- Following the Paths of the Civil War’s Refugees from Slavery
Thank you for the kind introduction. And thank you to everyone for being here today for what is an enormously humbling and gratifying moment for me.1 As some of you know, I worked on this book for quite some time. For many years. And what happens when one takes time on a book is that things change in the meantime—not just the historiographical currents but, in my case, the turbulent politics of the twenty-first century that made the subject of my book increasingly (and eerily) relevant to our lives today. At times I felt like the years between myself and this subject—between the twenty-first and the nineteenth centuries—were closing up. And I’m talking about more than the deeply contentious debates over memorialization and Confederate iconography. I’m talking about migration. Refugees. Citizenship. National belonging. The politics of “borders.” And humanitarian aid. Migrant caravans. White supremacy. And the children who have been ever-present for all of it.
The history of the over half a million men, women, and children who risked everything to flee slavery and enter Union lines during the Civil War is no discrete, self-contained topic that can be filed away as “the past.” It is, at its essence, a deeply American and timeless story of how people have moved and migrated and risked their lives, over and over again, to realize [End Page 148] the promise of freedom and enjoy the fruits of American citizenship—one that continues to play out today, with efforts to constrain (and stop) that movement present too. Maybe even more so. It’s a history that reminds us that the Civil War was no exceptional moment in our past but an event that exposed some enduring truths about this nation and its people.2
What I write about in Embattled Freedom is what is sometimes called “hard” history. Anything to do with slavery and emancipation can be hard to comprehend and hard to discuss.3 But maybe it wouldn’t be so hard had Americans been more honest about what happened during the war from the start and not softened our view of war with narratives that put romance and heroism first—and “whitened” our view of the range of actors involved in this war. Had there been a more truthful reckoning with this history, it would not be a notable thing still, in 2019, to write a history of the Civil War with African American subjects at the center. But here we are.4
In my book, I write about people like Edward and Emma Whitehurst, a husband and wife enslaved near Hampton, Virginia, who, with a trunk full of hard-earned savings and a determination to build a new and free livelihood, escaped into Union lines and opened a store, only to find themselves continually defending, over and over again, their right to own property and to keep the earnings from their labor.
I write about Eliza Bogan, from Phillips County, Arkansas, a woman who had experienced brutal violence and loss while enslaved on a cotton plantation but who migrated down and up the Mississippi valley as a regimental laundress, thrusting herself into a war zone, in order to find (ironically) the security for herself and her family long denied them while enslaved.
And I write about Gabriel Burdett, a talented minister who resisted the surveillance of white church elders in Garrard County, Kentucky, and who set off into Union lines in order to find a place to worship freely and independently. He found it at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, where he became a teacher and an assistant superintendent of colored refugees, before losing it all again amid unrelenting postwar racial violence.
I felt a profound responsibility to their stories. As a white, middle-class, highly educated professional writing in the twenty-first century, not having served in the military and only seeing war play out on CNN, I often wondered: how could I ever possibly understand what it was like to flee slavery in a war? I couldn’t really. But I had the time and resources...