The Hidden History of Emancipation

Trial by Fire: A People’s History of the Civil War and Reconstruction

by Page Smith
McGraw-Hill, 1,038 pp., $29.95

Among the revolutionary events that transformed the nineteenth-century world, none was so dramatic in its human consequences as the abolition of chattel slavery. Slavery and emancipation have always been central questions for American historians and much of the best historical work of the 1960s and 1970s concentrated on the South’s “peculiar institution.” More recently, attention has tended to shift from slavery and the causes of the Civil War to the effects of abolition and the events of the post-Civil War period. In part, this simply reflects the need for a breathing space to assimilate the remarkable studies of slavery during the past two decades. But it is also inspired by a recognition that, in many ways, American society has not yet fully accepted the consequences of the emancipation.

The Civil War and the drama of emancipation are well suited for sweeping narrative accounts. Page Smith’s Trial by Fire, covering the Civil War and Reconstruction, is the fifth installment in his multi-volume history of the United States. Whatever one’s assessment of Smith’s enterprise, the ambitious scope of his undertaking cannot be denied. Like John B. McMaster, Edward Channing, Ellis P. Oberholtzer, and other virtually forgotten chroniclers of our national experience, Smith seeks to combine the latest findings of academic scholarship with contemporary evidence in a book that will be accessible to a broad public.

As Gordon Wood observed not long ago in these pages, narrative history has lately had something of a revival. The reason is clear. Quantitative methods and social science models changed the kinds of questions historians asked but they too often resulted in books consisting largely of accumulations of data, often on narrow, even trivial subjects. The result was a divorce of academic history from a general audience which, not surprisingly, preferred narratives and biographies to analytical studies of data.

Some might say the strengths and weaknesses of Smith’s approach are inherent in conventional narrative history itself. At his best, Smith writes lucidly; he shows command of the available sources, and has an eye for the revealing incident. For example, he tells at length the story of Williams Middleton, a member of one of the most prominent planter families of South Carolina, who was put on “trial” by a mock court of his former slaves as the Civil War drew to a close. The blacks weighed Middleton’s past severities and kindnesses and seriously debated executing him before finally releasing him. Through such events, Smith is able to capture both the grim reality of the Civil War and the genuine drama of the postwar years, when many blacks and whites briefly shared a vision of a New South rising from the ashes of slavery and based on racial harmony.

As in his four previous volumes, Smith writes well about specific episodes but falters when it comes to broader historical patterns. As the book rambles among the mountains of evidence, the author seems desperately to be searching for a unifying theme. Chronology provides the …

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