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They Chose Freedom

Next to preservation of the United States as one nation, the emancipation of four million slaves and the abolition of slavery were the most important results of the Civil War. Our understanding of emancipation usually concentrates on its key documents: President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, congressional laws, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. These documents were certainly crucial: the Emancipation Proclamation promised that those who achieved freedom under its provisions would remain “forever free”; the Thirteenth Amendment fulfilled this promise with an ironclad mandate that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States.”

As David Blight makes clear in A Slave No More, however, these pronouncements were the culmination of a series of events on the ground in the South over four years of war. “For most slaves,” he explains, “freedom did not come on a particular day; it evolved by a process.” The real story is not what happened in the White House or the halls of Congress, but what happened at thousands of places from Maryland to Texas when slaves ran away from their masters and entered the lines of Union armies, or when those armies occupied Southern cities and plantation districts.

David Blight is director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, and the author or editor of several books on slavery, its abolition, and the historical memory of these momentous events, including his prize-winning Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001).1 In A Slave No More, he enters a debate among historians about who deserved primary credit for freeing the slaves and ending slavery: Abraham Lincoln (and his white Republican allies in Congress) or the slaves themselves.

The traditional answer to the question “Who freed the slaves?” was Abraham Lincoln. But many black and other historians have placed greater emphasis on the initiative of the slaves. These slaves saw the Civil War as a potential war for abolition well before Lincoln did. By coming into Union military lines in the South, they forced the issue of emancipation on the Lincoln administration. “While Lincoln continued to hesitate about the legal, constitutional, moral, and military aspects of the matter,” wrote the black historian and theologian Vincent Harding in 1981, “the relentless movement of the self-liberated fugitives into the Union lines” soon “approached and surpassed every level of force previously known.” Making themselves “an unavoidable military and political issue…this overwhelming human movement…of self-freed men and women…took their freedom into their own hands.” The Emancipation Proclamation, when it finally and belatedly came, merely “confirmed and gave ambiguous legal standing to the freedom which black people had already claimed through their own surging, living proclamations.”2

During the 1980s this self-emancipation thesis became dominant. It won the imprimatur of the foremost scholarly enterprise on the history of emancipation, the Freedmen and Southern Society project at the University of Maryland. By acting “resolutely to place their freedom—and that of their posterity—on the wartime agenda,” wrote the editors of this project, the slaves were “the prime movers in securing their own liberty.”3 One of the historians associated with the Freedmen and Southern Society project, Barbara J. Fields, gave wide currency to this theme in her eloquent statements on camera in the Ken Burns PBS documentary The Civil War (viewed by more than forty million people), and in the book that accompanied the series. “Freedom did not come to the slaves from words on paper, either the words of Congress or those of the President,” said Fields in 1990, but from “the initiative of the slaves” who “taught the nation that it must place the abolition of slavery at the head of its agenda.”4 A decade later Lerone Bennett Jr. declared that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a hoax. He “did not intend for it to free a single Negro…. Lincoln didn’t make emancipation; emancipation, which he never understood or supported or approved, made Lincoln.”5

Proponents of the traditional interpretation that Lincoln had something to do with freeing the slaves, and that the Emancipation Proclamation was an important step in that process, are quite ready to acknowledge that the initiative of slaves who came into Union lines forced the Lincoln administration to decide what to do about them. Some Union generals wanted to return them to their owners. But both Congress and the administration rejected that alternative. Well before the end of the war’s second year, the United States not only welcomed escaped slaves and enforced their freedom, but also began arming freedmen of military age to fight for freedom and nation as Union soldiers.

The Emancipation Proclamation officially made Union soldiers into an army of liberation. Northern troops carried copies of the Proclamation and distributed thousands of them as they penetrated into the heartland of the Confederacy. By the war’s last year, more than 10 percent of these soldiers of freedom were black, most of them former slaves. That army was chiefly responsible for the freedom of slaves who came within its purview. By the end of the war, David Blight estimates, “some 600,000 to 700,000 out of the nearly four million African American slaves had reached some form of emancipation” by this process. But most of them had done so by the Union army coming to them rather than by them escaping to the Union army. The remaining 3.3 million slaves achieved freedom by the Thirteenth Amendment, whose adoption was possible only through Union military victory. And no one deserved more credit for that victory than Abraham Lincoln, commander in chief of an army of liberation.6

David Blight’s A Slave No More publishes for the first time two autobiographies of former slaves, which offer case studies of the process of emancipation during the Civil War. “Slave narratives” have long been a well-established literary genre. Before 1865 approximately sixty-five autobiographical narratives of slaves who escaped or otherwise achieved freedom were published. Most of them were circulated (and some were ghostwritten) by abolitionists as part of their antislavery crusade. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (a new edition of which has been edited by Blight) is the most famous of these autobiographies. After the Civil War some fifty or more former slaves wrote autobiographies, of which Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery is by far the most widely read. The purpose of these postwar narratives, writes Blight, “was no longer to catalog the horrors of slavery, but to use memoir as a marker of racial uplift and respectability in the age of Jim Crow.”

The two narratives published in A Slave No More do not quite fit into either category. They do touch on some of the corrosive effects of slavery, and they also reveal, at least implicitly, the authors’ striving for respectability. But in two important respects they are almost unique: they focus primarily on the authors’ actions and experiences during the Civil War; and they were not written for publication so they are unmediated by white editors or by the conventions of writing for a public audience. They were apparently written for the authors’ children, to tell the next generation what their fathers had gone through to bring them into a world where they were free to achieve at least a modicum of mobility within a segregated society.

These autobiographies came to Professor Blight’s attention serendipitously. In 2003 he learned that the descendants of one author had lent the manuscript to the Massachusetts Historical Society, while a friend of another descendant had given the second manuscript to the Greenwich (Connecticut) Historical Society. When Blight read these narratives he immediately recognized their extraordinary value. With the help of his talented research assistant Christine McKay, he scoured archives and other sources for fragmentary data to confirm the accuracy of the two autobiographies and to complete the story of their authors’ lives after the Civil War, when their narratives end. In four introductory chapters, Blight has written a splendid interpretation of the meaning of these men’s experiences that is longer than the two narratives combined.

John Washington (1838–1918) and Wallace Turnage (1846–1916) were born slaves in, respectively, Fredericksburg, Virginia, and on a farm near Snow Hill, North Carolina. Both had white fathers—which at the outset offers an insight into one of slavery’s dirtiest secrets, the sexual exploitation of slave women by white men. Washington’s mother taught him to read, while it is not clear how Turnage gained that precious knowledge. Both were exceptional in the degree of literacy they possessed when they emerged from slavery. They also shared the shock of separation from their mothers at a young age, another of the baneful features of enslavement. When Washington was twelve years old, his mother was hired out to a master in Staunton, Virginia, one hundred miles from Fredericksburg. Taking her other four children with her, she left John behind to work as a servant and errand boy for their owner.

Bitter pangs filled my heart” at this separation, wrote Washington more than twenty years later. “Then and there my hatred was kindled secretly against my oppressors, and I promised myself If ever I got an opportunity I would run away from these devilish slave holders.” Turnage endured even more bitter anguish when at the age of fourteen he was sold apart from his mother and taken seven hundred miles to a plantation in Alabama, where a burning desire to escape fueled every moment of his existence.

From this point on, the experiences of the two young slaves diverged. Living in the cosmopolitan town of Fredericksburg, Washington interacted with free blacks and fell in love with a light-skinned free woman whom he married in January 1862. His job as a steward at a hotel, whose proprietor rented him from his owner, and his literacy and access to books and newspapers kept him informed on national politics and the progress of the war, which brought the Union army to Falmouth across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg in the spring of 1862. Washington’s desire for real freedom had only grown stronger during the years of quasi freedom he had known as a hired slave doing the job of a free man. On April 18, 1862, he shouted across the river to Union troops that he wanted to come over. They sent a boat and rowed him to freedom. For several months he served as a cook and steward at a Union general’s headquarters, until he could bring his wife and even his mother and siblings to Washington, where they joined a large and growing free black community liberated by the war.

Turnage’s passage to freedom was much more tortuous than Washington’s. The overseer on the cotton plantation in Alabama where he ended up liked to use the whip. Three times from 1860 to 1862 the teenage slave ran away in response to a whipping or to avoid one. Each time Turnage was caught and brought back—to face a whipping for running away. As Blight points out, “Wallace Turnage fought a war within a war well before he ever saw a Yankee soldier.” By the time of his fourth attempt to escape in the fall of 1862, he was aware of the war and of the presence of Union troops in northern Mississippi 120 miles from his plantation. This time he almost made it, experiencing hardships, sleepless nights, and near starvation along the way, which he describes with untutored eloquence in his narrative. But Confederate cavalry caught him and returned him to his master, who decided that he no longer wanted this chronic runaway and sold him down the Tombigbee River to Mobile.

Having failed to reach the Yankees in 1862, Turnage ran away from his new owner when the Yankees came close to him in August 1864. A joint army-navy Union task force captured the forts guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay. In his fifth escape attempt, Turnage journeyed thirty miles through swamps and across treacherous rivers, dodging Confederate pickets and fending off poisonous snakes to reach Union lines. Within sight of his goal at Fort Powell on Dauphin Island he found a leaky dinghy and rowed out into the bay. A sudden storm almost capsized him before eight Union soldiers who had seen him coming rowed out in a skiff to rescue him.

Turnage remembered with vivid clarity his first day of freedom with the Yankees at Fort Powell. “The next morning I was up early,” he wrote many years later,

and took a look at the rebels country with a thankful heart to think that I had made my escape with safety after such a long struggle; and had obtained the freedom which I desired so long.

Turnage offered a vivid expression of what that freedom meant to him. “I Now dreaded the gun, and handcuffs and pistols no more,” he wrote.

Nor the blewing of horns and the running of hounds; nor the threats of death from the rebel’s authority. I could now speak my opinion to men of all grades and colors, and no one to question my right to speak.

The welcome that Turnage and Washington received from Union soldiers challenges—or at least qualifies—the accounts by many historians that emphasize the racism and anti-black hostility of most soldiers. Both men have nothing but good words to say about their experiences after they reached Union lines. If they had been writing for a public (and predominantly white) readership, of course, we would be properly skeptical of such statements. But they were writing for themselves and their families and we may infer that they were writing what they actually felt. There were many racist Union soldiers, to be sure. And the light color of both Washington and Turnage probably worked in their favor. Washington was so light that the Union soldiers he first encountered thought he was a white man and were astonished to learn that he had been a slave. His reception, and Turnage’s, might have been considerably less friendly if they had been really black.

Like Washington, Turnage became a cook for a Union officer (from Maryland) and served with him the rest of the war. After their discharge they returned together to Baltimore, where Turnage lived for several years and eventually made contact with his mother and siblings. He married and moved to New York City, and several years later to Jersey City, where he lived the rest of his life and raised seven children, four of whom died young. Active in his Baptist church and fraternal lodge, Turnage struggled to make a living for his family in various occupations: waiter, janitor, and watchman. Two of his children who grew to adulthood passed for white and disappeared into mainstream white society.

Also active in his Baptist church, John Washington lived most of his long life in the city of Washington, where he worked as a sign painter, waiter, and barkeeper. His four sons were educated in the capital’s segregated public schools and found their way into respectable middle-class and lower-middle-class occupations. Blight speculates that both men wrote their narratives of the journey from slavery to freedom to provide themselves and their families with a sense of identity and pride in an era of increasing segregation and racism. “In their own personal ways, Washington and Turnage are saying: Here is who I am; here is how I achieved freedom; and here is what it means to me.”

By editing and elaborating upon these striking autobiographies, David Blight has done an inestimable service to historians. He has also presented a way to resolve disagreements about the question of “who freed the slaves, Lincoln or blacks themselves?” “The Turnage and Washington stories answer conclusively that it was both,” writes Blight. “Without the Union armies and navies, neither man would have achieved freedom when he did. But they never would have gained their freedom without their own courageous initiative, either.”

One might quibble about the “never” in that last sentence. Like the 3.3 million slaves who remained in bondage through the war, Washington and Turnage would have been freed by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 even if they had not demonstrated courageous initiative or come into contact with the Union army. But like many other bondsmen, Washington and Turnage did exhibit “the initiative of the slaves,” in the words of Barbara Fields quoted earlier, who “taught the nation that it must place the abolition of slavery at the head of its agenda.”

  1. 1

    Reviewed in these pages by David Brion Davis, July 18, 2002.

  2. 2

    Vincent Harding, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), pp. 231, 230, 225, 226, 228, 235.

  3. 3

    Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861–1867, Ser. I, Vol. 1, The Destruction of Slavery, edited by Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Thavolia Glymph, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 2, 3.

  4. 4

    Barbara J. Fields, “Who Freed the Slaves?” in Geoffrey C. Ward with Ric Burns and Ken Burns, The Civil War: An Illustrated History (Knopf, 1990), pp. 181, 179.

  5. 5

    Lerone Bennett Jr., Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Johnson, 2000), pp. 7, 58.

  6. 6

    See James M. McPherson, “Who Freed the Slaves?” in James M. McPherson, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1996); Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (Simon and Schuster, 2004); Richard Striner, Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2006).

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