Book Review Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps by Amy Murrell Taylor

Pat Young

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Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps by Amy Murrell Taylor published by The University of North Carolina Press (2018) 363 pages 34.95 Hardcover, $15.39 Kindle
Just a few decades ago the stories of Black refugees fleeing from slavery into the hands of the Union Army attracted little attention among historians. Recently there has been a raft of books published on everything from the health impacts of freedom to the organization of educational initiatives. Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps by Amy Murrell Taylor, far from being an outlier in the modern historiography of the Civil War, is the latest, and possibly the most honored, volume touching on the African American refugee experience. Her writing is crisp and incisive. While this book lives up to academic standards, its presents its findings through easy to relate to stories of well-documented refugee experiences.

Note: Because of its length, this review will be presented in a number of installments.
 
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Amy Murrell Taylor
I noticed that Ms. Taylor is scheduled to present on this topic at the Gettysburg CWI Summer Conference, June 14-19, 2019. Her presentation, of the same title, is scheduled for Saturday, June 15, 2019 (1:45-3:00 pm.) Ms. Taylor will also participate as part of the Dine-in discussion panel on Sunday, June 16, 2019 (5:30- 6:45 pm.)
 

Pat Young

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I noticed that Ms. Taylor is scheduled to present on this topic at the Gettysburg CWI Summer Conference, June 14-19, 2019. Her presentation, of the same title, is scheduled for Saturday, June 15, 2019 (1:45-3:00 pm.) Ms. Taylor will also participate as part of the Dine-in discussion panel on Sunday, June 16, 2019 (5:30- 6:45 pm.)
Thanks for letting us know. If anyone goes, please share.
 

Pat Young

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Part 2:

Taylor opens her book by describing the confusion and danger the escaped slave refugee encountered. The refugee risked torture or death if caught by the slave patrols. She might starve or drown during her journey. When she finally arrived at a Union camp, she might be turned away or abused. Yet, Taylor notes, more kept escaping slavery every day. Could the desire for freedom be more vividly displayed.

These escapees are often called "contraband" by white historians, but this was not a term African Americans used for themselves. Abolitionists insisted that "contraband" signaled that they were considered property. They called the men, women and children leaving slavery "colored refugees." Taylor uses "refugee" because it prioritizes people over property. Slavery isone of the worst forms of human rights abuse, and escapees were clearly fleeing persecution.

Taylor will prioritize the story of individuals in this book to restore the humanity of the aggregated refugee experience.
 

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Part 3:

While it is almost impossibly difficult to document the lives of African Americans in the mid-19th Century, Taylor says that during the brief times that escapees were in the refugee camps some parts of their lives were recorded by the Federal government. She writes:

It was the first time that the federal government, in any systematic way, in fact, recognized enslaved people as individuals. For although the federal population census had long listed them by gender, age, and race, it had omitted their names; now, in the Civil War, as they emerged from slavery, they appeared in the documents by name and often with identifying information. As a result, there is today an
enormous paper trail documenting the lives of individual refugees tucked inside thousands of boxes at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
[Taylor, Amy Murrell. Embattled Freedom (Civil War America) (p. 15). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.]

In this book, Taylor uses the documentation to trace the lives of individuals and families from the first year of the war until the early post-war Reconstruction period.
 

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Part 4:

Taylor traces the Union's approach to refugees back to the first escapees arriving before Ben Butler at Fortress Monroe. She examines the changing Federal policies (and local variations) in the early months of refugee reception which included everything from sending the escapees North to returning them to slavery. The most common on-the-ground reaction was to provide haphazard shelter to the refugees and eventually employ them in work useful to the war effort.

Employment was not always smooth. If soldiers' pay was often late, the wage the army paid to black laborers seemed to arrive after all other obligations were met. Blacks struck back by walking off the job and refusing to work until they were paid. Some worried that they were viewed as semi-slaves by the army. They may have been right in some cases.

Taylor describes the imapct of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the refugee settlements and camps, it was electrifying. She also describes the disappointment of some refugees in counties in Virginia and Kentucky who were exempted from the liberation promised by the Emancipation Proclamation. Their legal status would not be finally resolved until 1865.
 

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Part 5:

The effects of the Emancipation Proclamation, Taylor writes,

made one thing clear: place mattered. The president’s January 1863 order, with its carefully worded passages listing which counties in Virginia or parishes in Louisiana would be exempted, or which border states would still be allowed to enslave, was closely attuned to geography.1 It was a particular kind of geography, though—a fundamentally political one. The regions excluded were those deemed “loyal,” and thus no longer (or never) in rebellion against the Union, and those determinations were greatly influenced by the lobbying of local political officials. The places where enslaved people could go in the hope of finding freedom, then, would be determined by the perception of political loyalty and disloyalty among the white people living there.

While many students of the Civil War assume unfreedom for those in the exempted counties and parishes, and many escapees lived in dred of being returned to slavery, other policies prevented mass returns from 1862 onwards of those who had rached Union lines. According to Taylor, the significance of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation;

would come from its ability to do the political work of placating the loyal in exempt regions without stopping the military work of emancipation on the ground. Two policies already on the books would make sure of that. The Second Confiscation Act of 1862, which had declared “forever free” any enslaved person owned by those in rebellion against the Union, could trump the proclamation’s exemptions in some, but not all, cases. But even more significant, yet unheralded in history, was an article of war passed by Congress in March 1862 that had no name but simply declared that all Union officers were “prohibited from employing any of the forces under their respective commands for the purpose of returning fugitives” and that anyone caught and convicted of doing so would be “dismissed from the service.”3 This sweeping order explains why none of the camps in exempt regions would close when the proclamation came down and why there was no mass expulsion of refugees in its wake: once inside Union army lines, all refugees, no matter where they came from or whom they belonged to, could, if officials followed the letter of this policy, stay there. [Taylor, Amy Murrell. Embattled Freedom (Civil War America) (p. 60). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.]
 
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Part 6:

The refugee camps were initially haphazard creation, but as the months went by after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation semi-permanent housing and stores were erected. Putting the refugees to productive work became a concern of the Army and relief organizations. On islands in the Mississippi near Helena, Ark. woodcutting colonies were established. These were designed to be self-supporting, although that goal was not always met. One island colony was eradicated by flooding, the ultimate failure to thrive.

The camps were also jeopardized when Union troops moved away from the protected areas. The movement of Sherman's army into Geogia and the Carolinas left refugee camps in the Mississippi Valley vulnerable to raiders and guerrillas.
 

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Part 7:

There were some coforts in the camps. In Hampton, Va., for example, the Quakers set up a store that sold clothing, shoes, food, cooking utensils, and other items to escapees who were earning wages or engaged in trade or farming. Missionary associations brought donated used goods to other camps where they hired black women to repair them for resale or distribution. These projects were known as the "store movement." Taylor explains:

The point of the “store movement” was not to turn a significant profit. “The stores are intended only for the blacks,” the Freedmen’s Friend tellingly revealed, for any white person who wanted to shop there had to have a “special permit from the military authorities.”44 This was because “the object of establishing stores,” according to the Friends Freedmen’s Association of Philadelphia, was “the improvement of the negroes, they should be made self sustaining.” The stores promised to transform the refugees from recipients of charity into consumers and, thus, the missionaries believed, to harness the allure of consumption in order to instill certain virtues, such as hard work, saving, and prudent decision making, that were considered essential to free labor and good citizenship.46 That potential prompted a convention of seven freedmen’s associations in 1864 to pass a resolution encouraging stores “as a means of stimulating industry and of teaching the freedmen the value of money.” At the same time, the stores themselves, under the missionaries’ watchful eyes, would provide protected spaces for such lessons, as they would be shielded from price gouging or unfair duties (or “imposition,” as the Friends put it). [Taylor, Amy Murrell. Embattled Freedom (Civil War America) (p. 165). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.]
 

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Part 8:

As the war reached its final, brutal, conclusion, the question quickly arose of what was to happen to the refugees. They were "free," but landless in a region dominated by agrarian production. Some supporters of black civil rights argued for land redistribution from former slave owning Confederates to the former slaves who had once enriched them. Some benevolence socieites began buying up abandoned land from the Federal government for grants or resale to freedpeople.

In his last months of life, it was Lincoln himself who put the needed land redistribution on hold. He believed that any program of land for former slaves could only follow the establishment of peace. Of course, after adopting this conciliationist approach, Lincoln was murdered by Confederate agent John Wilkes Booth. Whatever Lincoln might have done, his vice president acted quickly to strike his own course. Taylor writes:

Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, then took up the issue with zeal. His Amnesty Proclamation, issued on May 29, 1865, promised former Confederates “restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves,” as long as they took an oath of loyalty to the United States. [Taylor, Amy Murrell. Embattled Freedom (Civil War America) (p. 214). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.]
 

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Part 9:

As land was returned to former slave owners, the freedpeople lost their homes, the lands that they tilled, the churches and schools they had built. They also lost the communities they had constructed together, along with any faith they had in the federal government. These black people became refugees once again as they struggled to find a new place in the post-emancipation world. Many could not "go home" to the plantations where they had been enslaved. They would be forced to wander, as they had when they first escaped slavery.
 

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Conclusion:

This is a well-written book structured in a way that makes this challenging subject accessible for general readers. Neither an indictment of Federal refugee policy nor an exhonoration, it describes the evolution of the government's response to the reality of people fleeing slavery. Placing the refugees themselves at the center of the story, Taylor shows us how forgotten history can be rescued from obscurity.
 

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Thank you Pat for this review. I am often obtaining books for my kindle, and I have this book. I will surly have to get it bumped up the ladder of my reading list. Because of your thread on this book I have looked over it and it is going to be a wonderful read.

Respectfully,
William

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Pat Young

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Thank you Pat for this review. I am often obtaining books for my kindle, and I have this book. I will surly have to get it bumped up the ladder of my reading list. Because of your thread on this book I have looked over it and it is going to be a wonderful read.

Respectfully,
William

One Nation,
Two countries
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Thanks William. I always appreciate you as a fellow member.
 

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I think it sounds like an interesting book. I would love to be in Gettysburg to hear her presentation. I might stop in Gettysburg the first week or two in July. I have to drive from New Jersey to Florida, but doubt I will have time to detour to Gettysburg. There just might be some places to stop in Virginia or North or South Carolina. No, I doubt there are any Civil War sites in Virginia, or are there?
 


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