spins on even the most familiar events of the 1850s. For example, Harrold enters the history of the Kansas-Nebraska Act not through a tale of election fraud and antislavery agitation but through the lens of how Missourians viewed the prospect of a free Kansas to the west. Their “fear of an abolitionist threat to slavery in their state approached reality,” particularly when faced with the likes of John Brown, who led a raid into Missouri to free eleven slaves in 1858 (172). When Brown appeared at Harpers Ferry the following year, Virginia Governor Henry Wise—"ready ripe for revolution” over northern intrusions into southern sovereignty as far back as 1835—responded within “the context of a losing struggle against northern aggression” (45; 193). Since we so often teach the Civil War through the idea of how North and South perceived each other, with special attention to the northern idea of a “slave power conspiracy,” it is especially striking when Harrold pauses to remind his readers that these perceptions were in fact true. Southerners rallied behind Preston Brooks not so much because of their misguided beliefs about Sumner or the abolitionists but because they were indeed under attack and slavery was indeed threatened.

With this, Harrold arrives at the question of what kept Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri, and Maryland in the Union. His answer is simple: their interests were better served this way. He refutes arguments by scholars who have contended that slavery was a dying institution in the Border States. Rather, he portrays Border State commitment to America’s “peculiar institution” as having been as strong as ever. He asserts that unionists in the Border States (and Virginia) fought disunion not because they felt a lack of alliance with the Deep South but because they felt the surest route to protect slavery was through remaining within the Union. Only the federal government had the power to protect an institution under such an attack.

By the end of this thoughtful, compact book, Harrold has led readers to the moment of Civil War and, during the course of the war, to emancipation (though only the 13th Amendment would finally end slavery in some of the Border States). Had it been more successful in defending slavery in the antebellum decades, Harrold argues, the Lower South might not have had as much reason to secede. But the long struggle in the borderlands left Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri predisposed to remain in the Union to preserve slavery, ultimately of course leading to its extinction in both the Union and Confederacy.


Dr. Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz is an Assistant Professor of History at Appalachian State University.

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