- Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War by Chandra Manning
Chandra Manning's Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War is a timely book. It contributes to scholarly debates over the process of emancipation, the meaning of citizenship, and the nature of the Union, and it resonates against the backdrop of contemporary world events, such as the refugee crisis associated with Syria's civil war. Troubled Refuge brings the experiences of American refugees who fled violence, terror, and war to light. By emphasizing contingency and struggles against entrenched social structures, Manning shows how contraband camps were an important part of the death of American slavery and the rebirth of American freedom.
The first of the book's three parts surveys the contraband camps in the war's eastern and western theaters. Manning carefully notes common traits and differences in both areas regarding threats of violence, labor issues, and resource scarcity. Eastern camps tended to be permanent, while western camps were linked to military movements along rivers and railroads, which made them more mobile. The camps represented an important component of wartime emancipation; roughly 400,000 refugees—constituting 12 to 15 percent of the total slave population recorded in the 1860 U.S. Census—"had taken refuge behind Union lines, most of them in contraband camps," at some point during the war (pp. 34–35). Part 1 also establishes the delicate relationship between slaves and Federal troops. Manning shows that while the refugees viewed blue-clad soldiers as liberators, the Union army's goals and needs often clashed with those of runaway slaves.
Part 2 explores military emancipation during the war. By running away, slaves forced the United States government to deal with them. Manning labels this relationship citizenship, though she acknowledges that her definition is an experiential rather than a legal one. As the refugees understood it, citizenship was an alliance with the federal government that was based on an exchange of services for protection and rights. The author stresses the contingency inherent in this process, and she frequently reminds readers that fleeing slavery for the Union lines guaranteed nothing. Deeply rooted structural elements within American social, political, and legal life put refugees at great risk. Prevailing ideas are powerful obstacles to change, Manning argues, but black refugees forced the military and, by extension, the United States government to reevaluate their status within the Union by 1862. Still, military emancipation created a tentative alliance between runaway slaves and the national government during a time of war.
Part 3 deals with the Civil War's end and the restoration of civil authority. Manning underscores the uncertainty of this critical period. World history [End Page 183] offers few examples, she asserts, of former slaves achieving full and immediate freedom. Instead, former slaves typically entered a liminal state. For instance, she summarizes the Christie Affair, which left a group of Africans stateless after British authorities blocked their illegal importation to Brazil. Manning cuts against scholarship that views American emancipation as a dichotomy between enslavement and freedom, and she instead depicts the struggle to define freedom against the possibility of reenslavement in post–Civil War America.
Troubled Refuge is a well-written and thoroughly researched book. Its breadth is one of its strengths. Manning's choice to cover the camps broadly gives her work a real sense of completeness. Her broad view highlights the important role that the military played in developing a direct relationship between former slaves and the federal government. As presented here, the relationship between refugees and the United States military was the engine that drove change in wartime emancipation policies. For that reason, Manning's decision to conclude her study soon after the war ended makes sense. Stopping in 1865, however, also prevents the author from examining the long fight to preserve and enhance wartime gains. Manning suggests that the men, women, and children in the camps forged a relationship with the...