Sunday, March 11, 2012

Just Finished Reading

I am a real big fan of these "documentary" histories. For me, there's nothing quite like reading numerous primary sources associated with a subject, especially if they have been edited well. Ira Berlin and Leslie Rowland, both from the University of Maryland, certainly have the expertise to tackle such a task and passed again with flying colors. Berlin and Rowland were the primary movers in the Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation series (4 volumes) and are the lead faculty for the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.

This book contains eight chapters and cover a wide variety of topics and geographic regions. Chapter 1, "Escape, Rescue and Recapture: Families and the Wartime Struggle for Freedom" provides accounts from runaway slaves, those that received them in Union lines, and those that demanded their return during the Civil War. As one might image many of these accounts were written by barely literate individuals that spelled phonetically or simply by guessing. The editors did a great job of transcribing the documents and maintaining their historical integrity, but making them understandable when necessary. Images of a number of the primary sources are also provided, which lets one compare them to the transcriptions. In addition, the editors have included photographs of slaves and also images from period periodicals such as Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

Other chapters provide excellent accounts from black soldiers' families in Free States and Border States, as well as documents from families in the post-war occupation armies. Many of the black soldiers who enlisted did so late in the war (often from no fault of their own) and thus for many, their enlistments did not end with the end of hostilities but instead lasted into the early years of Reconstruction and sometimes in remote locations such as Texas.

I was pleased to find that a significant number of the accounts provided in the book came from soldiers and families that came from Kentucky or had ties to the Bluegrass state. Kentucky, unlike most of the other slave states, did not outlaw teaching slaves to read and write, thus there was likely a higher literacy rate in Kentucky slaves that those from other states. One letter that stands out was from a soldier of the 5th United States Colored Cavalry who wrote from Lexington in October 1865 to Secretary of War Stanton complaining that his officers were robbing the regiment's enlisted men of their pay money and selling their rations. He also complained that the officers had the soldiers working on citizens' farms pulling stumps and clearing brush and that the soldiers were not allowed to make purchases except from the regiment's sutler. The officers also allegedly would not issue furloughs to these soldiers so near their homes and families and would not allow soldiers' wives into camp to visit. Similar accounts from others, both soldiers and families, requested discharges from everyone from the president to the Secretary of War to take care of their dependents and provide protection.

Families and Freedom is a valuable and usable resource. I highly recommend it to gain a better understanding of the experiences of black soldiers and their families during and after the war. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75

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