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  • Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War by Chandra Manning
  • David Silkenat (bio)
Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War. By Chandra Manning. ( New York: Knopf, 2016. Pp. 416. Cloth, $30.00; paper, $17.00.)

Given the heartbreaking refugee crises that have been unfolding around the globe over the past decade, it is unsurprising that Civil War historians have focused their attention on the more than 400,000 African Americans who fled slavery during the Civil War and began the transition from slavery to freedom in refugee (contraband) camps. In Troubled Refuge, Chandra Manning develops an insight she first articulated in What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (2007): that facts and attitudes on the ground mattered just as much as national policy when it came to the experience of African Americans. Building on the work of Thavolia Glymph, Jim Downs, Patricia Click, and Yael Sternhell (among many others), Manning demonstrates that contraband camps could be both sites of tremendous suffering and places where African Americans established churches and schools and rebuilt families fractured by slavery.

Some of the story that Manning tells should be familiar to most historians—Benjamin Butler's formulation of the contraband policy at Fort Monroe in 1861, for instance. But Manning argues that the black refugee experience varied tremendously over time and space and that each contraband camp faced its own particular environmental, military, demographic, and political challenges. The landscape of emancipation and the geography of contraband camps followed the Union army. The earliest camps were established in territory always controlled by the Union, while others, especially in the western theater, sprung up as Union armies advanced into Confederate territory. Some of the critical differences between camps derived from the disposition of the white Union soldiers and officers, who could be variously sympathetic or hostile to the plight of black refugees. Although organizations such as the American Missionary Association and the New England Freedmen's Aid Society sought to relieve the humanitarian crisis in contraband camps, chronic overcrowding and epidemic disease imperiled the lives of black refugees. [End Page 499]

The central historiographical innovation in Manning's argument is her treatment of black citizenship. In her conception, citizenship is less a legal status than a relationship between African Americans and the Federal government. Black refugees cultivated this relationship not only through military service, but also through the labor of black women in contraband camps on behalf of the Union war effort. In exchange for their loyalty and labor, black refugees expected the Federal government to protect their rights. Under this formulation, black refugees used citizenship as a means to secure their autonomy, their families, and their communities. Embracing this broader conception of citizenship allows Manning to see citizenship as a process, not entirely dissimilar to how many historians have come to view emancipation as a process.

This alliance between the Federal government and black refugees remained contested throughout the war. When their interests coincided, African Americans were able to capitalize on the Union army's need for black labor to secure significant protections; at other times, Federal officials demonstrated callous disregard for the needs of black families living in contraband camps. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, black freedom remained contested. As Manning points out, wartime emancipation did not necessarily imply permanent freedom, and both during and after the Civil War, African Americans had a legitimate fear of reenslavement. In this vein, Manning draws a connection between the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments: the Thirteenth granted black freedom, but the Fourteenth helped secure that freedom and make it meaningful. Manning wisely carries the story beyond April 1865; even though the war had ended, the status of black refugees remained deeply contested. Through the Freedmen's Bureau, African Americans and the federal government continued their uneasy alliance in the war's aftermath.

Beautifully written and carefully researched, Troubled Refuge tells a complex story that is at times uplifting, chaotic, and poignant. Manning deftly balances her analysis with the need to allow the voices of black refugees to emerge. Given the critical importance of geography to black refugees' experiences and to Manning's argument, the volume's maps...


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pp. 499-501
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