Wisecarver on Teters, 'Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War'

Kristopher A. Teters
Roy "Trae" Wisecarver

Kristopher A. Teters. Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 240 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3886-7.

Reviewed by Roy "Trae" Wisecarver (Texas A&M University) Published on H-CivWar (March, 2019) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53545

Kristopher A. Teters’s Practical Liberators is a valuable contribution to the growing historiography on military emancipation during the Civil War. Glenn David Brasher’s The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation (2012) provided compelling evidence that the national attention on events in the eastern theater set the Union military, government, and the Northern public on the path to recognizing that emancipating the South’s slaves was a military necessity. Teters similarly acknowledges that “what happened in the East in Virginia was vital for pushing the country in an emancipationist direction,” but he also notes that “once emancipation was adopted, it would have to be implemented on the ground in the West on a grand scale. And it was the Union army and its officers there that ultimately had to carry out this crucial policy” (pp. 153-54). The eastern theater elicited more attention both at the time and from historians, but the western war took place on a larger scale in terms of geography, the number of soldiers involved, the number of slaves emancipated, and the number of secessionists who lost their human property to the advancing columns of blue-clad soldiers.

Practical Liberators is a tightly argued empirical account of western Union armies’ evolution into armies of emancipation. Teters uses personal accounts from dozens of Union officers to demonstrate that those who implemented the US government’s confiscation and emancipation policies did so primarily out of practical considerations. With a few exceptions, the officers who appear in this book held the deeply prejudiced views against African Americans that was typical of their time. They entered US service to put down the rebellion and preserve the Union, and thus, they initially resisted using military power to emancipate the Confederates’ slaves.

The decision to destroy slavery in the rebellious states developed over the course of the war. By May 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler had already set the precedent of confiscating slaves who had been forced to labor for the Confederacy as contrabands of war. His precedent was codified a few months later in the First Confiscation Act, but the limits of that act left decisions regarding fugitive slaves largely up to the discretion of local commanders. Teters identifies four types of policy implemented in the West during the first year of the war: very conservative, moderately conservative, not conservative, and radical. “Very conservative” officers barred all slaves from entering their lines. “Moderately conservative” officers permitted only slaves working for the Confederacy or those who had helped the Federals in some way. Officers who were “not conservative” allowed any slaves owned by rebels to enter Union lines, while “radical” officers offered refuge to any slave who fled to Federal lines.

Officers who acted beyond the bounds of the First Confiscation Act anticipated the Second Confiscation Act, passed in the summer of 1862, which permitted the Federal army to confiscate any slaves belonging to rebels and forbade Union officers to return those slaves to the rebels. Conservative officers still resisted attacking slavery, but by the time Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, they had largely come to accept that doing so was a military necessity.

The officers’ accounts presented throughout the book provide overwhelming evidence that neither military necessity nor encounters with fugitive slaves did much to soften the officers’ racial prejudices. Teters notes that officers often formed positive opinions of individual freedpeople with whom they dealt on a personal level, but they hardly changed their view of African Americans as a group. Fugitives frequently endured terrible abuse after coming under Union protection—as military laborers, in contraband camps, in the Mississippi River Valley’s nascent free labor system, and later, as soldiers themselves. However, with very few exceptions, the former slaves preferred life with Union armies to lives in slavery.

Teters notes that Union officers in the border slave states of Missouri and Kentucky had to act much more carefully than their comrades who operated in rebel territory. To do otherwise would risk alienating the Unionist populations in those already divided states. Ultimately, by 1864, the Union’s manpower demands resulted in thousands of border state slaves being recruited into the United States Colored Troops. As was the case elsewhere in the West, Teters contends that practical considerations prompted the destruction of slavery in the border states.

Practical Liberators is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on military emancipation during the Civil War. It also provides a much-deserved spotlight on the West, where many scholars contend that the war was won militarily. Trans-Mississippi historians will be pleased that Teters readily acknowledges the importance of events and actors in that theater in shaping the policies and habits that Union armies carried from the banks of the Mississippi through the Confederate heartland. For these reasons, Practical Liberators is required reading for all scholars interested in how and why Union armies became the primary weapon that destroyed slavery in the United States.

Citation: Roy "Trae" Wisecarver. Review of Teters, Kristopher A., Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. March, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53545

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.