Book Review: A Slave No More

A Slave No More:  Two Men Who Escaped To Freedom Including Their Own Narratives Of Emancipation, edited by David W. Blight

If the editor of this book would have been less skillful at framing the slave narratives included here, this could have been a much less enjoyable work, but fortunately for any reader of this book, this is a compelling narrative placed superbly in context.  As someone who is very familiar with books about slavery [1], this book caught my interest for fairly obvious reasons.  I have to say that having read this book I am impressed both with the narratives themselves as well as with the way that the editor provides a context for those narratives in light of the historical situation both of the narratives are set.  While each of these narratives would have made a short read on their own, combined they provide each other with a context in demonstrating some of the common traits and similarities that were experienced by both of the men and their families.  The editor also excels in discussing the life of the authors before and after slavery were documentary evidence allows such an understanding, which makes the gripping and dramatic tales of self-emancipation discussed here even more compelling to the reader.

The slightly more than 250 pages of this book are divided into two parts.  The first 160 pages or so of the book consists of written material by Professor Blight on the lives and narratives of two slaves who self-emancipated during the Civil War.  The author discusses their similarities–both had white fathers, learned a taste for freedom as urban slaves, and ran away to Union lines and were accepted along with the intelligence they brought, both traveled for some time at least with the Union troops they met, and both wrote about their experiences and sought to demonstrate their citizenship through hard work and a drive to rise in the world.  The second part of the book consists of two slave narratives and some additional material to the second one.  The first narrative is from John Washington, who escaped from Fredericksburg in early 1862 with the approach of Union soldiers and later became a sign painter.  The second narrative is from Wallace Turnage, a chronic runaway who finally succeeded in finding Union lines on his fifth (!) escape attempt while in Mobile in late August of 1864.  This second narrative also includes a eulogy for his deceased son in 1865 in the aftermath of national mourning over Lincoln’s death.

This book excels for at least a few reasons.  For one, these two narratives are very rare examples of runaway slave writings from the period of the Civil War.  Likewise, the eulogy to Turnage’s dead son is a rare example of a black narrative of the mid-19th century of such a circumstance.  The narratives themselves, although filled with a large degree of spelling and grammatical errors, are compelling stories told with a great deal of rawness and authenticity.  These were not heavily doctored and ghostwritten accounts designed to appeal to a mass audience, but rather handwritten documents written for the family of the authors and unpublished until this book.  In addition to this, the editor’s own writing is filled with nuance and balance.  He comments on the duel of wills both of the narratives display between masters and slaves, on the corrupting/liberating habits of urban life for slaves, and on the fact that self-emancipation required both the initiative of the escapee as well as the opportunity to be able to reach Union lines.  In both of these cases, both qualities were met and the result was a successful bid to freedom that increased the personal dignity both men felt and also felt it worthwhile to put down in writing to the best of their abilities, for the benefit of posterity.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review: A Slave No More

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Slavemaster President | Edge Induced Cohesion

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