Sunday, November 26, 2017

Practical Liberators

At least in the academic literature, "self-emancipation" has become the current watchword of favor when it comes to discussing the driving force behind the wartime destruction of slavery in the Border States and Confederate South. Arguments diminishing the Union Army's role in emancipation are a necessary (and I would argue unfortunate) accompaniment to this widely accepted interpretation. We only have a brief description to go on, but it does appear that Kristopher Teters's Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War (UNC, 2018) will try to restore some balance to the equation, with the enormous caveat that humanitarian concerns of any kind figured little in the process.

From the description: "During the first fifteen months of the Civil War, the policies and attitudes of Union officers toward emancipation in the western theater were, at best, inconsistent and fraught with internal strains. But after Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act in 1862, army policy became mostly consistent in its support of liberating the slaves in general, in spite of Union army officers' differences of opinion. By 1863 and the final Emancipation Proclamation, the army had transformed into the key force for instituting emancipation in the West. However, Kristopher Teters argues that the guiding principles behind this development in attitudes and policy were a result of military necessity and pragmatic strategies, rather than an effort to enact racial equality." Those are oddly chosen parameters. To my knowledge, no scholar has ever tried to argue that instituting racial equality was a significant motivating factor. Of course "military necessity and pragmatic strategies" figured large, but there clearly exists solid evidence that a great many Union officers (and men in the ranks, too) through their western service in areas densely populated by slaves also expressed a host of other non-practical reasons behind the need/desire to end slavery. For sure, such moral and ideological objections overwhelmingly fell short of promoting anything like full equality of the races, but that doesn't mean they're weren't significant.

More: "Through extensive research in the letters and diaries of western Union officers, Teters demonstrates how practical considerations drove both the attitudes and policies of Union officers regarding emancipation. Officers primarily embraced emancipation and the use of black soldiers because they believed both policies would help them win the war and save the Union, but their views on race actually changed very little." I know authors don't write the marketing descriptions (though those that write them do frequently draw passages from a book's introduction or preface sections), but one hopes the study's analysis is much more nuanced than this.

And finally, "(i)n the end, however, despite its practical bent, Teters argues, the Union army was instrumental in bringing freedom to the slaves." I concur and look forward to reading the book.

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