The Civil War Border States and the Purple States of 2012
Nowhere was the Civil War more hotly contested – militarily, culturally and politically – than the northernmost tier of slave states that remained loyal to the Union, especially Kentucky and Missouri. President Lincoln famously remarked “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol.”
My recently released book, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri delves into the conflicted racial politics at the grassroots of these two states. And if you’re interested in reading further, LSU Press is having a 40% off sale on it until June 25!
But I wanted to touch on some of the contemporary relevance of the Civil War border states.
The reason for Lincoln’s September 1862 letter to his Illinois friend seems remarkably prescient regarding today’s politics. Frustrated by calls among his “base” to turn the war for Union into a war of emancipation – despite the precarious situation in the border states where a premature emancipation proclamation could very likely lead to the loss of the border states to the Confederacy – Lincoln reminds his allies of just how tough the long game really is. It’s hard not to see similar echoes between President Obama and frustrations among the Democratic base over myriad “concessions” to Republicans on this, that and everything else. The reality was – and is – that a tug of war took place in all directions, where any major misstep could have catastrophic consequences.
What is most pertinent, today, though is the nature of the border states then and the “swing states” or “purple states” of today. We often think of states like Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Colorado as relatively moderate states where well-informed voters vacillate between political options. But, like Kentucky and Missouri of the Civil War (and Maryland and Tennessee, for that matter), an equally accurate way to depict these places is a collection of militant supporters of each side in close proximity to one another. In some cases the close-quarters rivalry leads to a sort of equilibrium and the moderates end up running things. But just as commonly, the vortex of conflict just becomes more intense and, like Civil War Missouri, devolves into even MORE extremism and chaos.
I’ve written more on this in an LSU Press blog. One thing I’m quite sure of, however, is that the geographic boundaries may shift, but the intense cultural and political conflicts will persist. And, yes, Missouri is STILL in the vortex.