What if our whole geographic understanding of the Civil War is wrong? What if, instead of viewing the Civil War as a grand, ideological struggle between the wage labor-based, urban, industrial North and the slave plantation-based, staple-crop producing South, we looked at the war as a battle of thirds: North, Middle and South. Yes, there was, in fact, an expanding industrial capitalist North stretching from New England to Chicago, perpetually seeking financial capital, immigrant labor, technological efficiency, natural resources, and national and global markets to exploit. And, yes, there was a vast plantation belt beginning among the tobacco fields of the Virginia Tidewater, traversing the indigo and rice swamps of the South Carolina Low Country, and then enveloping the Deep South cotton belt – all worked by millions of African American slaves.
But in between these two worlds was an ideologically fluid heartland, containing some of 19th century America’s most important cities – Baltimore, Washington, Louisville, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Nashville – and a rich array of farms growing and raising much of the nation’s corn, wheat, tobacco, hemp, hogs, cattle and horses. Working these heartland farms, factories and ports was a combination of resident slaves, hired slaves, immigrant wage workers and family farmers. Where and how does America’s heartland – which would include the southern portions of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey; the slaveholding Union border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and the future state of West Virginia; and the former strongholds of Upper South Unionism like Middle and East Tennessee, Piedmont and Western North Carolina, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and the Ozark Plateau of Northern Arkansas – figure in to the study of the Civil War? Even more, how does a focus on the heartland effectively turn the study of the Civil War inside out?
I’ve lived most of my life in this American heartland. Most of the Civil War was actually fought here, with battlefields dotting the landscape of Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and Kentucky. But the Civil War, we are often told, had its origins to the North and to the South of here, an inevitable and epic clash of two visions of modernization utterly incompatible with one another. My book, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri seeks to reorient the discussion away from the geographic poles toward the great heartland where struggles over slavery and freedom, state and Federal sovereignty, and urban and rural development turned a land of compromise and pragmatism into a tornado of guerrilla conflict, extremism, racial violence, and social revolution.
Some of the worst elements of guerrilla conflict in recent history appear in the same sorts of ideologically and culturally mixed zones as the 19th century American border states: multi-sectarian Bosnia at the intersection of three former powers (Austria, Ottoman Turkey, and nationalist Serbia); Baghdad and its mix of Sunni and Shi’ite Arab, Christian, Turkomen and Kurd; and Beirut, the Paris of the East, defined by clashes of the ultra-modern and ultra-traditional, and proving ground for every ethnic and sectarian identity in the Middle East.
But the story of 19th century America’s heartland at war also gives us insight into the politics of “Purple America” today – the perennial and emerging “swing states” like Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado and, of course, Missouri. Pulled apart by the centrifugal forces of a divisive national partisan politics, but linked internally by a political culture of compromise and regional horse-trading, America’s new heartland is defined by its internal differentiation as much as it is by its commonalities. And so we must ask: Is there really a harmonious center at the heart of American politics, where differences can be settled amicably and people of divergent opinions can subsume their parochial concerns, cultural prejudices and ideological agendas for the sake of the wider nation? Or are the same culture clashes that define Blue and Red America present within the Purple states – manifesting themselves in greater intensity? Like the 19th century tornado that engulfed Missouri and Kentucky, are these close-quarters political conflicts and culture wars today likely to divide 21st century America along unbridgeable internal fault lines? Is Missouri today – starkly divided between urban and suburban St. Louis and Kansas City, and the vast rural interior from the rugged Ozarks through central Missouri’s Little Dixie and on to the Iowa border – a paragon of “Show Me State” pragmatism and reasonable compromise, or a proving ground for every economic and cultural conflict that divides the nation today?
Aaron Astor is assistant professor of history at Maryville College. His book, Rebels on the Border, can be purchased at 40% off during LSU Press’s Civil War Sale.