Somers on Noyalas, 'Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era'

Jonathan A. Noyalas
Lucas Somers

Jonathan A. Noyalas. Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era. Southern Dissent Series. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021. Illustrations, tables. 250 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-6686-8

Reviewed by Lucas Somers (University of Southern Mississippi) Published on H-CivWar (August, 2021) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

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Though numerous studies have covered the military movements and clashes throughout the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era offers a needed addition to the scholarship, centering African Americans within this narrative that typically marginalizes them. Earlier accounts downplayed the institution of slavery in the region by claiming that it held “few enslaved people” and those bondspeople were treated better than anywhere else in the South (pp. 4-5). Historian Jonathan A. Noyalas uses his expertise of the region to argue that African Americans not only played important roles during the war but also consistently and actively fought for their own liberation despite the uncertainty of their situation. He supports this assertion by including their voices, contextualizing individual decisions, and emphasizing that emancipation often played out unevenly. The book’s main weakness is that most of it is devoted to describing the years when slavery persisted, and it only provides a single chapter analyzing the post-emancipation period. Noyalas nevertheless effectively shifts readers’ attention from the battlefield to the experiences of African Americans and, consequently, helps create a more accurate and inclusive picture of this era.

Noyalas begins with an overview of slavery in the Shenandoah Valley during the antebellum period and establishes the significance of the institution by providing the African American perspective. He concludes that despite holding fewer people in bondage than elsewhere in the South—such as the Tidewater region of Virginia—the institution was equally important to society and arguably harsher on African Americans as they lacked the support of large plantation communities. The second chapter focuses on the impact of John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, located just outside of the valley. Noyalas emphasizes that instances of Black resistance increased throughout the region and enslaved people prepared themselves to seize the best opportunity to seek freedom. The first two chapters set the stage for the turbulent wartime years when freedom first appeared as a possibility, though the constant threat of slavery continued.

Each of the next four chapters essentially focuses on an individual year during the Civil War, tracing how the Black population navigated the different military occupations that had various implications for their status. Noyalas demonstrates that wartime emancipation depended on the ability of the Union army to occupy the region and on the commitment of individual commanders to assist the enslaved population. The first federal commander to occupy the Shenandoah Valley, General Robert Patterson, ordered his troops not to interfere with the enslaved population and to return any fugitive slaves they encountered back to their owner. The situation seemed to improve during the first year of conflict, as federal policy slowly shifted toward emancipation, thus allowing the army to offer shelter to refugees whose owners supported the Confederacy and forbidding the return of any enslaved person to their owner. However, by the summer of 1862, an encroaching Confederate army forced Union troops to retreat from the Shenandoah Valley. This reversal of fortune placed the region’s African American population back under their enslavers’ control, creating what Noyalas describes as “a complex, uncertain world” for the enslaved population (p. 85).

When 1863 began, federal forces once again controlled northern sections of the valley, and Union General Robert H. Milroy immediately began enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation. Even with the president’s order and a commander willing to carry it out, Noyalas rightly asserts, “not all of the Shenandoah Valley’s enslaved population had the same access to freedom” (p. 104). For example, Milroy’s army only occupied the northernmost counties, which made it more difficult for those living in the southern valley to reach the Union lines. However, freedom remained tenuous while the Confederate army survived. Impending battle forced Milroy to retreat from his position by the summer of 1863, once again placing the region’s African Americans under the control of the Confederacy. The sixth chapter shows how the enlistment of Black men into the Union army in 1864 contributed to the further demise of slavery. Noyalas describes the efforts of local enslaved people who worked as spies for the Union army, ultimately aiding General Philip Sheridan’s defeat of the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley.

Because the book’s main narrative seemingly stops at the war’s end, it falls short of telling the full story of emancipation in the Shenandoah Valley. With dedicating only one chapter to the postwar period, Noyalas is unable to provide the same depth of evidence and analysis on the defining of freedom as he did for the four years of military conflict. Rather than serving as a substantive part of the book, the final chapter resembles an epilogue that summarizes the African American experience and significant aspects of emancipation during Reconstruction. Throughout the book, the author implements an effective analytical framework that prioritizes the Black experience and adeptly uses primary sources to accentuate their voices during wartime. Had he continued slowly tracing the process of emancipation with the same level of evidence and analysis beyond 1865, his argument would have been much stronger. In fairness, countless Civil War historians have used the same periodization and pacing to cover various regions and groups of people during the conflict, beginning with one or two chapters on the antebellum period, ending with a chapter on Reconstruction, and the rest of the chapters focusing on 1861-65. The problem emerges when a study encompassing both slavery and freedom weds itself to a chronological framework determined by war and peace. The struggles of the African American population that Noyalas describes continued after the war as individual communities defined freedom through an extended process of emancipation that stretched through the end of the 1860s and beyond.

Citation: Lucas Somers. Review of Noyalas, Jonathan A., Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. August, 2021. URL:

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