April Holm is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mississippi. This interview is based on her new book, A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicals, Loyalty, and Sectionalism in the Civil War Era (LSU Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write A Kingdom Divided?
AH: I have a long-standing interest in the border states and how border residents experienced the Civil War. I was led to this particular topic as a graduate student when I read Richard Carwardine’s Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America and was intrigued by his comment that the aftermath of the Methodist schism of 1844 deserved more scholarly attention. I gave it a look, and obviously, I agreed!
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Kingdom Divided?
AH: I argue that the border was at the center of a long struggle over slavery, sin, and politics in American evangelicalism that consumed individual congregations and entire states. This book illuminates border evangelicals’ view of their providential role in American history, demonstrates that border churches established the terms of the debate over the relationship between church and state in wartime, and explains how border Christians contributed to a lasting sectional rift in the churches that obscured the role of slavery in their history.
JF: Why do we need to read A Kingdom Divided?
AH: A Kingdom Divided analyzes the crucial role of the border churches in shaping antebellum divisions in the major evangelical churches, in navigating the relationship between church and the federal government, and in rewriting denominational histories to forestall reunion in the churches. It highlights how religion, morality, and politics interacted—often in unexpected ways—in a time of political crisis and war. My book offers a new perspective on nineteenth century sectionalism and regionalism. And, in revealing the surprising extent of federal intervention in border churches, it addresses the problem of loyalty and neutrality in wartime. Finally, it revises the timeline of postwar reconciliation and reunion, supplying a new explanation of the origins of Southern evangelical distinctiveness in the postwar period.
In addition to all these things, A Kingdom Divided is a study of the failure of neutrality as a strategy in the face of a moral and political crisis. White evangelical clergy in the border region who tried to remain neutral in divisive debates over slavery and secession came to view the debates—not slavery—as the greater evil. Moderate white border clergy saw their own neutral stance as morally superior to engaging in political conflict. However, when the war ended, neutrality was no longer possible and the major denominations pressured border clergy to take a side. These border clergy felt persecuted by their denominations and they began to turn to southern churches, which continued to defend slavery even after it had been abolished. Neutrality on slavery ultimately led them into proslavery denominations. My study of attempted neutrality in the face of moral disputes reverberates in present-day conflicts. It explains why people turn to moderation or neutrality as a strategy in the face of intensely charged conflicts. It also reveals why people who attempt to remain neutral so often feel that they occupy the moral high ground and why they ultimately find fault with people demanding justice, rather than with injustice itself.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AH: I can trace my interest in the past back to my childhood love of historical fiction. I decided to become a historian when I started taking history seminars as an undergraduate at Reed College. I am interested in the border states because they exemplify and complicate so many of the key issues of the Civil War era—they are paradoxically both peripheral and central.
JF: What is your next project?
AH: I am currently researching a book on provost marshals and civilians in the occupied border during the Civil War. During the Civil War, border civilians frequently came in contact with provost marshals, who were federal agents who acted as military police and commanded wide-ranging authority over the civilian population. Their many duties included enforcing martial law, administering loyalty oaths, seizing property, and arresting disloyal citizens. In sum, provost marshals wielded tremendous power.
My project will develop a clearer picture of who these men were and the role they played in civilian networks within their communities. Currently, my research suggests three conclusions. First, that Union occupation was both immediate and local. Provost marshals were usually appointed directly from the community and therefore policed neighbors and acquaintances. Second, provost marshals became the face of the Union army in interactions with civilians of all political orientations, races, and genders. This included loyal Unionists, Confederate sympathizers, guerillas, enslaved people, free African-Americans, and women (both black and white). In occupied cities, the provost marshal’s office was an avenue for groups outside the sphere of war to access federal power. Finally, civilian interactions with provost marshals led to the development of a contested language of loyalty that fused the moral and the political. I extend my study past the war years to show how negative memories of provost marshals—often rehashed and embellished—contributed to the development of Lost Cause mythology in postwar years.
JF: Thanks, April!