Bridget Ford. Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland. Civil War America Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 424 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-2622-2.
Reviewed by Megan L. Bever (Missouri Southern State University)
Published on H-War (July, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
In Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland, Bridget Ford seeks to understand the meaning of “union” along the Ohio River during the decades preceding and including the Civil War. Specifically, Ford’s study compares the cities of Cincinnati and Louisville—communities well known among historians for their religious and racial diversity and, also, their religious and racial strife during the antebellum years. But, as Ford explains, these two cities also experienced tremendous growth before the war; native-born white Americans, immigrants, and African Americans (free and, in Louisville, enslaved) converged on the region because the river offered economic opportunities. Ultimately, the inhabitants of these communities forged bonds of union that were rooted in Christianity and that championed a democratic society inclusive of diverse peoples (including immigrants and African Americans).
Ford’s study builds on the recent work of historians seeking to understand what “the Union” meant in Civil War America. In many ways, her work serves as a thoughtful and elaborate prequel to Gary W. Gallagher’s The Union War (2011), and it joins other recent studies on loyalty along the Ohio River border, such as Christopher Phillips’s The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border (2016) and Stephen I. Rockenbach’s War upon Our Border: Two Ohio Valley Communities Navigate the Civil War (2016). Her work will also be useful to scholars of antebellum Kentucky and Ohio and American religious history, and to those who seek to place the sectional conflict and the war firmly within the context of westward expansion and empire. An intellectual history, the work relies on the writings of myriad Ohioans and Kentuckians to make the case for union. And while readers will not be surprised to find analyses of Salmon Chase, the Beechers, or Henry Clay, the study focuses heavily on the ideas of—the perhaps less familiar—Henry Adams, William Gibson, Eliza Potter, John Mercer Langston, and multitudes of women who wrote poetry and devotional literature (which Ford argues has all too often been disregarded by historians as sentimental rubbish).
Using these writings, Ford argues that Cincinnatians’ and Louisianians’ concepts of “union” were rooted in their Christianity, or their spiritual union with God. Because of their western locations, both cities became hubs for evangelicals filled with the missionary zeal of the Second Great Awakening. As German immigrants flocked to the region as well, Catholic congregations grew to accommodate them. The result, according to Ford, was a vigorous competition for souls. Protestant congregations built elaborate churches and published devotional literature, both inspired by the Catholic tradition. And, for their part, Catholics along the Ohio River embraced a more emotional, evangelical version of their faith. Within this bustling religious atmosphere, autonomous African American congregations established themselves in both cities. Ford does not ignore religious discord. She explores anti-Catholic sentiment in depth, and she focuses significant attention on the splintering of evangelical denominations into pro- and antislavery factions. Still, Ford concludes that in both communities religion served as a unifying bond because many Christians were consumed with alleviating human suffering.
According to Ford, the human suffering that most caught the attention of the inhabitants of these river cities was the plight of African Americans who were enslaved or subjected to harsh discriminatory laws. When looking at evolving ideas about slavery, colonization, emancipation, and equality, Ford argues that the geography of these cities is crucial. Carved out of the Northwest Territory, Ohio was supposed to be a bastion of liberty, but in the antebellum decades, “Black Laws,” the fugitive slave laws, and mob violence made life harsh for Cincinnati’s black residents. In Kentucky, antislavery advocates hoped that the state’s close proximity to the North would weaken slavery. Instead, by the 1850s, slavery in the Bluegrass State was more entrenched than ever. Louisville, though, remained an important center of antislavery activity. In both cities, white and black antislavery activists argued that slavery (even in Kentucky) was cruel, that violent racism was rooted in ignorance, and that the most effective way to alleviate black suffering was not simply to end slavery but to enable African Americans to gain access to education. Common school education—funded by black and white tax dollars—was essential to creating a biracial, well-functioning republican society, free of suffering. When war broke out in the 1860s, Ford argues, decades of religious fervor, antislavery activity, and concern over human suffering expanded to include relief for soldiers. The Western Sanitary Commission offered inhabitants of both communities the opportunity to act out and solidify their commitment to union in the midst of political turmoil.
Ford’s argument is somewhat complicated, and quite subtle at times; untangling the interrelated meanings of “union” defies simple explanation. As a result, one of the real strengths of the study is that each chapter functions almost as an independent essay with its own smaller argument that offers a glimpse of the idea of “union” as it developed. But because “union” was in so many ways a nebulous concept, readers can become almost distracted from “union” by the more concrete sub-arguments. I, at least, enjoyed the distractions; I found myself engrossed in analyses of black barbers and beauticians at one point and competitive church construction at another. I recognize that it is a bit cliché to end a review by claiming that a book is essential reading for anyone who teaches nineteenth-century history, but I can honestly report that reading Ford’s study enabled me to add depth to my classroom discussions of the Ohio River Valley in courses this past year.
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Megan L. Bever. Review of Ford, Bridget, Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland.
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