Dr. Aaron Astor is not only an associate professor of history at Maryville College—he’s also a writer for the New York Times.
Astor is a frequent contributor to the Times’ Disunion Series, which is a web-exclusive set of articles that roughly tracks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The series has been running since October of 2010.
“[The series] corresponds with the fall of 1860,” Astor explained, “the year the Civil War began.”
According to the New York Times, the Disunion series “revisits and reconsiders America’s most perilous period.”
Astor explained that he became interested in the series when he found articles written by people he knew.
“One of my friends, Daniel Croft, wrote articles for the series about the upper South, states like North Carolina and Tennessee,” Astor said. “So I emailed him and said, ‘How did you get to write for the Times?’”
Through his friend Croft, Astor was able to contact the editor of the Disunion Series, Clay Risen.
“[Risen] told me they were always looking for more contributors,” Astor said. “I told him I focused mostly on the upper border South, like Kentucky and Missouri, and he seemed very excited.”
“When he asked me if I would be interested in writing for the Times, I said, ‘Sure!’” Astor laughed.
Astor’s first article, called “Blue Grass Blues and Greys,” was published in the Disunion Series in May 2011. The piece focused on divided loyalties within the state of Kentucky.
“We immediately planned follow-ups after the first article,” Astor said.
“East Tennessee: Switzerland of America,” his next article, was released in June 2011.
“It includes a paragraph about Maryville and Blount County,” he said.
His other contributions to the Disunion Series include “The Party Spirit on Trial,” “The Conspiracy at Lick Creek” and “The Fog of War.” “Unconditional Surrender,” his most recent article, documents how Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle of Fort Donelson in Western Tennessee changed the course of the Civil War.
“I have six articles, and there are a whole bunch more to come,” Astor said happily. “Of all the contributors, the editor has always asked me to contribute more.”
Astor believes that overall the Disunion Series project by the Times has been “well-received.”
“The Civil War in the New York Times has a pretty dedicated following,” he said. “So many people around the world read it. You get email from random people, which is kind of fun.”
Astor has also been surprised by how good the series has been for the local area as well.
“And it helps to put Maryville College on the map,” he said. “So many of the comments on my articles concern Maryville and Blount County, like ‘Oh, I know Maryville,’ or ‘I have family there.’”
Astor explains that his contributive writing to the Times helps promote not only MC, but also the release of his new book.
“Rebels on the Border: Civil War Emancipation and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri” is scheduled to be released in early May and is available on Amazon for preorder now.
The book tracks the late 1860s, following the Civil War.
“It’s about grass roots, both black and white,” Astor said. “It documents black slaves trying to free themselves by joining the army. Fifty-seven percent of military-age black men joined the army.”
“The consensus during the early part of the war was that you support both slavery and union,” Astor continued. “But there was duel rebellion: one side confederates, one side slaves, and it happens on ground level. I take it into the post-war period.”
“African-Americans were trying to help themselves,” he said. “And what people don’t seem to understand is that violence in the 19th century was expected by democracy. There was a real transformation through politics. There were groups that predate the Ku Klux Klan called regulators and crazy riots in Kentucky.”
Astor explained that he ends the book in the year 1870, after the 15th Amendment is passed.
“My idea is to upturn the Civil War inside out,” Astor said with passion. “If the Civil War is really the North against the South, what I’m thinking is let’s start in between the North and the South and then turn it inside out.”
“We need to think of the Civil War in Thirds,” he said. “There is the industrial North, a deep plantation South, but in the middle is this huge mixed section of the country. Some are technically free states and some are technically slave states.”
However, Astor is not finished with his publishing career. He is working on a new book project on the election of 1816.
“I’m taking a different approach,” he said. “I am going to look at four different communities supporting each of the four candidates within this election.”
Astor explained that he grew up in North Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C.
“There was not much of a discussion of where I lived,” Astor said. “Nobody had written about it.”
Astor said that the period after slavery is ambiguous in historical writings.
“It’s a complicated area where I’m from and a real mess,” Astor said. “We need to investigate that.”
At Northwestern University, Astor wrote his master’s thesis about Delaware, and other Union border states, which also include Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky.
“I spent a long time looking at newspapers and national archives,” Astor said.
Originally a philosophy major, this passion for history began Astor’s junior year of undergraduate school when he was studying Scottish history at the University at Edinburgh.
“I worked at a consulting firm for a while,” Astor said about his time after undergraduate school. “I was bored out of my wits.”
He soon decided to follow his passion and switch careers, going to graduate school for history.
When this history buff is not teaching or writing, he spends time with his two boys: Henry, who is 10 years old, and Teddy, 7.
“Henry is a chip off the old block,” Astor said proudly. “He is working on a history presentation right now on Miles Horton. It’s great.”
However, there is more history to the Astor name than Dr. Astor and his son. His grandmother, Lilian Friedman Astor, is the creator of the cartoon “Betty Boop.”
She was hired out of high school by Fleischer Studios, known for creating “Popeye” and “Raggedy Anne and Andy.”
“She was so talented that she was secretly promoted from an inker to an animator,” Astor said. “No woman had ever done anything like that before.”
“Betty Boop” was originally a dog with long ears, but Lilian Friedman Astor transformed the cartoon into a flapper-type woman, changing the ears to earrings.
“She drew several Betty Boops,” Astor said, pointing to an original drawing by his grandmother hanging on his office door. “She was a woman before her time.”
“In fact, we still have the letter from when she applied to Disney,” Astor added. “It said, ‘We don’t hire girls in our studio.’”
Astor, through his New York Times articles and other writings, as well as his talent for teaching, is following in his grandmother’s footsteps by making history, and sharing it with others.