Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Practical Liberators

Well, what with reading several slimmer volumes in attempt to pad my "Books Read in 2019" list, and taking a few days off for a wonderful vacation, it seems I've fallen a little behind in sharing some thoughts on a few recently read volumes. One of the finest books I've read so far this year is Kristopher A. Teters' Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War.

Serious students of the Civil War will not find it surprising that early in the conflict the Union field armies offered various and inconsistent plans in attempt to deal with the large numbers of escaped enslaved people coming into their lines and camps. Their programs for handling refugees differed widely due to a number of factors including: where that particular force was located, who was in command (and thus what his particular feelings toward black people were), what level of command they had (i.e. army vs. regiment), and the number of refugees who arrived. Some officers, particularly those from strong abolitionist sections of the Old Northwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan), were more strident in their refusal to return refugees to their former masters. However, some of those Union officers from say parts of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and of course the slave states of Missouri and Kentucky, were more willing to allow owners to reclaimed what they saw as their legal property. When Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act in the summer of 1862, though, a shift occurred. Now, working from a solid government mandate, and after having a significant amount of time to observe the great force of labor that enslaved African Americans provided to their Confederate enemies, Union officers began to develop a more consistent plan of offering liberation to those who came seeking freedom.

Teters argues that the majority of western theater Union officers developed a pragmatic idea of emancipation. He contends that it was "military necessity" that formed western Union officers' thinking about this central issue of the Civil War. However, not all Union officers fell in line. Some believed that emancipation, whether by act of Congress or presidential edict, would only undermine their past western theater successes by strengthening the will of the southern people to fight with even more determination. In addition, some believed that Union soldiers from areas such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, would switch their allegiance if emancipation became an official Union war aim.

Teters covers these issues, and much more, in the first three chapters of this fascinating book. But perhaps the most intriguing chapter in this study to me was the fourth chapter, "Officers, Servants, and Race." For many Union soldier and officers moving into areas such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and northern parts of Alabama and Mississippi this was the first time that some of these men had the opportunity to be around large numbers of black people. Of course, many had previously conceived notions that they had obtained through jokes, ministerial shows, popular songs, and print media, and the many primary sources these men left behind too often reflect those sentiments. Teters found that "Officers found black people exotic, curious, childlike, ignorant, animalistic, dirty, funny, pitiful, and ultimately, inferior." Those officers who were thinking individuals, wisely understood that slavery imposed these factors on African Americans. But, unfortunately the majority of officers believed these were inherit traits for black people. It appears that their ideas changed to a certain degree for those officers who hired personal servants from the refugee populations and actually got to known them a little. But it seems that those positives were most often reserved for the individual level rather than the general population of refugees. It is here where Teters uncovers some amazing primary source information. Officers commented often on their servants, but it appears clear that their war experience and contact with blacks did not radically alter the racial attitudes of the majority.

For most Union officers, emancipation was yet another practical means of depriving the Confederates of a vital manpower source and at the same time adding to their own; a double-negative to their enemies, if you will. Emancipation was another fiber in the rope that would help pull the Union to victory, end the war, and thus the allow their return home.

In some respects Practical Liberators is much in the same line as Glenn David Brasher's The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, but in others it is quite different. Practical Liberators provides not only a comparative study to Brasher's eastern theater focus, but it narrows the lens to Union officers, which allows for a deep study on this important and relevant subject, and it covers a wider chronological period.

Practical Liberators is excellently written with stacks of primary source evidence. This book adds significantly to our level of understanding on the emancipation process and how it played out on the ground. I highly recommend it!

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