Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Booknotes: Freedom's Crescent

New Arrival:
Freedom's Crescent: The Civil War and the Destruction of Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley by John C. Rodrigue (Cambridge UP, 2023).

From SW Tennessee all the way down through southern Louisiana, counties (or parishes) lining both banks of the Mississippi River were among those possessing the valley's densest slave populations. With Union land and naval forces achieving deep and lasting penetrations into the region by the end of 1862, it's long been recognized in the Civil War literature that the Lower Mississippi Valley experienced the earliest widespread testing ground of emerging "hard war" policy and one of its principal features, military emancipation.

From the description: "Beginning with Lincoln's 1860 presidential election and concluding with the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, Freedom's Crescent explores the four states of this region that seceded and joined the Confederacy: Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. By weaving into a coherent narrative the major military campaigns that enveloped the region, the daily disintegration of slavery in the countryside, and political developments across the four states and in Washington DC, John C. Rodrigue identifies the Lower Mississippi Valley as the epicenter of emancipation in the South."

According to Rodrigue, two major themes dominate his chronological narrative. The first "argues that the multidimensional nature of emancipation and abolition [and he is careful to distinguish between the two] in the lower Mississippi valley elucidates the various means by which slavery was brought to and end in the United States." Within that examination, the author identifies "five major dimensions of wartime emancipation and abolition" and explains their involvement in all four states. These are: (1) limited military emancipation (slaves directly freed by Union forces prior to the Emancipation Proclamation), (2) universal military emancipation via the EP, (3) the EP's exclusions thought necessary to maintain the support of Southern Unionists, (4) state-level abolition through wartime reconstruction governments, and (5) Federal civil authority (the definitive end of slavery through dictate and constitutional amendment). By the author's estimation, this region was the only one in the South to experience all five dimensions.

The second theme revolves around the concept of historical contingency and how its role in permanently ending slavery was much more significant than most of the previous literature has allowed. Rodrigue embarks on a deep exploration of the myriad of complications involved in "transforming military emancipation into constitutional abolition," coming to the conclusion that the latter was not inevitable. The author argues that scholarly fixation on the Emancipation Proclamation has led too many historians to "equate emancipation with abolition" in ways that accept inevitability without due reflection upon what difficulties were actually involved in going from the former to the latter. His book seeks to reorient our understanding of that transition as being not a "one-step process but rather a two-step process: war for Union to Emancipation Proclamation, and Emancipation Proclamation to constitutional abolition," that latter stage being more contingent than popularly believed.

In explaining that his book only selectively targets engagement with the recent borderlands literature, Rodrigue points out a key irony between antebellum antislavery thought and wartime/postwar reality. Before the Civil War, most thinkers believed that the Border States would lead the nation in abolishing slavery, that successful model then being employed southward, but the war itself upended that conventional assumption when the "states of the lower Mississippi valley eventually leap-frogged over them."

I'm not familiar with the author's other emancipation and Reconstruction scholarship, but Freedom's Crescent has the hallmarks of a possible career magnum opus. At nearly 500 smallish-font pages of narrative, reaping its rewards is a pretty substantial reading commitment. "A sweeping examination of one of the war's most important theaters, this book highlights the integral role this region played in transforming United States history."

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