The Big Divide: A Travel Guide to Historic and Civil War Sites in the Missouri-Kansas Border Region.

Guest poster Jake Struhelka offers a review of Diane Eickhoff and Aaron Barnhart’s The Big Divide: A Travel Guide to Historic and Civil War Sites in the Missouri-Kansas Border Region.

In order to appreciate the unique nature of any region, it is critical to not have a myopic focus on any one particular regional feature.  Simply focusing on one event that occurred in one moment in time tends to relegate an area to a specific description and can rob that area, as well as its population, of the depth of its true identity.  In The Big Divide, authors Diane Eickhoff and Aaron Barnhart provide travelers to the borderlands of western Missouri and eastern Kansas with a comprehensive view of the sites contributing to define what can best be described as the character of the region.

At first glance, the traveler whose interest is primarily geared towards Civil War sites may find this work to be overly broad based upon the number of sites reviewed that do not seem to have a direct correlation to their primary interest.  The inclusiveness of this travel guide serves as its true strength.  Users of this guide will have the opportunity to be exposed to sites that promote a greater understanding of and appreciation for the topographical, ethnic, and cultural foundations of the borderland region.  Inclusion of sites such as the Flint Hills Discovery center in Manhattan, Kansas provides potential visitors with insight towards the unique topographical features of the region contributing to patterns of settlement and, to a great degree, the manner of warfare conducted during the Civil War.  Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie outside of Wamego, Kansas provides an insight towards the cultural landscape of the region.  The odd mixture of abolitionist views with those believing in the rights of slave holders to retain their human property contribute greatly to the nature of conflict in this region.

In addition to sketching the foreground of the conflict, the authors dedicate a portion of their work to the post-war climate of this region.  The sites discussed extend clear through the early stages Civil Rights movement and continue the theme of providing readers with a broad appreciation for the region.  Sites such as the Town of Kansas Bridge in Kansas City, Missouri allow readers to appreciate engineering feats that brought urbanization to the borderlands.  The authors’ exploration of the Gordon Parks Museum and Center for Culture and Diversity in Fort Scott, Kansas, as well as similar cultural sites, allow guide users to see that this region which was so hotly contested during the Civil War underwent a transformation to a cultural landscape where artistic and cultural growth could occur.

The theme of diversity prevalent in The Great Divide continues in the treatment the authors provide in identifying important Civil War sites.  This work goes beyond what a reader may expect from a travel guide in that the selection of sites reflects the depth and complexity epitomized by the war in the borderlands.  Sites of major battles, such as Pea Ridge National Military Park and Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield are reviewed with a brief synopsis of the battle action as well as a comprehensive description of site interpretation which a visitor should engage in.  The description of sites such as the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Monument in Butler, Missouri and the battlefield at Newtonia, Missouri demonstrate the roles African Americans and Native Americans played in the Civil War within this region.  Eickhoff and Barnhart provide the guide user with a wide variety of sites that serves to illustrate the unique nature of the conflict in Kansas-Missouri border region.

Capturing the geographical and cultural landscape of any region is difficult.  Eickhoff and Barnhart have managed to accomplish this task well within this travel guide.  The authors have written a work that is user friendly, contains clearly delineated content based chapters, and even suggested driving tours with thematic bases ranging from battlefields to presidential related sites.  Any traveler planning a trip to explore Civil War related sites in western Missouri and eastern Kansas will benefit from using this book and will be provided with a deeper and more enriching experience from its use.

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