They stole away on a Sunday night . . . with her mother and another pair of slaves, and made the distance, more than fifty miles, to Fredericksburg, in fourteen hours, and Mr. Ballton declares they were not tired because they had something to walk for.
The Slaves’ War, Andrew Ward
Inspired by a series of posts by Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Atlantic Magazine’s web site, I’ve been trying to fill out my understanding of the Civil War this past month. I was a Civil War buff as a kid, and had the great good fortune of spending a summer moving from Maine to Kansas with my family, visiting as many Civil War battle fields along the way as we could. In graduate school I was exposed to some Civil War history–studies of Quaker and Methodist reactions to the war, quantitative histories of the economics of slavery, ante-bellum splits within Baptist churches over the morality of slavery. Until reading Andrew Ward’s book, though, I was largely ignorant of the people whose lives were most altered by the war.
Ward relies on interviews and written accounts of former slaves, many gathered through the WPA in the 1930s. Coates discusses the three sides of the war: Secessionists seeking to maintain slavery, Unionists seeking to maintain the Union, and slaves fighting for freedom. The voices in this collection represent what may be a fourth side: most of the accounts are from people who were unable to leave slavery during the war, who didn’t enlist in the Union army, and who were in many ways caught in the middle of great events over which they had very little control. There is a great deal of ambivalence in their stories: hopeful that the Union would prevail and free them, fearful that the war would make things worse on the plantations, sometimes personally loyal to masters and suspicious of the Northerners who cut a bloody path across the South, and finally bitter that liberty was not the prelude to equality that many had hoped for.
A complex portrait of slavery arises from the accounts Ward gathers. We hear the voices of field slaves, who are viciously worked on the plantations; slaves from the manor houses who have internalized the mores and habits of aristocracy; and urban slaves who have a strange and attenuated sort of liberty. The “Peculiar Institution” appears to be a sort of distributed totalitarianism, with its subjects kept in ignorance of the world around them, and great variation from owner to owner, and from year to year, in how the slaves’ daily lives are managed. It is also a system riven with internal contradictions: enforcing an ideology of white supremacy required tactics that implicitly recognized the slaves’ human potential, like prohibitions on literacy and communication.
The slaves’ accounts of the cruelties of slavery–not only the physical violence, but the merciless breaking up of families, the soul-crushing restrictions on news and travel, the constant fear and ignorance–are truly horrible. But what is also striking in these stories is the resolve that the slaves exhibit: they aren’t mere victims, but approach their lives with humor, wisdom, and candor.
Ward’s account of their lives after slavery is as harrowing as their lives before and during the war. Ward calls the Civil War “the Second American Revolution,” which surely it was: the cynical compromises that allowed the United States to be half free, half slave, came crashing down at Appomattox Courthouse. But it was an imperfect revolution, resulting in nominal liberty but not equality for the four million people freed by the war’s end. De facto re-enslavement was the experience of far too many freedmen, who were liberated with no attempt at reparation or justice. Coates’ “three sides” argument comes into stark relief in the last chapters of “The Slaves’ War”: the Secessionists lost, the Union was restored, and a shabby sort of freedom indeed was left in the wake of the war. This is a failure–a failure of planning, of vision, of justice–whose effects we suffer still, a century and a half after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter.