Slavery, Resistance, Freedom

edited by Gabor Boritt and Scott Hancock, Oxford University Press, 2007, 256 pages, $25.

Six scholarly essays about how African Americans responded to slavery and the Civil War comprise this insightful new volume from Oxford University Press. A few of the entries, such as award-winning historian Ira Berlin’s examination of how today’s racism traces its roots to slavery, and Noah Andre Trudeau’s detailed, thoroughly researched account of how black soldiers performed in the Army of the Potomac, should be accessible to all readers. Others, such as Scott Hancock’s take on African Americans’ construction of memory in the antebellum North, raise important themes but might strike some as too academic.

Berlin kicks off the collection by detailing how the troubling legacy of slavery remains ever-present in contemporary American life. “As the twenty-first century is aborning,” writes Berlin, “the press and the evening news serve up some new controversy over slavery nearly every day. In Washington, D.C., it is the discovery that slaves built the national capitol building. New Yorkers have found that the entire end of Manhattan Island is underlain with the bones of slaves.” Berlin also cites contemporary controversies involving the Confederate flag, lawsuits against major corporations due to their involvement with the slave trade, and countless other examples of how the issue of slavery refuses to go away quietly. Berlin is dead-on when he establishes a firm nexis between today’s racism and slavery: “There is a general, if inchoate understanding that any attempt to address the question of race in the present, must also address slavery in the past…behind the interest in slavery is a crisis of race.”

Next, prominent African-American historian John Hope Franklin and co-author Loren Schweninger examine the topic of runaway slaves, exploring who ran away, why they fled and what happened afterward. The runaways tended to be young single males who “sneaked off at night, on Saturday afternoon or Sunday, or during holidays. They stowed away on sailing vessels and steamboats, crawled into the backs of wagons, concealed themselves in barns, they camped out in the woods and swamps.” The authors also detail the odds against successful flight, describing how slave patrols and slave catchers worked to apprehend and return runaways.

Hancock’s essay examines how African Americans in the antebellum period used oral history to craft a collective memory of their dedication to the United States. The author cites African-American historian William Nell, who published an 1851 account, based largely on collected oral histories, of how black soldiers helped their nation win its independence during the Revolutionary War and later the War of 1812. Thus, Hancock shows, African Americans used their history of sacrifice as a way of bolstering their present-day claims for equal treatment in America. Nonetheless, Hancock points out, Nell and others conveniently ignored the large numbers of African Americans who went over to the British side in search of liberty: “This ultimate counterhistory [of blacks joining the British during the Revolution] was too radical and could not be made to represent a past for all black Americans,” writes Hancock.

The next two essays focus on the role of the African-American soldier during the war. One provides a close examination of blacks from Franklin, Pa., who joined the famous 54th Massachusetts and fought valiantly in several engagements. Trudeau also delves into the history of the all-black units within the Army of the Potomac’s IX Corps. Readers get a detailed accounting of the disastrous 1864 Battle of the Crater. Trudeau convincingly argues that the battle was a debacle right from the planning phase and that black soldiers made for convenient scapegoats when the battle predictably went wrong.

Finally, renowned historian Eric Foner has contributed an important essay about black officeholders in the South during Reconstruction. His prodigious research unveils numerous examples of former slaves and free blacks holding office in states such as Louisiana and Mississippi. One of them, Richard Griggs, had even been owned by Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Foner shows how these men succeeded in passing landmark civil rights legislation on the state level, only to have these gains turned back after Reconstruction. Overall, this book is highly recommended for readers who favor a scholarly approach over narative drama and are seeking a deeper understanding of slavery and its effects.


Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here