WAITE: West of Slavery (2021)

West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire by Kevin Waite. University of North Carolina Press, 2021. Paper, ISBN: 978-1469663197. $29.95.

As an historian of the Civil War’s westernmost reaches, I have been eagerly anticipating the publication of Kevin Waite’s West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire. Waite’s book is a significant achievement of scholarship, building on older literatures of slavery, western expansion, and nineteenth-century imperialism while advancing a newer body of work grappling with alternative forms of coercive and unfree labor in the United States, the borderlands, the significance of the American West to the Civil War, and the interconnected relationship between the West and South during the Civil War era. Waite reveals not only the ways in which Southerners and slaveholders imagined the Southwest, but also examines the lasting consequences of those pro-slavery imperial visions for a region most Americans do not associate with slaveholding.

Slaveholders, Waite writes, “an American masterclass more formidable and far-reaching than previously imagined,” bent various instruments of federal power to their expansionist project (3). They lobbied for a transcontinental railroad passing through the desert Southwest and when they didn’t get it, constructed an impressive overland mail route instead. Their influence was so vast, Waite argues, that the war fought over the preservation of the Union extended well beyond the Rocky Mountains to the shores of the Pacific, where the Lincoln government struggled to maintain bonds of affection with California—a region Waite reveals as a hotbed of secession and proslavery sentiment before and during the war.

By giving careful attention to the multiple forms of slavery that overlapped and interacted in the Southwest, Waite depicts a region receptive to southern overtures regarding the expansion of African American slavery. This form of bondage looked to join debt peonage and Native American captivate-taking as a form of controlling labor and building economic and political capital for southerners. As the North began to outstrip the South in population and the Missouri Compromise crumbled in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, southerners looked to the Southwest as the region that could help them preserve political parity and maintain their outsized influence within the federal government.

The book is divided into three sections. Two deal largely with the Southwest prior to the Civil War, with the first illuminating how southerners viewed the Southwest as a region of vast potential and economic opportunity. Of all the sections, this is the one most likely to strike readers as familiar, especially given a profusion of recent work on Jefferson Davis and the imperial ambitions of proslavery politicians. Waite adds interest, however, by introducing readers to some less familiar characters, such as Thomas Jefferson Green—one of those individuals in history who seemed to be everywhere important, but is seldom written about.

The book’s middle section discusses how westerners negotiated the politics of slavery’s expansion and southern influence in their region. Here readers meet an increasingly diverse set of individuals, including California Republicans struggling to establish their fledgling party in the Golden State; Mormons in Utah, who turned the territory into a pro-slavery haven; and secessionists in Arizona, who cast their lot with the Confederacy during the secession winter. Weaving together the pro-slavery feelings exhibited across the “Continental South,” Waite leaves his audience with a strong sense that antebellum southerners, on the whole, succeeded in winning the (South)west.

The final section addresses the Civil War and Reconstruction as experienced in the West, with particular attention to the ways in which a Confederate thrust to conquer California represented the height of southern imperial ambitions in the nineteenth century. Waite’s purpose is not to retell the story of the campaigns of Henry Hopkins Sibley or John R. Baylor, but he does a nice job in contrasting their occurrence with Jefferson Davis’s proclamation that the Confederacy never desired “territorial aggrandizement.” The Confederates found in West of Slavery may well have wanted to be let alone—in order that they might connect their fledgling nation to the economic markets of the Pacific world, where millions of potential cotton consumers lived. A final chapter, chronicling the rebellion of California Democrats against Reconstruction, offers tantalizing evidence of a continental process of racial and constitutional reconfiguration in the decades that followed the Civil War.

Waite writes in an inviting and approachable style that should give West of Slavery wide appeal. Along with recent work by historians such as Megan Kate Nelson, Adrian Brettle, Greg Downs, and others, Waite weaves together the stories of the South and the West to tell a continental narrative of political ambition, economic striving, and social transformation in the Civil War era. There is little to quibble with; from the design of the book itself to the arguments within, this is a solid piece of scholarship. It would have been interesting to hear more about Colorado, a territory that had its share of pro-slavery partisans and Unionists, or about the admission of Nevada as a state in 1864, but it is to Waite’s credit that his book features an argument compelling enough to raise questions about other locales. As the scholarship on the Civil War in the West continues to develop, West of Slavery should long stand as a critical intervention in the literature. Readers can be left with no doubt, after spending time with this book, that the nineteenth-century West can no longer be thought of as laying “beyond the shadow of slavery” (9).

Cecily N. Zander is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at The Pennsylvania State University.

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