Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps. University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 368 pp.
Reviewed by Evan Elizabeth Hart, Missouri Western State University
As historian Amy Murrell Taylor notes in the introduction to Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps, throughout the war, approximately 500,000 enslaved people fled to Union lines seeking both protection and freedom (5). While the history of enslaved people as “contraband” has been well covered, the experiences of these individuals – men, women, and children who emancipated themselves in their decisions to flee – have largely been hidden. In her masterful book, Taylor traces the steps of a number of refugees in order to reconstruct the experiences of those in the slave refugee camps. In humanizing the experience of enslaved refugees, Taylor reveals the many ways refugees were able “to begin imagining the future” (4) while grappling with the very real political, social, and material challenges in seeking freedom.
One of the major goals of Embattled Freedom is to “reconstruct, from the crumbling pages of military records, newspapers, and missionary reports, the way that the refugee camps looked and were experienced by those who lived there” (7). Taylor does this brilliantly through three case studies: the experiences of Edward and Emma Whitehurst, Eliza Bogan, and Gabriel Burdett. As with all good case studies, Taylor uses these four individuals to personalize the larger picture of the refugee camps and the rocky road to any sense of real freedom for refugees. The Whitehursts became storekeepers in Hampton, Virginia. Eliza Bogan made her way to Arkansas in an attempt to build a new life. Gabriel Burdett, a preacher, forged a path in Camp Nelson, Kentucky. By humanizing the experiences of refugees, Taylor reminds us that refugees were not nameless “contraband” to be used by the Union Army against the Confederacy. They were real people with hopes, dreams, and agendas that often differed from the federal government’s vision of their lives post-emancipation.
An important factor in recognizing the humanity of Black men, women, and children fleeing to Union lines is to stop referring to them as contraband. Taylor notes historians “have grown accustomed to calling them ‘contraband,’ a term that, while rooted in General Butler’s original language, succinctly conveys the unique transitional status they assumed during the Civil War. But that was not a term that people tended to use themselves” (9). Instead, she follows the lead of the abolitionist newspaper Liberator in referring to these individuals as refugees. In doing so, she ties the experiences of formerly enslaved refugees to the historical experiences of others both within and outside of the United States. While the United Nations currently has a clear definition of refugee, which references crossing national borders to avoid persecution, Taylor notes that there was no clear definition in the 19th century. For her, there is no question that enslaved individuals “faced violent persecution of an all-encompassing sort in the antebellum South and the newly formed Confederate republic. And those in the Union most willing to help them found in “refugee” a term that evoked both their liminal status and their compelling need for protection” (10). Enslaved folks running to Union lines were, indeed, refugees.
While the book focuses on these four refugees, Taylor never loses sight of the broader experiences of others within various camps. The book argues that the transformation from enslavement to freedom was one “embedded in military conflict” and was thus a chaotic process. She notes, “the war effort to which the slaves’ radical cause became fused was a fundamentally conservative one – saving a Union that had long enslaved them – which yielded, almost from the start, an imperfect fit” (11). This helps explain, in part, why “emancipation itself was not a linear story, but instead a fitful journey of forward movement and backward retreats” (17). As Taylor notes, enslaved peoples fled consistently throughout the years leading up to the war. However, the crisis of war opened up new spaces for enslaved refugees to demand freedom, even when these demands butted up against the needs of both the Union army and the federal government.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the many political shifts taking place throughout the war. While historians understand that the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery throughout the country, Taylor complicates our understanding by noting that the various exemptions listed in the proclamation meant that “the places where enslaved people could go in the hope of finding freedom . . . would be determined by the perception of political loyalty and disloyalty among the white people living there” (60). This sometimes forced refugees to change direction, move to different locations, or continue following Union troops for protection.
The desires of refugees for more expansive ideas of freedom also came up against those of the white leaders of the camps, and the white philanthropists tasked with providing support to refugees. Strings were attached to relief efforts. “Deeply ingrained expectations about the proper behavior and morals of newly freed people . . . were channeled into nearly everything, from the provision of clothing to the establishment of schools” (14). Taylor’s chapter on clothing is particularly eye-opening in regard to the battles to exert one’s freedom beyond no longer being enslaved. White relief workers had clear ideas on how refugees should be clothed, but so did refugees. One such aid worker, Maria Mann, referred to Black women as “showy” and “wasteful” when they wore donated clothing from white women. She feared refugee women were attempting, in some way, to “be like white women”, which was not the case. Taylor argues, “refugee women were . . . more concerned with not being a slave and not looking the part of a slave” (171, emphasis in original). The dreary, conservative, cheap clothing provided by aid workers was another badge of inferiority, in the eyes of refugees, and limited their ability to separate themselves from their past in bondage.
While many refugees found freedom in their fleeing to Union lines and to camps, Taylor notes that Lincoln’s death and Johnson’s ascension meant backward movement for many. Although the 13th Amendment formally freed enslaved Americans, freedom was always more complex than a shift away from bondage. As Taylor points out, Johnson’s “Amnesty Proclamation, issued on May 29, 1865, promised former Confederates ‘restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves,’ as long as they took an oath of loyalty to the United States” (214). This began placing control of the south back into the hands of former slaveholders who took control of land refugees worked in order to live out their vision of freedom. And as the federal government became more invested in pushing freedmen and women to work the land and help the southern economy recover, the vision many refugees had of freedom from white control began to disappear.
Embattled Freedom is a masterful book that humanizes the realities of enslaved refugees searching for freedom and a new way of life during the war. In particular, Taylor teaches us how important it is to center Black Americans in the histories of the Civil War if we are to understand the experiences of enslaved individuals. While it may be a painstaking endeavor to reconstruct these forgotten stories, her book shows that it is well worth the effort.