Monday, July 9, 2018

Review - "Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War" by Kristopher Teters

[Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War by Kristopher A. Teters (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). Hardcover, notes, bibliography, index. 240 pp. ISBN:978-1-4696-3886-7. $32.95]

The popular understanding of the general course of the American Civil War suggests that northern volunteers enlisted to save the Union, but when emancipation became an official war aim the conflict became a moral crusade that rejuvenated a somewhat flagging cause and boosted federal arms to ultimate victory. In truth, this is a gross overgeneralization of a complex set of circumstances and attitudes. While no one who has read large numbers of diaries and letters written by Union soldiers in the field could honestly construct a serious argument that those men as a whole were primarily inspired by moral and ethical objections to slavery, such motivations nevertheless existed in consequential numbers. That said, Kristopher Teters's Practical Liberators powerfully argues that soldiers with pure abolitionist motives composed a very distinct minority within the Union's western armies, with the vast majority of Civil War officers that fought in the West supportive of emancipation primarily (or in many cases only) on grounds of wartime necessity.

Teters appropriately describes Union military policy during the war's first year regarding what should be done with slaves encountered by the army as "inconsistent." With no explicit directives from top civilian and military leaders, officers on the ground were most often left to their own devices. Some barred escaped slaves from camp and returned them to their owners regardless of loyalty while others actively sought to free slaves and threatened violence toward anyone (even demonstrably loyal owners) attempting to reclaim their human property. With federal armies in the West coming into daily contact with thousands of slaves during their relentless drive south into the heartland of the Confederacy, more concrete instructions were needed.

Real clarity on the issue would not emerge until mid-1862, and Teters argues that the most important turning point came in the form of July's Second Confiscation Act. The author himself doesn't go quite this far, but one might even consider that legislative act more practically significant than the later Emancipation Proclamation. The act codified and accelerated what many Union officers had been doing since the beginning of the war, and by January 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, the Union Army had already essentially killed the institution in vast areas of the West (even making inroads inside regions where slavery would be ostensibly protected by Lincoln's war edict). There would always be fears of backsliding from some kind of future political settlement, but it seems even more clear that the liberating army of the western theater operating under the Confiscation Acts placed slavery permanently on the road to extinction.

On the other hand, near unanimous support for emancipation among Midwest officers did not mean that most by any means supported social and political equality for blacks. The author's reading of officer letters, journals, and official reports reveals that enthusiasm for emancipation largely rested on freeing slaves as a practical means of weakening the Confederacy and boosting Union chances for victory. Emancipation was a very useful double-edged weapon, harming the southern economy while at the same time providing Union armies with labor and camp services of all kinds along with soldiers to serve in both combat and non-combat roles. However, contact between western officers and freedpeople, which were accompanied by very real benefits derived for the former from the latter, did not greatly alter preconceived views on racial differences.

Seemingly every Union officer in the West desired a hired black servant to perform menial support tasks such as cleaning, foraging, and cooking, and many were able to secure a valet of sorts from the abundance of often eager candidates present in and around camp. Teters is almost certainly correct in arguing that it was these personal servants that were the primary source of softened racial prejudice among western officers. Nevertheless, the author also found that while those officers very often displayed great affection and personal respect for individual servants, whom they often conceded to be hardworking, intelligent, and well deserving of freedom, most remained unwilling to extend similar regard to the black race overall. Teters perceptively notes that Union officers generally used the same language to describe their personal servants as southern slaveholders did, with the important caveat that the servants of officers were paid relatively well (not too much less than a Union private) and were theoretically free to leave for other opportunities. On the last point, though, one has to wonder how widespread coercion (explicit or implied) was involved given how often officers complained about the poor service provided by their black valets.

Civil War researchers are fortunate in the vast scale of primary source material at their fingertips, but this also means that one can often assemble rather impressive anecdotal evidence to support contrasting views on many different topics. Indeed, one wishes that Teters, while largely persuasive in supporting his arguments, had been able to offer some quantitative thrust to his constant use in the text of nebulous qualifiers like 'some,' 'many,' and 'most.' In his methodology note in the rear of the book, Teters acknowledges that his study lacks scientific sampling but does suggest that his rather large assemblage of letters, diaries, and military correspondence from 410 western Union officers is "fairly representative" (pg. 163). Nearly 78% of the officers in the sample hailed from the Midwest (the majority of these from Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana), with an additional 10.5% from border states. The last could be expected to have very different views regarding emancipation. As they were the men chiefly responsible for designing and carrying out policy, general officers are overrepresented by design. At the very least, Teter's sample size and breadth generally strikes one as an adequate basis for study.

In terms of future research, it might prove instructive to compare the racial attitudes of these western officers with those of their eastern theater counterparts. Contrasting the views and motivations of western officers to those of the privates and NCOs that served under them could also be a fruitful avenue of investigation. The far more numerous men in the ranks were at the true ground level of emancipation, and one might reasonably wonder whether they displayed or evolved viewpoints and sensibilities on race different from those expressed by their officers. The author might also have better considered the possibility that western Union officers held decidedly mixed views on the morality and practical benefits of emancipation rather than primarily one or the other. Especially in official military correspondence, a major source component of the study, it seems reasonable that officers would stress practical factors related to their professional duties rather than moral or ethical discourse.

Practical Liberators persuasively concludes that overwhelming support for emancipation among the officer class of the federal armies in the western theater was not widely matched by transformative personal attitudes on race and racial equality. The study furthermore soundly argues that this less than radical mindset, carried forward into the postwar period, had a significant effect on limiting the civil rights successes of southern Reconstruction. In a scholarly climate that increasingly discounts the emancipating role of the military in favor of emphasizing the primacy of slave agency, the book also aims, and does so with some success, to reestablish the Union Army as the chief (or at the very least equally important) force of liberation during the war. Whichever position one supports in that particular debate, this study is essential reading.

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