Amy Taylor is an Associate Professor of History along with Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. This interview is based on her new book, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Embattled Freedom?
AT: For a number of years, while working on other projects, I kept coming across references to the hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children who fled slavery during the Civil War and forged new lives for themselves behind the lines of the Union army. But these were only fleeting references—a few sentences in a book, or a widely circulated Harper’s Weekly image, for example. So eventually I wondered: why don’t I know more? How could a mass migration of people that effectively destroyed slavery have taken place during this (abundantly studied) Civil War, and we still don’t know much about it?
The answer, of course, had to do with deliberate neglect — and the failure of white Americans, in particular, to reckon with the Civil War’s slavery history for so long. It should be noted that some black scholars, most notably W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction, did write about this history decades ago and tried to turn more attention to the story. But it has only been recently, in the last decade, that the subject is finally getting its due — in addition to my book, there are important books and articles by Thavolia Glymph, Jim Downs, Leslie Schwalm, and Chandra Manning as well. All of this work is in sync with present-day politics, as we begin 2019 with Confederate monuments coming down and new commemorations of slavery and black Civil War history going up.
I also wrote this book because of a more general and abiding interest in telling the stories of people who have not had their stories told. I am a social historian at heart and believe that everyone has a story that can tell us something about the world in which they lived. I am also an aspiring detective. So I was drawn to the challenge of digging up even the smallest scraps of information about individual refugees from slavery, and then piecing together their movements to try to understand their perspectives on the momentous events that shook the nation in the 1860s.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Embattled Freedom?
AT: My book rests on the premise that the Civil War represented a distinctly militarized period in the decades-long process of destroying slavery in the United States (the “long Emancipation,” as some have called it). Embattled Freedom zeroes in on that period and argues that the way in which freedom-seeking people navigated—and survived—the culture, bureaucracy, and dangers of military life was an elemental part of the story of slavery’s destruction in the United States.
JF: Why do we need to read Embattled Freedom?
AT: Because Embattled Freedom is deeply resonant with so much of what is going on in our lives today. First, it uncovers a key piece of the deeply buried slavery past with which we are only now beginning to reckon. As more and more Americans are tearing down romanticized myths and monuments and talking more honestly about this history, I believe it is the historian’s role to provide ample research that can make an open and constructive dialogue possible. My hope is that Embattled Freedom will help inform that conversation.
Second, the book also tells the story of one of the United States’ earliest refugee crises. As we consider our obligations to displaced people throughout the world—as Americans debate the meaning of its borders and how “open” the country should be—I think it behooves us to consider the longer history of how Americans have defined citizenship and belonging throughout the nation’s history. The parallels between what happened in the Civil War and what is happening today are striking and sometimes surprising: how many people know, for example, that northern politicians tried to build a metaphoric “wall” across the United States during the Civil War, when they refused the migration of refugees from slavery into northern states? That is just one example of how my book sheds light on the deep history of our present-day lives.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AT: I graduated from college thinking I would pursue a career in politics. So I went to Capitol Hill within months of obtaining my history degree and began working for a congressman. But I soon found myself sneaking into the Library of Congress during the workday to browse around and flip through the card catalog (which tells you how long ago that was). I was looking for materials related to the senior honors thesis on Confederate women that I had just completed before graduating. And I soon admitted to myself that I would rather hunt down leads on an already-completed history project than brush up on NASA policy and draft talking points for my boss (though I liked and respected him).
I decided I wanted to think for myself, rather than for my boss, and that I needed to pick up the intellectual work that I had left behind with my history degree. So I began applying to graduate programs and landed at the University of Virginia for my MA and PhD degrees. Why exactly I was drawn to history is something I do not fully understand yet—maybe with age I’ll gain more perspective. But I think it has something to do with my nagging interest in comprehending human behavior, which is why I sometimes say that if not a historian, I would be a journalist, a detective, or a psychologist.
JF: What is your next project?
AT: I have two. The first is a short book that will tell the story of the last effort by the federal government to colonize people of African descent beyond the nation’s borders. In 1863, just months after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln approved and supported the migration of over 400 people from the coast of Virginia to Île a Vàche (Haiti). The people, already suffering in refugee camps in and around Fort Monroe, were willing to listen to big promises of employment, housing, and stable new lives that would greet them in Haiti. The expedition failed to live up to those promises, however, and amid disease, death, and unpaid wages, the group petitioned Lincoln to bring them back to the United States—which he did.
My other project explores the U.S. government’s effort to count newly freed people in the 1860s. During the Civil War, in particular, federal agents made numerous attempts to conduct a census of the formerly enslaved population. All of these attempts proved incomplete and haphazard; all, however, were advancements on the decennial federal census, which had long counted this population but never by name or by any other identifying information except for gender, “color,” and age. That changed during the war, as federal agents identified the people by name, family relationships, military service, and more. My interest is in exploring the meaning of this data-gathering in the context of Emancipation: what was behind the federal government’s impulse to count, sort, and classify this population, and what role did it play in imagining and building a postwar racial order?
JF: Thanks, Amy!