In Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland, Bridget Ford studies a borderland between North and South, the Ohio River Valley, concentrating on Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. Ford not only writes about a geographical borderland but also lodges her study within the historiographical borderland between cultural and political history. Studying the years leading up to and through the Civil War, she seeks to “understand what Americans thought held them together in ‘union’ when that relationship was severely tested” (xi), a topic of enormous importance in understanding the Civil War. Although she does not ignore politics, her focus is on cultural developments, including tensions between Protestants and Catholics, anti-slavery movements, the cities’ African American communities, and the efforts of relief societies during the Civil War. Bonds of Union begins with an insightful discussion of the tensions and competition between, on the one hand, Protestants, shaped by the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, and, on the other, a growing German American Catholic population. The two groups sometimes fought; the area experienced a few anti-Catholic riots. But through their competition for converts, “between 1830 and 1860 Catholics and Protestants grew to resemble each other in both their outward guises and internal imperatives” (29). The German American Catholics adopted the revivalists’ plain style of preaching, and the Protestants began to build medieval-style churches. Both groups also promoted closer ties among their members, the Catholics through devotional meditations and the Protestants with religious poetry. Ford has much of interest to say not only about religion, but also about attitudes toward slavery in the region. She describes Louisville’s commitment to and involvement in slavery, as well as its churches’ role in the creation of the southern, pro-slavery Methodist and Baptist denominations. She also provides a thoughtful discussion of white support for the colonization movement, along with a very compelling analysis of African Americans’ response to it. Blacks in Cincinnati and Louisville harbored “an intense antipathy toward the Liberian project, and their opposition never flagged” (115). African American churches also fiercely battled attempts by white Protestants, Kentuckians prominent among them, Ford shows, to sacralize slavery. She also traces the development of abolitionism in the Ohio Valley and argues that abolitionists there “pursued far-reaching efforts to eradicate prejudice and foster feelings of respect and belonging in daily life” (147). These reformers embraced the idea that education and “universal enlightenment” were “a strength of union” (200) and a means to overcome prejudice. Ford does not ignore that prejudice. She discusses antiblack laws and riots in Cincinnati. For a book about bonds of union Ford’s volume discusses a lot of conflict. But her account stresses bonds across racial lines and African American agency. Her most important observations about relations between African Americans and whites come in an intriguing analysis of how African Americans in the two cities developed economic skills that allowed them to create a cultural space for themselves. They became hairdressers, barbers, artists, and photographers. Influenced both by a growing culture of refinement and by a romantic racism that saw blacks “as embodying the finer, yet gentler, values of sympathetic feeling in an otherwise callous, hurly-burly world,” whites “gave black artists and personal service workers license or permission to reform white bodies and souls” (135). Indeed, Ford goes on to argue, that in “the Ohio River valley’s cities, middle-class blacks and whites placed extraordinary emphasis on the power of refinement to negate racism and its attendant maltreatments in a postemancipation society” (137). And “well before 1865” African Americans in Louisville “had made it eminently clear that their bonds of union were with northern free institutions—whether those were educational, religious, or political.” They “were therefore ready to play a role as powerful agents of union during the Civil War itself” (302). Ford’s cultural analyses of the convergence in style between Catholics and Protestants and of the role of refinement in affecting relations between blacks and whites rest on a wide base of research and are fully developed, often through stories of individuals or an analysis of their writings. When the book turns to explaining how the cultural phenomena helped create the bonds of union, how people came to appreciate their ties together, and what might be called the bonds of the Union, what held the nation together, the analysis proves less substantial and satisfying. The case is made best and most fully in the discussion of the work of relief societies during the Civil War. They helped create a bond with the Union as well as “bonds between civilians and soldiers, home and war fronts, and women’s relief aid and men’s logistical administration” (271). Although the book has a good discussion of the rise of the Republican Party in Ohio, the closer the analysis gets to the political rather than the cultural, the more doubts or questions readers will have. Anne E. Marshall, Luke E. Harlow, and other historians who argue that Kentuckians remained committed to slavery into the war and embraced the Lost Cause after it will no doubt challenge some of Ford’s conclusions. To take an example, she argues that during secession “enough Cincinnatians and Louisvillians ensured the Union’s continued existence by securing Kentucky’s allegiance and they did so while also arguing for slavery’s immediate end in that loyal state as well as in the rebellious Confederacy” (304). She concludes that by 1865 slavery had collapsed throughout Kentucky. The historians who have reached very different conclusions about Kentucky’s commitment to slavery and Unionism will benefit from engaging Ford’s provocative arguments. They and other historians will profit even more from her fascinating exploration of African American life, analysis of antislavery thought and proslavery religion, and especially the description of the convergence of Catholics and Protestants in one of antebellum America’s most important borderlands. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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