Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War by Chandra Manning (review)
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Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War. By Chandra Manning. ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. Pp. 416. $40.00 cloth; $12.99 ebook)

It is difficult to narrate the Civil War without projecting spoilers into historical experience. Expressions such as the "collapse" or "unraveling" of slavery—or the "path" or "steps" toward freedom—suggest some sort of linear military, political, and moral outcome. Yet the experience often defied a clear narrative. African American men and women who began running in the spring of 1861 to Union lines at Fort Pickens, Fort Monroe, or Camp Defiance did not know how that gamble would turn out for them. For Chandra Manning, that uncertainty about the longevity of black freedom is a contingency worth keeping at the forefront when combing through historical sources. It also provides a jumping off point for an analysis of how black freedom and citizenship tortuously came out of slavery and war. Manning argues that refugees occupied a liminal state between slavery and citizenship, and that the danger of being dragged back into a state of legal enslavement persisted as a real threat until well after the Civil War ended.

Manning first meditates on what she calls "the intimate details of the everyday" (p. 28). In explaining the style of her book, Manning [End Page 681] likens it to Paul Philippoteaux's sixteen-thousand-square-foot cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg, with its careful detail and massive size that makes for a provocative—and disorienting—experience. Unlike the cyclorama, however, Manning carefully avoids romanticizing contraband camps. Lingering in the background of part one, which focuses on the individual experiences, hopes, and challenges of black refugees, is the sobering knowledge that structural forces, such as state power and opposing armies, or small forces such as microbes, often overcome the most resolute individuals. In these chapters, Manning individualizes the struggle for freedom: it felt, smelled, tasted, sounded, and looked different to each of the four hundred thousand people who fled slavery. Location also mattered. The improvisation that characterized all contraband camps was even more intensely felt in the porous contraband camps in western states. No one was out of danger and no one stayed put for long. While Manning uses a large array of evidence, she draws most of her examples from refugees along the Atlantic Coast in the east and the Mississippi River in the west.

After meditating on individual experiences in part one, Manning shifts in parts two and three to analyze how freedom and citizenship came to fruition. Manning defines slavery itself as a state of war in which the U.S. government changed sides after the election of 1860. Both refugees and the U.S. army recognized "that they needed each other, and so they built a tenuous alliance" (p. 8). This "tenuous alliance" between refugees and the government became a new form of citizenship, one in which the national government protected the rights of individual citizens (p. 16). The course of the war and the alliance between the U.S. government and refugees eventually ground down three unwritten antebellum rules: "the presumptive equation of blackness with slavery, the primacy of civil over military authority, and the existence of a direct relationship between the U.S. government and white but not black people" (p. 167). Part three brings the alliance forward into the early Reconstruction era, reminding readers that the end of slavery was not a given, even after the war ended.

Troubled Refuge provides valuable insight into the uncertainty [End Page 682] of lived experience during the Civil War. It is a timely contribution that is academic yet largely accessible to multiple audiences. As Manning points out, persecuted refugees and ambiguous governmental heroes are historical experiences that resonate with modern life more closely—and uncomfortably—than the common reenactments on battlefields. The careful analysis of citizenship is one of the most valuable insights of the book, second perhaps only to the meticulous detailing of the individual lived experiences of those who risked everything on a long shot.

Evan A. Kutzler

EVAN A. KUTZLER is an assistant professor of history at Georgia Southwestern State University.


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