The Author’s Corner with Joseph Reidy

Illusions of EmancipationJoseph Reidy is Professor of History and Associate Provost at Howard University. This interview is based on his new book, Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Illusions of Emancipation?

JR: Illusions of Emancipation began gestating nearly twenty-five years ago when Gary W. Gallagher and T. Michael Parrish, series editors of the University of North Carolina Press’s Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, invited me to write the volume on emancipation. My previous work with the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which included co-editing four volumes of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 (Cambridge University Press, 1982-1993), acquainted me with the incredibly rich Civil War-era military records at the National Archives. The documents revealed emancipation to have been a complex process rather than a single event and to have involved a cast of characters that extended well beyond President Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Republicans to include enslaved Southerners and free African American Northerners. For the past generation historians have shared this understanding of how slavery ended, but much remains to be explained.

The current consensus takes for granted a linear trajectory, that began in 1861 with slavery well entrenched in the Southern states and protected in law throughout the land and that ended in 1865 with slavery outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even a cursory reading of the records at the National Archives suggested that the process was infinitely complex and that the goal of achieving freedom was elusive if not downright ephemeral. When supplemented with material from African American newspapers and the memoirs of persons who had escaped slavery (in the form of both published narratives and transcripts of interviews conducted during the 1930s), a fuller picture emerges. Contemporaries often employed figurative rather than strictly literal terminology to describe their experiences and their actions. They viewed events as unfolding within a temporal framework that was linear in some respects but was also characterized by recurring cycles or by intermittent bursts in which time appeared to speed up, slow down, or even stop. Space often displayed similar malleable properties, including its ability to support or undermine slavery depending on who controlled it. I wondered how individuals and communities coped with such instability. I found that at least part of the answer lay in their use of concepts of belonging, especially “home,” which could imply a dwelling-place, a neighborhood, a community, as well as the nation and the human relationships associated with each of those settings, to establish order out of the threatening chaos.

Abandoning the view that Civil War emancipation represented an unqualified expansion of American freedom and democracy reveals not only the complexity and uncertainty of the struggle to destroy slavery but also the limitations of the North’s ability to extend the blessings extolled by the Founders to persons of African ancestry, freeborn and formerly enslaved. For more than 150 years the nation has wrestled with the imperfect and often illusory results of emancipation, and the struggle continues.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Illusions of Emancipation?

JR: Illusions of Emancipation views the end of slavery during the Civil War not as a single event but as a complex, erratic, and unpredictable process, the outcome of which—the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—outlawed slavery but left unaddressed the contours of the “new birth of freedom” Abraham Lincoln had referenced in the Gettysburg Address. The book explores mid-nineteenth century Americans’ concepts of time, space, and the universal human desire for belonging for clues into how they understood the momentous changes swirling around them and, in turn, how we might better comprehend their world and our own.

JF: Why do we need to read Illusions of Emancipation?

JR: Illusions of Emancipation views the destruction of slavery during the Civil War as an uneven, often contradictory, and ultimately incomplete process rather than a story of American progress in which the latent antislavery sentiment of the nascent Republican Party blossomed over the four years of war into a triumphant reaffirmation of the nation’s founding ideals. Like many other recent interpreters of this era, I take for granted that Abraham Lincoln was not the sole architect of emancipation and that African Americans (both enslaved and freeborn) contributed significantly to destroying slavery, saving the Union, and reconfiguring the contours of American citizenship. But I also argue that, from Fort Sumter to Appomattox and beyond, each day presented new contingencies to be navigated, that the flow of events—and people’s perceptions of them—moved in erratic and cyclical patterns rather than simple and straightforward ones, and that the presumed march of freedom under federal auspices could stop as well as advance and even turn backwards. Following the lead of contemporary observers, I argue that understanding this complex process requires employing figurative as well as literal meanings of time and space. I also explore the multiple concepts of the term “home” with which participants in the war’s earth-shattering events attempted to make sense of a world in the throes of being turned upside down. In the end, the Union’s victory resulted in a constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery; but it offered at best an imperfect resolution to such fundamental questions as the meaning of freedom and the essential rights and privileges of citizenship—not just to persons of African descent but to all Americans—the implications of which persist to the present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JR: I followed a roundabout path to becoming a professional historian. I began my undergraduate studies in the mid-1960s in an engineering program, but after several years I found it to be less engaging than I had expected. What is more, the physical and natural sciences did not offer much in the way of understanding the pressing political and social questions embroiling the nation at that time, specifically African American civil and political rights and the Vietnam War. The social sciences offered a framework for filling that void, and I completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Following graduation, I began exploring the possibility of a career in higher education, with my focus shifting from sociology to U.S. history with the goal of comprehending the underlying context of contemporary events. The prospect of teaching about the past was appealing, but even more so was the opportunity to conduct historical research and advance the frontiers of knowledge. That fascination has animated my work ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

JR: Having recently retired, I am not inclined to embark on an entirely new research project. But I have a long-standing interest in the topic black sailors in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, and I would like to pursue that further. The navy grew from several dozen effective vessels at the start of the war to more than 600 by its conclusion, and roughly one-fourth of the enlisted personnel were men of African descent. What is more, nineteenth-century naval warships present something of a world unto themselves, one of rigidly confined space where time followed conventions unknown on terra firma, and the hierarchical authority structure looked (and functioned) more like a slave plantation than any living and working arrangements in the free states of the North. What a fascinating setting to explore the breakdown of slavery!

JF: Thanks, Joseph!

Did Lincoln Offer a “verbal cake and ice cream” to slaveowners?

Who was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation?  Was it Lincoln?  The Republican Party? The slaves themselves?  Gettysburg College Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo makes a case for Lincoln in his recent piece in The Wall Street Journal.  Here is a taste:

In an age when rocking century-old statues off their pedestals has become a public sport, no historical reputation is safe. That includes Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

It is “now widely held,” Columbia historian Stephanie McCurry announced in a 2016 article, that emancipation “wasn’t primarily the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, but of the slaves themselves, precipitated by the actions they took inside the Confederacy and in their flight to Union lines.” Ebony editor Lerone Bennett put this argument forward in his 2000 book, “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” The Zinn Education Project, which distributes Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” to students, claims that Lincoln offered “verbal cake and ice cream to slaveowners,” while slaves themselves did “everything they could to turn a war for national unity into a war to end slavery.”

The case against Lincoln is a lot less energizing than it seems. Slavery, as it emerged in American life and law, was always a matter of state enactments. There was no federal slave code, and Madison had been particularly eager to ensure that the Constitution gave no federal recognition to the idea that there could be “property in man.” But there was also no federal authority to move directly against slavery in the states.

The attempt by the Southern slave states to break away in 1861 seemed to offer several ways to strike at slavery. Some U.S. Army officers attempted to declare slaves “contraband of war,” and therefore liable to seizure like any other military goods. But the “contraband” argument fell into the error of conceding that slaves were property, and, anyway, no legal opinions on the laws of war regarded such property seizures as permanent.

Congress tried to put a hand on slavery through two Confiscation Acts, in 1861 and 1862. But “confiscating” slaves wasn’t the same thing as freeing them, since the Constitution (in Article I, Section 9) explicitly bans Congress from enacting “bills of attainder” that permanently alienate property. Confiscation would also have had the problem of ratifying the idea that human beings were property.

Lincoln tried to dodge the constitutional issues by proposing, as early as November 1861, a federal buyout of slaves in the four border states that remained loyal to the Union—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. But the representatives of those states rebuffed the offer, telling Lincoln that they “did not like to be coerced into Emancipation, either by the Direct action of the Government, or by indirection,” as a Maryland congressman reported.

Many slaves didn’t wait on the courts or Congress, and instead ran for their freedom to wherever they could find the Union Army. But the Army wasn’t always welcoming, and there was no guarantee that the war wouldn’t end with a negotiated settlement including the forced return of such runaways. Fugitive slaves were free, but their freedom needed legal recognition.

If you can get past The Wall Street Journal paywall, you can read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Amy Taylor

embattled freedom

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!