Author Interview--Amy Taylor (Embattled Freedom)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

today we feature Amy Murrell Taylor to talk about her award-winning book Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War's Slave Refugee Camps, which just came out in 2018 with the University of North Carolina Press.

Amy Taylor is Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and is the author of The Divided Family in Civil War America.

To start the interview, Amy, could you give our readers a brief idea of how this book came about and what your argument is?

I thought about this book for a long time before I started working on it. While writing my first book about divided families in the Civil War era, I continually came across images and other archival references to the large-scale flight of enslaved men, women, and children into Union army lines during the war. And I kept wondering, why don’t I know more? Why don’t I know more about this huge and stunning and utterly transformative migration of people? Of course, the short answer to that question had everything to do with the erasure of slavery from the history and memory of the war.

But some black scholars, most notably W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction, did write about this history decades ago and tried to turn more attention to the story. That was inspiring to me—as was the documentary editing work of the Freedmen and Southern Society project at the University of Maryland, which showed me that this was, in fact, a history that could be seen and made visible again. So about ten years ago I set out to do just that and, it turns out, I’ve been part of a wave of scholarly and popular efforts to do so. In addition to my book, important articles and books by Thavolia Glymph, Jim Downs, Leslie Schwalm, and Chandra Manning, as well as forthcoming work from Abigail Cooper and several others, have been published. Also in this decade, two places where refugees from slavery settled—Fort Monroe and Camp Nelson, Kentucky—were named as national monuments, while other preservation work has gotten underway in places like Helena, Arkansas, and Corinth, Mississippi. I am hopeful that, collectively, all this work will bring about a change in the way that emancipation—and the Civil War itself—is seen and understood.

My book’s argumentation rests first on the assumption that the Civil War marked a distinctly militarized period in the decades-long process of destroying slavery in the United States (the “long Emancipation,” as some scholars have called it). Embattled Freedom zeroes in on that period and argues that the way in which refugees from slavery navigated—and survived—the culture, bureaucracy, and dangers of military life was an elemental part of the story of slavery’s destruction in the United States.

You mention that you had come across references in your archival research and reading some important historians. What sources did you use? Did you have material written by African-American refugees? Was it difficult to get to the African-American voice in military reports?

The Freedman and Southern Society Project’s volumes first introduced me to the military records that would, indeed, be crucial to my research. I then made my way into the National Archives to wallow in its gigantic collection of Union army materials.  Orders, correspondence, provost marshal records, labor rolls, regimental books, and more – all of these kinds of sources document the encounters of refugee men, women, and children with the army. Sometimes their “voices” emerge, in the form of petitions sent to military commanders seeking redress for an injustice, or testimony before a court martial commission. But these voices also come filtered through the pen of clerks and other white officials, which can sometimes raise its own set of interpretive challenges.

Though I looked for “voices,” I also used these records to look for movements and actions too. I followed individuals through the sources, piecing together the sequence of their movements and stopping along the way to puzzle out why they moved the way they did. Why would a woman displaced by Confederate violence in Helena, Arkansas, for example, next show up in a regimental camp in Louisiana, rather than make her way to St. Louis with so many others from the same city?  What sort of choice did she have, and what meaning can be found in that choice? Or, to cite another example, a provost marshal’s arrest record that includes a listing of refugee men arrested for selling whiskey: If this was even true, what brought those men to the point of selling whiskey at all? How could they have done it – and what did it mean? Additional records assisted with the reconstruction of actions like these, including the correspondence and reports of missionary and relief organizations, as well as newspapers.

You mention Helena, Arkansas and Louisiana as locations and you start the narrative of the book in the Fortress Monroe area in Virginia. How did you determine the geographic scope of the book? And related, you have some nice drawing and explanations regarding the layout of the refugee camps, but you mention there was no plan behind these. Were there any discernable patterns? Obviously, this period is still a long way from modern urban or landscape planning, but were there any indications of method?

Thanks for asking about geography and landscape. I tried, from the outset of my research, to be mindful of the refugee camps as more than a collection of dots on a map. Each one was a space through which freedom-seeking people moved and in which they built the infrastructure of their new lives. So what did the resulting camps look like? How exactly were they constructed? And what can the arrangement of people and houses and other buildings within them tell us about the way that freedom was lived and imagined in the 1860s?

To undertake this kind of spatial analysis I took my cues from cultural geographers and their ideas about cultural landscapes as “discourse materialized,” or as a “cultural autobiography” that humans have carved into the earth (See Peirce Lewis’ History from Things and Richard Schein, “A Methodological Framework for Interpreting Ordinary Landscapes,” Geographical Review). I looked for patterns in the way that these camps were constructed—and for meaning in those patterns. Without giving it all away here, I’ll just say that the vast majority of the camps were improvised and deplorable; those located in close proximity to active combat remained that way throughout the war. Camps in more remote areas, however, had the time and space to evolve into something more permanent over time, and in some places something closer to a village, or a small town replete with churches, stores, and schools, emerged.

Were there similarities among those more-permanent settlements? I did see some patterns in their design and construction, but none were the result of any centralized plan that came down from Washington, D.C. More determinative were the racial politics of the white military and religious officials who, despite leaving the labor of building the camps to black refugees, tried to exert a great deal of control over the size of houses, the spacing of houses, the placement and naming of roads, etc. As I write about in the book, many of these white officials believed that space and architecture of the camps could be manipulated in a way that would cultivate their particular visions of social order and good citizenship (for example, some believed that building small houses would promote small, nuclear families among formerly enslaved people). The refugees, however, often had different ideas and visions and at times openly resisted such plans.

In terms of the larger-scale geographical coverage of the book, I set out to be as comprehensive as possible. But at the same time, the history of the refugee camps—indeed the history of wartime emancipation more generally—is a fundamentally local history shaped by differences in local politics, the environment, and military strategy and campaigns, among other factors. In order to see those local circumstances and still leave readers with a sense of the “big picture,” the book touches down in three places: Fort Monroe and Hampton, Virginia; Helena, Arkansas; and Camp Nelson, Kentucky. Each place tells a different story, but one that, when linked with the others, yields a larger, interconnected story of how the refugee crisis played out across the entire war and into the early postwar period.

You mention that this was a refugee crisis and there was much suffering. There were a couple of passages that struck me as extremely devastating in regard to this suffering: you mention early on how refugees coming into US lines had their valuables taken from them or that the camps and policies were designed despite all the suffering to avoid dependence (i.e. food and the dismantling of the camps after the war), how/why did African-American continue to trust US authorities in light of this treatment?

What an excellent question – it really gets to the heart of the whole story. But the only way to answer it, I think, is to get really academic and start breaking it apart, because there’s no one answer that can satisfy the question fully.

You ask about trust in “U.S. authorities” – but who or what are we talking about exactly? Political leaders in Washington, D.C.? Institutions and structures of the federal government? The Constitution? Or are we talking about the Union army? These distinctions matter. They certainly mattered to the people fleeing slavery, who did not necessarily conflate one with the other.  

My work focuses on the encounters of formerly enslaved people with the Union army, so I’ll zero in on those particular “authorities” here. Why did these men, women, and children continue to refugee themselves behind Union army lines in large numbers, even as they confronted deprivation, racism, and sometimes outright violence? Did they possess some sort of “trust” in the army, as you say, that could transcend all that? Here again I think we need to break things apart by asking some more pointed questions about the object of their “trust”: Did freedom-seeking people trust the army to treat them equally?  No.  Did they trust the army to view them as citizens with rights to be protected?  No.*  

But if there was one thing that they did trust the army to do, it was to fight the war against the Confederacy to the end—and fight it vigorously. Political developments during the war, in particular the Emancipation Proclamation, also enabled them to trust that a Union victory over the Confederacy would be a victory over slavery. There was no question about which side of this war, or to which army, they would throw their allegiance, and that kept them coming into Union army lines. We cannot underestimate the importance of that basic fact. (And if anyone wonders if some refugees were tempted to cross back over to the Confederate side, please go pre-order Kevin Levin’s forthcoming Searching for Black Confederates.)

Of course, when we talk about “trust,” it’s also not a big leap to start talking about “faith”—religious faith—and the role it played in shaping formerly enslaved peoples’ views of the Union army. But my answer is getting too long already, so I’ll leave it to my book to carry that subject (and to Abigail Cooper’s forthcoming book which focuses specifically on religion and religious culture in the refugee camps).
(*The refugee population was diverse, of course, and not of one mind. Some did trust Union authorities more than others in these respects.)

To close the interview (we are at about 1900 words by now), how do you see Embattled Freedom impact the writing, but also teaching of Civil War history? How would you like to see scholars utilize the narrative of African American refugees? And, have won quite a few award and prizes, what do you plan for your next, hopefully similarly award-winning, book?

I’ll keep it simple. I hope my book will help accomplish what historians have been working to do for years: to keep slavery and Emancipation visible in (and central to) histories of the Civil War era. We’ve made great progress along those lines in forcing an acknowledgment of the role that slavery played in driving the sections apart and leading the South to secede. But that’s not the full story—slavery was more than a political issue. The history of wartime refugees makes clear that slavery was also a system that propelled at least half a million African American people into Union army lines, where they had an enormous impact on the war, and especially, on the Union war effort. Their experiences, as well as the entire process of destroying slavery, were deeply entangled with the war’s military history—and I hope Embattled Freedom will encourage more and more people to see that.  

As for my next book, I do not know. That’s my honest answer. I’m not the sort of historian who has five projects lined up at all times: I tend to move from one to the next. And I move slowly. I think I may be a practitioner of slow history (if that’s really a thing), and I’m grateful for the tenured position that has enabled me to be that way.

Amy, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your award-winning book with us here on H-CivWar.