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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 only organization for his account, and he too often falls back on crude psychological analyses to account for events. General George B. McClellan was “in Freudian terms, a classic anal retentive,” President Andrew Johnson “paranoid,” with a “touch of madness.” The interdependence of master and slave produced, he writes, a “classic love-hate relationship,” and, on the part of the black, “a servile mentality,” an assumption “that the white man was his superior in every respect.” This kind of simplification allows Smith to avoid confronting the actual motives—whether political, ideological, or material—of McClellan or Johnson and to be drastically reductive about the complex relations between masters and slaves.

Throughout this and his other volumes, Smith writes as if he were a courageous iconoclast, standing apart from the accumulated mythologies and historical misconceptions of his academic colleagues. He dispenses with footnotes and bibliography while claiming to be presenting a radical revision of the standard view of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This refusal to credit the work of others may be good salesmanship, but it is misleading, not to say uncharitable. For Smith’s real accomplishment lies not in originality of approach or conclusions but in his ability to summarize for nonspecialists the revised views of the war and especially of Reconstruction that have emerged during the last twenty years.

Few modern scholars still believe that Reconstruction was a sordid period characterized above all by governmental corruption, Radical Republican vindictiveness, and black political supremacy in the defeated South. When Smith emphasizes the essentially idealistic motives of the Radicals, the positive achievements of the Reconstruction regimes, and the white South’s intransigence, which forced upon the North a commitment to protect the basic rights of the former slaves, he is simply following the main lines of current interpretation.

So too there is little original in Smith’s emphasis on the activities of blacks during the Civil War. In one sense, Trial by Fire shows that the recent emphasis on black history has produced a revolution in historical understanding. Confined until the 1960s to the black colleges, the study of the black past has now achieved scholarly legitimacy at scores of universities, and this has transformed the way American history is taught and written.

The earlier narratives of such historians as Channing, McMaster, and Oberholtzer dealt with blacks, if at all, primarily as a “problem” for American society. Smith, like most other contemporary historians, makes them central. He arrives at his positive assessment of Reconstruction by placing blacks at the heart of the story. “It is bitter to have to say,” he concludes, “that American blacks have not yet regained the power and influence that they enjoyed in the Reconstruction Era.” Like most modern scholars, Smith believes the tragedy of Reconstruction was not that it was attempted but that it failed.

When Smith concentrates on the experience of ordinary Americans, moreover, he reflects the concerns of the “new social history,” with its emphasis on the historically “inarticulate”—women, blacks, laborers, and others who were excluded from traditional accounts. While the increasing attention given to such neglected groups has been invigorating for the study of the past, it has also fragmented modern historical writing; the lack of coherence of Smith’s narrative can be seen as a reflection of the larger failure of the “new” history to produce anything approaching a synthesis of its findings.

Indeed the recent emphasis on social history poses serious difficulties for the narrative writer in search of the contemporary evidence with which to convey the everyday experience of “anonymous” Americans during the Civil War period. Smith draws heavily on the letters and diaries of contemporaries, including the often vivid letters of soldiers who fought in the war; but some of the documents he relies on pose problems. For example, the wartime secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, whose diary is quoted at length, was an opinionated ideologue with little real insight into the revolutionary changes around him. The Charles Colcock Jones family of Georgia, whose letters, published as The Children of Pride, Smith also cites extensively, displayed little comprehension of the underlying values and behavior of their slaves. Because he relies primarily on published accounts, moreover, Smith is able to present the responses of whites to the wrenching transformations of the Civil War era far more fully than those of blacks. He can quote Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany, but not the ordinary free black; white commanders of black troops but not the black soldier himself. The kind of rich documentary record that exists for whites has not yet been produced for black history.

Fortunately, that situation is about to change. Contrary to what might be assumed, the problem confronting historians who seek to understand how ordinary blacks experienced the Civil War and emancipation is not that there are too few documents, but that there are so many. Buried in the National Archives are collections so vast that no single scholar can ever hope to examine them all, and until recently little serious work had been done on them. Among the millions of available documents are the records of the Union and Confederate armies, the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Treasury Department, the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, and other government agencies. Along with innumerable routine reports and bureaucratic forms exist hundreds of thousands of letters, affidavits, and other contemporary observations by former slaves. Taken together, they form an unmatched chronicle of the social revolution known as emancipation.

During the past few years, Ira Berlin and his colleagues in the Freedmen and Southern Society Project have systematically been working on the National Archives’s holdings. The Black Military Experience is the first in a seven-volume documentary record that will appear during the 1980s. (Somewhat confusingly, the sequence is divided into several series, some of them subdivided into volumes; the first book is designated as “Series II” of the overall project.) Having examined perhaps two million documents, many of them untouched since they were deposited in their file boxes a century ago, the editors first selected about forty thousand for possible publication, and then whittled that group down to the four thousand or so that will appear in print. (The remainder will be made available on microfilm, along with a guide and index.) To judge from this first product, the result is a series that will transform the ways historians think about slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation.

Although the first volume includes documents written by whites—military commanders, politicians, plantation superintendents, former slaveholders, and others—it largely consists of the testimony of blacks. One useful result is to further discredit the notion that ordinary people were “inarticulate,” either in the sense that a record of their experience did not survive, or that they were unable to express themselves. The immediacy of this material, written at the very moment of emancipation, makes it far more valuable for historians than the “slave narratives” gathered by the WPA during the Depression and now widely used to document the black perception of slavery and emancipation. The “slave narratives” are themselves historically conditioned, reflecting the intervening experience of the decades between the 1860s and 1930s. The Freedom documents, which present the statements of black soldiers and their families, as well as black ministers, educators, and political leaders, demonstrate both the possibility of writing history “from the bottom up,” and the capacity of anonymous people to express their beliefs with eloquence and conviction.

In preparing these documents for publication, Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland have adapted the standards of such multi-volume editing projects as the Papers of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson to the very different requirements dictated by their enterprise. To annotate meticulously every piece of writing by a specific person or group would obviously be impossible here. In any case, that debatable procedure has so slowed the Jefferson papers that their publication won’t be complete until the twenty-first century.

  1. *

    The New York Review, August 12, 1982.

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