Connecting to history: MC professor teaches Blount’s role in Civil War
By Matthew Stewart | (email@example.com)
It’s a great time to be a Civil War buff, especially at Maryville College.
Dr. Aaron Astor, associate professor of history, is teaching a January term course called the Civil War and Reconstruction in Tennessee. The three-week course, which introduces students to Tennessee’s complex experience in the conflict, includes trips to museums and historic sites.
Students walked Tuesday to the Blount County Courthouse and discussed the Blount County War Memorial, which contains the names of Confederate and Union casualties. Astor told the class that it’s a “distinctive feature.”
The professor has been unable to locate any other community monuments in which both sides were represented. “Community monuments are usually put up by one side. East Tennessee and Blount County were more divided, and the monument recognizes this division.”
Astor also advised that the Blount County War Memorial isn’t a comprehensive list of the county’s Civil War casualties. “Many others fought and died in Blount County, but the proportions are accurate. It’s fairly representative of loyalties within the county. We sometimes say the Civil War pitted brother against brother, which is usually metaphorical. However, it was an accurate description in this county.”
Blount County was predominately Unionist, he said. Nearly 81 percent of Blount Countians opposed secession and 19 percent supported secession, according to the state’s June 8, 1861, referendum vote tally.
Astor advised that the vote was “fairly representative” of the county’s loyalties, which fluctuated throughout the war as residents switched sides. He estimated that 15 percent to 20 percent of Blount Countians supported the Confederate States of America.
The professor said that 1,300 county residents fought in the Civil War, citing local historian Becky Darrell’s research. She found that 84 percent fought for the Union side.
Astor advised that percentage “might be inflated” due to people who later moved to Blount County. He thinks that the percentage of Union soldiers was actually closer to 78 percent.
The professor noted that about 6 percent of Blount County’s Union soldiers were black. Many black soldiers fought in the U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery Company, which played an important role in the Battle of Fort Sanders in Knoxville.
Confederate supporters were generally located in the Baker’s Creek, Louisville and Wildwood areas, Astor said. They were usually larger slaveholders and wealthier on the average than their counterparts and were predominately white-collar workers.
However, the professor advised that those are generalizations. Confederate supporters could be found in different classes and regions.
Students also viewed the Blount County Historical Museum’s Civil War exhibit, which MC History 162 students helped build in April 2011. They will soon embark on a one-week trip to museums and historic sites throughout the state, in addition to Shiloh National Military Park in Corinth, Miss.
Students have been pleased with the class, so far.
“I’ve always had an interest in the Civil War,” said sophomore Matthew Barger. “Everybody is talking about the sesquicentennial events right now, so it’s the perfect time to take this class. I’ve liked hearing Dr. Astor talk about Tennessee’s importance in the Civil War, because you always hear people talk about Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. I’d never heard about the Civil War in Tennessee until this class.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing new thoughts about the Civil War,” said junior Dominic McVay. “I always thought it was about slavery, but I’m starting to learn that there were other issues such as states’ rights.”
“It’s a really interesting class, and I wish it was something we could take for more than three weeks,” said sophomore Alex Cauthorn. “Dr. Astor knows how to create a historical narrative, and it’s not something that you’d get from simply reading out of a textbook. He makes history interesting and makes me enthusiastic about the material.”
“One of my objectives is to encourage students to think about the history all around them,” Astor said. “Everyone comes from somewhere, and I want them to realize that they’re connected to this history and excite their curiosity. You have to start with things that they’re familiar with, such as their families and community, and grow from there.”
Astor, who is the author of “Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri” and the New York Times’ online series “Disunion,” also wants to stress Tennessee’s importance in the Civil War.
“I’m primarily interested in the Western Theater, which was west of Appalachia. It was very important, militarily. The Union won the war in the West. (Ulysses S.) Grant, (William Tecumseh) Sherman and (George Henry) Thomas made their names in the West. The East was a stalemate for four years.
“However, history isn’t about memorizing facts and dates. I think that’s a great way to bore people. History is about asking questions and pursuing why we got there and why the events matter.”