REBELS ON THE BORDER: CIVIL WAR, EMANCIPATION, AND THE RECONSTRUCTION OF KENTUCKY AND MISSOURI
By Aaron Astor
LSU Press, $47.50; 332 pp.
Rarely does any Civil War historian claim that his book actually changes our perception of the Civil War much less a young assistant professor in a small mountain college in his very first book. That is very sweepingly what Aaron Astor does, his reach embracing the two big related subjects, Emancipation and Reconstruction.
And his book is not even a general history of those three main roads into our present day history. It focuses on the seven “Little Dixie” counties of Missouri and the eight “Bluegrass” counties of Kentucky from 1860 through the 1870s.
The effect of those two regions of those two states upon those three subjects of the title has never before, the risk-taking historian claims, been examined for consequences throughout the South and for how the writing of history should henceforth be conducted. “This study turns the Civil War and Reconstruction inside out.”
By revealing the polarities within each section before the war and the making of common cause between the majority Unionists and the Confederates after the war, Astor’s book “complicates the notion of sectionalism itself.”
Ironically, the opposing sides in those two regions fought for the same reason, to preserve slavery; for the same cause they worked together in post-war years to bring down and to keep down blacks who had risen during radical northern dominance.
That story “foreshadows the historical narrative of the rest of the nation in the later nineteenth century.”
I shuddered to learn early in the book that about 200 men and women gathered on Christmas Eve 1866 on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church in former Unionist Danville, Ky., to hang Al McRoberts, a black man. On that spot, the Daughters of the Confederacy erected a memorial to Confederate soldiers.
One may visit it on the edge of the campus of Centre College.
One of Astor’s best-documented and revealing arguments is that “in a microcosm of national events the slave population would prove to be the real engine of political transformation during the Civil War and Reconstruction era.”
Astor expresses his theories with cogent clarity, and his mastery of research provides narrative details that renders this book uncommonly readable, and, perhaps, revolutionary.
Founding Director of the United States Civil War Center at LSU, David Madden is Robert Penn Warren Professor Emeritus.