Thursday, March 14, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Embattled Freedom

While seemingly almost every aspect of the Civil War-Era has received a fair share of scholarly examination, one significant yet largely ignored facet is finally getting some much deserved attention. Until recently, outside of a handful of books and articles, a true gulf in scholarship existed on the experiences of those in the war’s slave refugee camps. Jim Downs’s book, Sick from Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford, 2012), which explores a specific thread of the camps helped. Chandra Manning’s recently published Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (Knopf, 2016), which examines how the war’s fugitive slaves reworked emancipation as a Union war aim and then challenged the idea of who was to be considered a citizen in the war’s aftermath has helped fill this void, too. Now, with Amy Murrell Taylor’s new contribution to this growing body of study with her book, Embattled Freedom: Journeysthrough the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps, even more light is finding its way to this underexposed historical topic.
Referred to during the conflict as “contraband camps,” these often fluid and makeshift settlements popped up in almost every area where the Union military showed its might and held its ground for any length of time. Found in almost every seceded and border state by war’s end, the 300 or so refugee camps could be places of unbridled hope at some points, yet deadly discouraging and dangerous places at other times.

What largely separates Embattled Freedom from previous studies is that in it Murrell provides a more complete grounds-eye view into the everyday happenings of the slave refugee camps. As one would expect, the experiences varied greatly among the estimated 500,000 men, women, and children who fled slavery and who found varying degrees of freedom during the four years of the Civil War. Depending on where they were from, and thus where their refugee camp materialized; when they arrived; what they were able to bring with them, both materially and in skills; who they encountered, and thus those peoples’ attitudes toward African Americans; and what they were tasked to do for service with the United States military, refugees encountered a diversity of problems, opportunities, dangers, and dilemmas.

Murrell insightfully tackles many of these refugee camp issues by viewing them through the lens of three individual case studies. These three examples not only help the reader better understand the experiences of those particular refugees, but also helps show how perhaps the refugee camps may have differed due to geographical location, and most importantly gives us their experience from their perspective. Taylor skillfully weaves the book’s eight chapters around the personal stories of Edward and Emma Whitehurst, would-be shopkeepers in southeast Virginia; Eliza Bogan, an army laundress in Helena, Arkansas; and Gabriel Burdett, an aspiring minister at Camp Nelson, Kentucky.

The eight chapters of the book discuss those myriads of concerns experienced by the majority of refugee men, women, and children. In “Securing Work,” the author explains through the Whitehurst’s story that the challenges faced in transitioning from a forced labor system to ideally a monetary wage labor system, especially during time of war, was not always smooth. In “Finding Shelter,” we discover that locations allocated for refugees were the ones least desired by the military, and that finding relatively permanent shelter was a constant struggle for refugees. “Confronting Removal” examines the common occurrence of putting distance between soldiers and refugee communities, often due to perceived negative racial influences. “Facing Combat” shows the many ways that refugees contributed to slavery’s demise, both inside the Union military and out. “Battling Hunger” and “Clothing Bodies” also spell out other practical, yet life-threatening challenges faced by refugees, while finding ways of “Keeping Faith” and “Grappling with Loss,” although perhaps less tangible, were in many cases just as important for refugee survival.
With Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Refugee Camps, Taylor gives us the book that many of us have long been waiting for. Its particular approach to the subject matter, thorough research, and keen writing ensures that it will maintain a place in Civil War history for years to come as a source of better understanding the slave refugee camp experience.  

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