Sunday, November 1, 2009

Missouri's War: The Civil War in Documents / Silvana R. Siddali, ed. -- Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009.

Missouri seldom gets a lot of attention in broad overviews of the Civil War. Too much happened in Virginia and in other southern states to allow for anything more than a cursory account of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon's efforts to secure Missouri. Nonetheless, early events in Missouri were likely key to heading off a longer war than actually unfolded. With a secure base in St. Louis, Grant was able to launch his successful invasion of the South, and capture Vicksburg. Had St. Louis remained contested in the early years or had it become a Southern stronghold, it is doubtful that Grant's could have attempted an invasion at all and the course of the war would have been profoundly different.

Happily, there are many specialized books detailing events in Missouri. Some are historical sketches others are replete with important documents. Missouri's War, edited by Silvana R. Siddali is a mixture of the two formats. Each of its eight chapters are composed largely of letters, newspaper articles, government reports and proclamations, with each document preceded by an introductory paragraph. Each chapter is also introduced with a few pages setting the context of the chapter's subject. These include treatments of Slavery, the popular reaction to the war, battles in Missouri, condition for Missouri residents, and issues related to emancipation.

Siddali's introductions are clear and useful. Reading only the chapter introductions amounts to reading a thorough article on the war in Missouri. Following that, one can pick out the chapters of most interest and read the documents contained therein. Perhaps the most interesting documents are personal letters describing prominent events. While newspaper accounts of the era provide explicitly partisan descriptions, private letters even more so humanize the political and social sentiments that animated the country.

Among the most illuminating aspects of Missouri's War is the extent to which the question of emancipation and equal rights for slaves was a tactical matter in winning the war. The large majority of Missourians were not slave owners and were committed to keeping the state in the Union. However, they also had little sympathy for abolitionists and resented the intrusion of wider national disputes in their affairs. Many appeared to believe that by accommodating slavery, the Union could be preserved and war could be avoided; however, once the war began, there appeared to be a steady change in public opinion. By the middle of the war, the idea that abolishing slavery would remove the bone of contention and bring peace to Missouri and possibly to the nation.

The popular understanding of the Civil War and the dispute over slavery leans toward a simplified conflict of extremes. However, reading the documents in Missouri's War Highlights how few extremists there were in the country or at least in Missouri and how nuanced was the thinking about slavery and how reluctant the population, particularly the population of the North, was to engage in war. Nonetheless, the conflict over slavery was too profound and the commitments of the Southern Radicals and the Abolitionists were to entrenched not to bring the great bulk of the population into the conflict. Missouri, even more so that other border states, illustrates this broader political dynamic.

Missouri's War is one volume in a series being published by Ohio University Press entitled The Civil War in the Great Interior. Works on Ohio and Indiana are already published with works on Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin forthcoming. If they are as good as Missouri's War, they will be well worth reading.

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