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Reviewed by:
  • Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner ed. by Jean Lee Cole
  • Cynthia L. Patterson
Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner. Edited by Jean Lee Cole. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2013. 271 pp. $68.99 clothbound. $22.99 paperback.

Freedom’s Witness makes available to scholars, students, and general readers most of the published writings contributed by Henry McNeal Turner to the Christian Recorder between 1862 and 1865. The denominational newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, the Christian Recorder, originally established in 1852, revived publication in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1861. Turner, a rising star in the A.M.E. Church hierarchy in the 1860s, would later serve as the denomination’s bishop after a stint as a politician in Reconstruction-era Georgia.

As Cole points out in her “Introduction” to the volume, Turner’s Civil War correspondences, published for the first time in book form, “adds significantly to the short stack of African American eyewitness accounts of this momentous, some would say definitive, national event” (25). Cole surmises that the newspaper itself has not received the scholarly attention it merits precisely because of its affiliation with the A.M.E. Church. However, as Cole points out, it was the “longest-lived African American newspaper,” and, she argues, it was also “read at least as widely, if not more so than [Frederick] Douglass’s newspapers” (4). Cole posits that Turner fell out of the historical and literary record largely due to his later emigrationist views, which African American politicians and intellectuals largely abandoned in the twentieth century (1). Her purpose [End Page 209] in this volume, then, is to “reestablish [Turner] as a key figure in the development of African American history and culture” (1).

Christian Recorder “correspondents” contributed articles that Cole describes as “hybrid”—resembling in some ways the familiar “letter to the editor,” and in some ways more like a regular newspaper columnist’s submissions (6). Turner’s contributions, in particular, began as reportage but later “become more journal than journalism” as Turner developed a name for himself and a regular readerly following. Thus, Cole focuses on three “largely ignored” aspects of his Civil War correspondence: “its significance as a work of imagination, an example of literary style, and an opportunity for ministry” (18). Cole explains that his writing for the Christian Recorder is marked by “colloquial language” (24) that, while “religious and moralistic,” was also more “folksy than genteel” and “demonstrated a striving for, rather than an exhibition of, literary accomplishment” (22).

In a series of five chapters, each preceded by brief, contextual material, Cole presents Turner’s submissions to the Christian Recorder from his earliest contributions as a “Washington Correspondent” covering the news in the nation’s capital, to his post-war efforts to assist the freedmen’s colony on Roanoke Island. The selections are not all-inclusive. As Cole points out, some issues of the Christian Recorder are no longer extant—gaps exist due to Turner’s own illness and inability to contribute, and Cole excises portions of letters, and entire letters, devoted primarily to A.M.E. Church affairs. Nonetheless, the selection presented substantiates Cole’s claim of Turner’s trajectory from journalism to journal, from reportage to exhortation.

Chapter One, titled “Emancipation and Enlistment,” covers letters published between March 22, 1862 and April 18, 1863. Turner’s early Washington correspondences exhibit skepticism about President Abraham Lincoln’s intention for the Emancipation Proclamation, claiming that it is designed only to “pacify the humane and philanthropic hearts of the country” and will do little to ameliorate the conditions of those in bondage (41–42). By October 1862, Turner has come around and praises Lincoln’s actions. Many of the Washington letters focus on the status of the A.M.E. Church in that city; on the conditions of the “contrabands” as they flood into the city, needing food, shelter, and medical treatment; and on Congressional wranglings leading up to the Conscript Bill and the subsequent formation of regiments of colored soldiers.

After a significant gap in correspondences of over a year (April 1863 to June 1864), Turner, now a chaplain...


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