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  • Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War's Slave Refugee Camps by Amy Murrell Taylor
  • Hilary Green (bio)
Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War's Slave Refugee Camps. By Amy Murrell Taylor. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. 368. Cloth $34.95.)

From the prologue to the epilogue, Embattled Freedom offers a compelling account of how African American refugees' search for freedom pushed [End Page 660] the nation toward abolition. By surveying approximately three hundred settlements, Amy Murrell Taylor argues that these freedom seekers reappropriated centers of the domestic slave trade and turned them into sites of freedom, transformed military occupation sites into refugee camps, and forged new lives in the heart of war zones. Taylor meticulously recovers the history of these erased settlements and the African American lives transformed therein.

Throughout, Taylor takes seriously how much of this transformation was "embedded in military conflict" (11). It was a complex process shaped by evolving notions of race, gender, class, and military necessity. Instead of viewing the refugees as a monolithic group, Taylor deftly employs three case studies for revealing the "informal, 'hidden' transcript of slavery's demise and wartime disorder" (15). Most important, Taylor's nonlinear and humanizing narrative demonstrates the "fitful journey of forward movements and backward retreats" through the lives of Edward and Emma Whitehurst, Eliza Bogan, and Gabriel Burdett (17).

Taylor opens the first section with the Whitehursts, who were among the first arrivals to the Hampton Roads, Virginia, camps. Using their considerable prerefugee savings, they established a successful store, remarried, and forged new lives distinct from their slave past. Yet their status remained precarious. Since soldiers' needs mattered more than slave refugees, they lost everything when military officials seized the store and its contents under the guise of military necessity.

Since the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to the Whitehursts, Taylor uses the next two chapters to reveal how much military necessity mattered. Neither military officials nor federal policymakers fully embraced the ever-expanding slave refugee population. Refugees' search for shelter "amounted to nothing less than the construction of freedom itself" (61). Refugees protested the substandard military tent structures placed in disease-prone and unsecured areas. They built their own housing, often constructed with either poor-quality or salvaged lumber, and made new claims to the settlement's physical landscape. These settlement communities embodied the promise of freedom by the various stakeholders.

Taylor's third chapter shows how wartime settlement removals imposed new physical, racial, and gendered restrictions on African American freedom. Military officials, according to Taylor, treated rape accounts as a spatial problem created by the close proximity between African American women and white soldiers. Their solution of physical separation increased refugees' security risk and promoted their isolation socially and economically. Such ill-conceived military policies reinforced the Whitehursts' and other African American refugees' ongoing fight for freedom. [End Page 661]

Shifting to Helena, Arkansas, Taylor opens the second section by introducing readers to Eliza Bogan. After her third husband enlisted in the First Arkansas following the Emancipation Proclamation, Bogan did not immediately leave for Helena. Instead, she found freedom by following her husband's regiment as a laundress. In contrast to the Whitehursts' story, Bogan's journey allows Taylor to explore the changing status of refugees, race relations, and geography of freedom in the Mississippi valley.

In the next two chapters, Taylor explores the acquisition of food and clothing as major challenges. Deftly using ration ledgers, in chapter 5 Taylor offers a window into the lives of the individuals receiving rations and the daily operations of the camps. Food rationing became a new form of power relations. Refugees developed strategies for survival. In chapter 6 Taylor argues that the process of supplying refugees' clothing empowered black women. Reversing commodity flow of finished clothing into the southern war zones, they acquired purchasing power, secured valuable skills, increased employment opportunities, and fashioned new identities through clothing.

Since Kentucky lacked official refugee camps, the story of Gabriel Burdett provides a good counterpoint to the other examples. The minister of the enslaved Forks Church congregation entered Camp Nelson as the impressed slave of Hiram Burdett. As the "least regulated aspect" of camp...


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