Review: Bonds of Union

Timothy L. Wesley

Timothy L. Wesley is Assistant Professor of History at Austin Peay State University.

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Timothy L. Wesley, "Review: Bonds of Union," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Bridget Ford. Bonds of Union:  Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland. Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 424 pp.  ISBN 978-1-4696-2622-2.

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In Bonds of Union:  Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland, Bridget Ford offers a strikingly unique take on the thirty-plus years of tumult that preceded and then encompassed the American Civil War. Instead of focusing upon how disagreements over slavery brought about the splintering of the American state, Ford emphasizes the ways diverse Americans maintained and even strengthened the connective tissue that bound them together in the body politic. Ford privileges the notion of “Union” in explaining how and why people in the closely situated cities of Louisville and Cincinnati—arguably the most divided region of an irreparably divided nation—worked simultaneously toward a common victory and the end of slavery in spite of their many, many religious, racial, and political differences.

The result is a powerful argument that the animating principle of “America,” of the Union inseparable and perpetual as the political manifestation of the founder’s ideas about liberty and freedom and democracy, sprang from more than just the celebrated political religion of Abraham Lincoln. In nimble prose supported by wide-ranging research, Ford introduces us to an array of black and white and Protestant and Catholic Kentuckians and Ohioans who cherished their nation and considered its preservation worthy of every sacrifice. She thus at once contributes to the recent scholarly appreciation for Unionism initiated in earnest by Gary Gallagher while problematizing “either/or” assumptions that cast wartime abolitionism and the preservation of the Union as wholly separate endeavors.

Ford’s study will appeal to a wide range of historians.  Authorities on nineteenth-century urban history will find the effort highly useful, for in many ways it is a study of urbanites on the border between freedom and slavery. Students of antebellum and Civil War era religion, moreover, will no doubt appreciate the author’s consideration of faith and devotion as agents of causation in the abolitionism and then Unionism of the believers she chronicles. Specialists who focus on slavery and politics in the border region will have much to consider as well, for the wartime Kentucky Unionists in Ford’s telling are different than those whose loyalties were linked to their hopes for slavery’s survival depicted by other scholars. All that said, with Bonds of Union:  Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland, Bridget Ford’s greatest achievement is in reminding us of the relevance of idealism—of decency and morality and inclusiveness and all of the other “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it—in the patriotism of countless Americans of the Civil War era.  In this respect, Bridget Ford presents a past well worth repeating.