The rebels of Aaron Astor's title are not, in the first instance, Confederates. Secessionists do make an appearance in his important book on Civil War Kentucky and Missouri, but proslavery Unionists claim center stage. Astor maintains that the Americans who tried to preserve slavery and the Union rebelled against Abraham Lincoln's dictum that the United States could not survive half-slave and half-free. These Conservative Unionists, who initially constituted majorities in both border states, became the targets of other "rebels," Confederates, but also African Americans. [End Page 607]
Rebels on the Border is as intricate and fine-grained as the explication of its title suggests. Astor astutely dissects the politics of Missouri, and especially Kentucky, between the election of Lincoln in 1860 and the implementation of black suffrage in 1870. For him, "politics" includes the construction of group identities, the "articulation" of group interests, and the promotion of group objectives (p. 9). Conceiving of his subject broadly, Astor examined a range of source material, from the records of army units and the Freedmen's Bureau to newspapers, personal letters, and memoirs. To limit his purview, he trained his eye on fifteen heavily slaveholding counties located in the Little Dixie region of central Missouri and the corresponding Bluegrass region of Kentucky.
Astor's narrative traces the Conservative Unionist response to African American assertions of citizenship during and after the war. Rebels on the Border argues that most white Kentuckians and Missourians supported the North because they hoped to safeguard the white-supremacist status quo from extremists on either side. Their loyalty to the United States was rooted in their attraction to "stability, pragmatism, compromise, and tradition" (p. 15). Astor carefully explains how the same social and economic realities that underpinned white conservatism shaped how African Americans fought for change. In areas where slaveholdings were small, hiring-out was common, and agriculture was diversified; enslaved people established the networks and gained the local experience to take on their masters. Although African American agitation began long before black men joined Union ranks, Astor points out that enlistment firmly "recast the Union cause as a struggle for liberation" (p. 129). The transformation left Conservatives Unionists feeling "humiliation," "shame," and "betrayal" (p. 200). Astor cites the case of a Kentucky Unionist who fired on troops from Michigan because he saw a mulatto soldier. The mere presence of armed black men triggered violence, particularly in Kentucky. As the war was ending, many white residents in both states came to identify with the secessionists, becoming what Astor terms "belated Confederates" (p. 145). Black suffrage brought African [End Page 608] Americans only limited power, but it assured the ascendancy of reaction.
Astor illuminates the experiences of black Kentuckians and Missourians, but the main contribution of Rebels on the Border centers on the white Unionists who eventually adopted aspects of Confederate identity. In his conclusion, Astor proposes that the areas under examination stand as a "microcosm" of the "nation as a whole," which "thoroughly accepted slavery in 1860" (pp. 243, 247). However insightful, this synecdoche sidelines the white opponents of slavery. Radical Unionists who lived outside the Little Dixie and Bluegrass counties do make cameos and populate the footnotes, but Astor's interpretation elides their role. This marginalization makes sense in Kentucky, but the white opponents of slavery cannot be so casually written out of the history of Missouri and the nation at large. It is difficult to argue that Radicals deserve yet more scholarly attention, but a discussion of their politics in the border states would have extended the significance of Astor's study. After all, white radicals were rebels too.
Alison Clark Efford is an assistant professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Cambridge University Press will publish her first book, German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era, in 2013.