Book Review: Free At Last: A Documentary History Of Slavery, Freedom, And The Civil War

Free At Last: A Documentary History Of Slavery, Freedom, And The Civil War, edited by Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, And Leslie S. Rowland

This was a fascinating book, and reading this book is akin to reading the side of the Civil War that few people do. It is generally most common when one reads about wars to think of questions of strategy or tactics. Occasionally a source will make use of the letters that are written to friends or family members, or the diaries of soldiers and nurses and political leaders. There are plenty of memoirs written after the fact, some of them first rate writings and others not so much. Yet this book contains generally the sort of material that is forgotten in history, accounts by people who were not famous dealing with the logistics of war, including reports on the state of freedman’s camps and appeals for fair treatment from the government to deal with some kind of abusive local authority in the form of a local government trying to imprison army recruiters or slave owners in places like Kentucky or Missouri refusing to support the relatives of soldiers who had gone off to fight with the boys in blue. If higher governments did not always come to the succor of slaves and freed people in difficulty, it is still remarkable that sometimes those concerns were addressed.

This book is a huge one at almost 550 pages and it is divided into only six chapters, which are massive and contain large amounts of primary source documents largely unedited with only a minimum of editorializing to connect them together as part of larger narratives. The book begins with acknowledgements, an introduction, and a discussion of the eidotiral method used in the book, as well as short titles and abbreviations and a chronology. The documents in the book are then divided into five sections, opening with a discussion of the Civil War as a war for the Union (1) in the eyes of Northern whites, and a war for freedom (2) in the eyes of blacks from the beginning, who saw quickly what northerners only gradually realized that a war to preserve the Union automatically endangered slavery as an institution in both the Confederacy as well as loyal border states. After that there is a discussion of life and labor within Union lines for those who were able to join as “contrabands” and receive some degree of freedom that way (3), as well as a discussion of the free labor that occurred in the midst of war (4), which set up useful patterns to how blacks would experience freedom afterwards. After that there is a look at slavery within the Union (5) as well as the relationship between blacks and soldiers and citizens (6), after which the book ends with notes, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

Over and over again the editors of this work use the documentary evidence of the breakup of slavery and the rearguard action against the fall of slavery fought even by those slaveowners in border states who were loyal to the Union to demonstrate the inexorable logic that led the Civil War and the demands for soldiers to fight it to undercut the base of slavery, and in a more subtle way to demonstrate the agency of slaves in seeking to petition for redress as well as exploit conditions for the improvement of their lives, whether that meant being “contraband” working for the Union army or negotiating with slaveowners for better terms and labor conditions. And it is not as if slaveowners and others were ignorant of these matters, for the book includes plenty of discussion from military figures and political figures in both the Union and Confederacy as well as ordinary people writing to others, including their leaders, making astute observations or urging action that might lead to a desired outcome, or lamenting conditions as they were. This book and the material in it is worthwhile as important primary source documentation in the social history of the Civil War and what it meant for blacks as well as the changed relationship that took place between whites and blacks due to the Civil War and the response of people to the conditions that resulted, with no one being a passive instrument of fate, but everyone seeking to turn events to their own advantage.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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