Thursday, November 29, 2018

Booknotes: Embattled Freedom

New Arrival:
Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps
  by Amy Murrell Taylor (UNC Press, 2018).

Long before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, wherever Union armies and navies went in the southern and border states slavery was put on the practical path to extinction. During the war years, an estimated 500,000 enslaved persons took the opportunity that nearby military operations afforded them to flee to Union lines for freedom and protection. Similar to what happened to the medical services when confronted and overwhelmed with the realities of camp sicknesses and the mass casualties of the battlefield, the military authorities tasked with running refugee camps were ill-prepared to house and care for the mass of humanity. Lack of resources, the inherent limitations of mid-nineteenth century medical knowledge, and sometimes neglect often meant that the camps that were set up to shelter ex-slaves became rife with disease and death. But the camps were certainly more than that to all involved, and Amy Murrell Taylor's Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps examines the full breadth of the refugee camp experience and the meaning those places had to their inhabitants and their aspirations for more permanent freedom.

From the description: "Drawing on an extraordinary survey of slave refugee camps throughout the country, Embattled Freedom reveals as never before the everyday experiences of these refugees from slavery as they made their way through the vast landscape of army-supervised camps that emerged during the war. Amy Murrell Taylor vividly reconstructs the human world of wartime emancipation, taking readers inside military-issued tents and makeshift towns, through commissary warehouses and active combat, and into the realities of individuals and families struggling to survive physically as well as spiritually. Narrating their journeys in and out of the confines of the camps, Taylor shows in often gripping detail how the most basic necessities of life were elemental to a former slave's quest for freedom and full citizenship."

The author integrates a multitude of personal histories into her narrative. "The stories of individuals--storekeepers, a laundress, and a minister among them--anchor this ambitious and wide-ranging history and demonstrate with new clarity how contingent the slaves' pursuit of freedom was on the rhythms and culture of military life. Taylor brings new insight into the enormous risks taken by formerly enslaved people to find freedom in the midst of the nation's most destructive war."

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