Chandra Manning is Special Advisor to the Dean at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. This interview is based on her new book, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (Knopf, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War?
CM: The conclusion of my first book, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War pointed to a more fluid racial climate in the spring of 1865 than I expected, or than existed by the turn of the twentieth century, which made me want to understand how a reconstructed Union that passed constitutional amendments abolishing slavery, establishing black citizenship, and extending suffrage to African Americans—revolutions, all!—developed into the land of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and epidemic lynching. Books addressing similar questions (like David Blight’s Race and Reunion) focus on the 1880s and 1890s, but I wondered what happened earlier, in the 1860s. So I began my second book intending to write about race relations generally and citizenship rights specifically in the decade following the Civil War. At first, I planned to use contraband camps as interesting “scene-setters” in a brief introductory section, before delving into the real matter at hand.
Contraband camps were large encampments of former slaves who fled their owners during the Civil War to take refuge with the Union Army, and they were the first places in which Union soldiers typically encountered former bondpeople. As I began researching them, the United States prepared to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009, and shortly thereafter, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. In conjunction with those milestones, I received many invitations to give talks on emancipation and citizenship. On the face of it, those invitations fit perfectly into the book I set out to write, but I quickly discovered that emancipation and citizenship were two different things, and neither of them looked much like I expected. I realized that historians (including me) understood very little about the actual experience of emancipation, and even less about what immediately followed it, when the threat of re-enslavement remained very real, and the transition to freedom and citizenship was anything but certain. So I shifted my focus to understanding the passage out of slavery and into the unknown.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Troubled Refuge?
CM: In Civil War contraband camps, men, women, and children fleeing slavery allied with unlikely collaborators—the army and the U.S. government—and their alliance wrested freedom from the hands of people committed to using violence to deny it, helped to destroy slavery, warded off the persistent danger of re-enslavement, redefined what citizenship meant, and extended eligibility for citizenship to African Americans on the basis of freedpeople’s contributions to Union victory not just as soldiers, but also as nurses, laundresses, spies, and laborers of all sorts in contraband camps. At the same time, the alliance raised humanitarian questions about refugees in wartime and unsettling conflicts between civil and military authority with which we still wrestle, and it reshaped hard structures of power in ways that mattered not just for slaves-turned-citizens, but for all Americans, to the benefit as well as the lasting cost of African-Americans.
JF: Why do we need to read Troubled Refuge?
CM: One reason is to come closer to an understanding and appreciation of the experience of leaving slavery and making a bid for freedom. The first section of the book focuses on what it was like to exit slavery, and how emancipation actually happened. It also (I hope) restores the fragility and contingency of emancipation: far from being doomed as soon as slaves decided to depart masters, the institution of slavery and its supporters fought back violently, and the threat of re-enslavement remained acute for a very long time. What finally made the difference in the daily war between former slaves and the property owners who claimed to own them was that the United States government, which had sided with slaveholders in that daily conflict before 1861, switched sides.
Another reason was not in my mind at all when I started, but became inescapable as refugee crises proliferated around the world during the writing of the book, and especially once I finished it and awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis made it to daily newspapers. Troubled Refuge understands contraband camps as refugee camps, and in so doing, excavates 19th-century stirrings of humanitarian notions of the rights of the dispossessed, notions that most of the literature treats as originating later in World War I. The parallels between today’s refugee camps and contraband camps are so striking that they should emphatically prevent us from feeling superior to people in the past, since our world does not address the needs of the fleeing all that much better than 150 years ago.
The book also has quite a bit to say about the definition of citizenship. It highlights a continuing, though imperfect, federal commitment to former slaves at the end of 1865, underscores the importance of the 14th Amendment in securing the 13th Amendment, and reveals key roles played by formerly enslaved women and children (as well as men) in redefining citizenship in the United States. But it also reveals that the new definition of citizenship hammered out in contraband camps had already evolved into something a bit different by the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868. That evolution underscores the crucial point that defining citizenship is not a “once and for all” kind of task, but rather an ongoing process in which all of us bear some responsibility. Once again, news headlines from places like Ferguson, Missouri, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and many others make the urgency of that responsibility all the more plain.
Finally, the book is (among other things) an extended meditation on the tension between structure—forces too large for individual people or even groups to control—and agency, or how individuals act on and within those forces, often redirecting them in crucial ways, but never able to shape them entirely to human will. Troubled Refuge offers readers an invitation to reflect upon the meaning of freedom and the hard limits that power and violence impose on it, as well as the necessity of holding success and failure in one hand at the same time.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CM: The first draw was Little House on the Prairie. I began to read the book series between kindergarten and first grade, which drew me into the 19th century. Meanwhile, I was exceptionally close to my grandmother, who first of all taught me to read when I was two, and second of all had a fascination with the Civil War, so anything she was interested in, I was interested in, too. As a result, I read anything I could find about the Civil War. As a Navy kid, I grew up and went to school in several different parts of the country; it so happened that I attended first grade in Jacksonville, Florida, where we sang Dixie after the pledge to the flag in the morning. Pictures of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were on the wall. Later I became fascinated with Harriet Tubman, and that interest stayed with me. But it was not until much, much later that it occurred to me that serious study of the Civil War as an adult was a possibility, and once it did what drew me in was the wealth of sources from ordinary people, since the war separated so many family members from each other and left letter-writing as the way for them to share their thoughts, experiences, ideas, and hopes. Those letters allow us to enter the world of people in the past, which appealed to me. Once in that world, many other types of sources started beckoning, and offered other ways in, all of which is to say, at first sources drew me. Why I stayed in the field has to do with not just the 19th century, but what I think is important about teaching and learning history generally, namely that studying history inculcates empathy and humbleness. It fosters empathy because to study history well requires a willingness to set oneself aside and see the world from perspectives of people entirely different from oneself. It cultivates humbleness because study of the past demonstrates that we are neither the first people to face problems, nor necessarily the most skillful at resolving them.
JF: What is your next project?
CM: I am not sure. Troubled Refuge was a very difficult book to write on many levels, and it drained me dry. It will take awhile for the well to refill, especially because there are some either things that need my presence and attention right now. What comes next could be completely different.
JF: Thanks, Chandra!