- Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery by Adam Rothman
Rothman’s fascinating book tells the story of the enslaved Rose Herera’s legal struggle to reclaim her kidnapped children during and after the Civil War. Born a slave, Herera grew up on a sugar plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, before being taken to New Orleans as the enslaved domestic servant of a moderately successful dentist, James De Hart (an immigrant from Amsterdam) and Mary De Hart, his wife. Like many other white New Orleans slaveholders, the De Harts migrated to Cuba during the Yankee occupation of New Orleans. When it became clear that Herera, whose husband was a free man of color with whom she had five children between 1853 and 1864, would not leave the city, Mary De Hart, with the cooperation of civil authorities, absconded with the children [End Page 435] despite their mother’s strenuous objections and the attempted intervention of the children’s father and grandparents. Herera then began a lengthy legal struggle to regain her children by charging Mary De Hart with kidnapping. After numerous setbacks, Herera’s children were at last returned to her through diplomatic efforts between Cuba and the United States rather than via civilian and military courts.
Due to the paucity of written evidence about Herera and her family beyond court documents, census and church records, and scattered legal and official correspondence, Rothman tells her story by contextualizing her life within the system of rural and urban slavery in which she lived. His first chapter depicts the plantation milieu that dominated her childhood as a Creole world wherein the enslaved routinely were taken (literally kidnapped) by their owners from their families with little consideration for the devastating effect such actions had on the people involved. The book’s second chapter follows the eighteen-year-old Rose to New Orleans (a city containing violence, a vibrant free-black community, and the ever-present auction block), where she was bought and sold several times, eventually ending up in the De Hart household.
Chapter 3 covers the war years, describing how and why the De Harts fled to Cuba, how they managed to take Rose’s children, the impact of Union occupation and the arming of black soldiers on the city’s enslaved and free households, and the shifting and often conflicting civil and military policies that engulfed New Orleans. Chapter 4 details the complicated legal battles Rose Herera waged to win back her stolen children, while brilliantly analyzing the support she received from several white lawyers, activists in the fight for black civil rights. Rothman also explains in lucid prose the entrenched opposition Herera faced from the De Harts’ legal counsel, which argued that Mary De Hart had committed no crime because the enslaved children, whom she allegedly loved and cared for, were her rightful property when she took them from their mother in 1863. Ironically, Mary De Hart was briefly jailed, much as Rose had once been incarcerated, on kidnapping charges when she unwisely returned to New Orleans from Cuba. The chapter ends with Herera losing one legal battle after another, despite the sympathy of the city’s Union commander, Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks.
The book’s fifth chapter addresses the March 1867 reunion of Rose Herera’s family, thanks principally to the negative publicity surrounding the rumors that former slaveholders like the De Harts had kidnapped and transported free people of color to Cuba. Her husband died before seeing his children again, but Rose, who worked as a washerwoman, thereafter lived with her family and the children’s grandmother in New Orleans into the 1880s, after which she disappears from the public record. An epilogue discusses the meaning of Rose’s valiant efforts [End Page 436] as a once-enslaved parent and her struggle and that of others like her to claim her and their children as a free person.
Historians will find little new about slavery or the Civil...