Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War

Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War

Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War

Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War


During the 1840s and 1850s, a dangerous ferment afflicted the North-South border region, pitting the slave states of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri against the free states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Aspects of this struggle--the underground railroad, enforcement of the fugitive slave laws, mob actions, and sectional politics--are well known as parts of other stories. Here, Stanley Harrold explores the border struggle itself, the dramatic incidents that it comprised, and its role in the complex dynamics leading to the Civil War.

Border War examines the previously neglected cross-border clash of attitudes and traditions dating many generations back. By the mid-nineteenth century, nowhere else were tensions greater between antislavery and proslavery interests. Nowhere else was there more direct conflict between the forces binding North and South together and those driving them apart. There were mass slave escapes, battles between antislavery and proslavery vigilantes, and fierce resistance in the Border North to the kidnapping of free African Americans. There were also fights throughout the borderlands between fugitive slaves and those attempting to apprehend them. Harrold argues that, during the 1850s, warfare on the Kansas-Missouri line and John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, were manifestations of a more pervasive border conflict that helped push the Lower South into secession and helped persuade most of the Border South to stand by the Union.


A brutal system of race-based slavery shaped life in the United States for generations prior to the Civil War. Black bondage controlled the South’s economic, social, and political structure. It encouraged white racism and demands for black subordination throughout the country. As the cultivation of cotton expanded during the nineteenth century, many northerners believed their welfare depended on the perpetuation of slavery. But, as economics and racism tied the North to the South, other considerations encouraged disagreement. Fear that slavery threatened northern interests and freedom accentuated the impact of a moral campaign against slavery and pushed the sections apart.

Nowhere were tensions between forces binding the sections together and those pulling them apart stronger than in the North-South borderland. In this region stretching westward in a broad uneven band from the Atlantic coast to the Kansas plains, sectional identities, economies, and moralities intermeshed, interacted, and clashed. Although the border region is variously defined, I follow the pre–Civil War custom of including the entire area encompassed by what contemporaries called the “border free States” and the “border slave States.” The former included New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and—by 1846—Iowa. The latter included Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri.

Many miles and some cultural differences set the northern portions of the border free states, or Lower North, apart from their southern portions. But these states functioned as political units and differed demographically, historically, economically, and culturally from their neighbors to the north as well as the south. Similar divisions existed in the border slave states. Southern Maryland’s tobacco counties, southeastern Virginia’s cotton counties, and Kentucky and Missouri’s hemp counties relied more heavily on slave labor than did other parts of these states. Yet, like the states of the Lower . . .

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