The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves
by Andrew Ward
Reviewed by Adam Kirsch
New York Sun
"It was God's blessing to the black peoples to come out from bondage, to belong only to their selves and God, to read about what's going on in the world and write and figure for theirselves." So said Louis Meadows, a former slave from Georgia who is the last of many hundreds of African-Americans quoted in The Slaves' War, Andrew Ward's innovative and powerful new study of the Civil War. By granting Meadows the final word in his dense mosaic of quotations, Mr. Ward underlines one of the major themes to emerge from slaves' testimony: the supreme importance of "figuring," of being able to interpret the world for oneself through reading and writing.
Compared to the grosser kinds of terror America's slaves suffered at the hands of their masters -- the humiliations, beatings, rapes, family separations, and summary killings -- being deprived of the information and skills necessary for "figuring" might seem relatively trivial. Yet again and again in Ward's book, former slaves testify to the immense value they themselves placed on reading and writing, on accurate information about the wider world -- in short, on a true understanding of history.
One man remembers how "boys used to crawl under the house and lie on the ground to hear Master read the newspaper to Missus when they first began to talk about the war." Another reports that "our boys used to climb into [a] tree and hide under the long moss while Master was at supper, so as to hear him and his company talk about the war when they come out on the piazza to smoke." A waiting-maid says that when her master and mistress spelled out words and even whole sentences they didn't want her to hear, she would memorize the letters and report them to an uncle who could read.
Such tactics were necessary thanks to the slaveowners' constant conspiracy to keep African-Americans in ignorance. Harry Smith, from Kentucky, wrote in his autobiography that on his plantation, "if any were caught reading to the slaves, or giving them any information, they were tied and received fifty lashes." A slave belonging to Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, recalled that his fellow slaves were "more scared of newspapers than they is of snakes now, and us never knowed what a Bible was." Booker T. Washington likewise remembered that "there was not a single slave on our plantation that could read a line." Yet despite this, he insisted that they "in some way were kept informed of the progress of the war almost as accurately as the most intelligent person."
In their insistence on "figuring for theirselves," despite the threat of serious punishment, the slaves offer a vivid demonstration of what it really means to say that knowledge is power. Not in the obvious, pragmatic sense: For most of the slaves Mr. Ward writes about, knowing where Grant's army was fighting, or what Presidents Lincoln and Davis were saying, could not have been of any practical use. Unless and until a Union regiment showed up at their gates, there was little most slaves could do about the Civil War but worry and hope.
But in a deeper sense, being able to figure out the political world in which one lives, to situate oneself imaginatively in history, is the most crucial kind of power, the prerequisite for any kind of public action or dignity. It is possible to live without that kind of power: Many Americans today, as surveys continually demonstrate, know nothing about their country's past or its government, and don't feel the lack. But our ignorance, which is an abuse of freedom, is especially shameful when set beside the ignorance of the slaves, which was the stigma of bondage, and which they strained every nerve to escape.
By combing through thousands of slave narratives and autobiographies -- above all, the series of interviews with former slaves conducted by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s -- Mr. Ward has cobbled together a fractured, incomplete, but fascinating account of the way the slaves understood the history they lived through. This is not quite the same thing as what the subtitle of "The Slaves' War" promises -- "The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves" -- though Mr. Ward does organize his material chronologically, starting with the bombardment of Fort Sumter and running through Appomattox and beyond.
Whenever possible, he quotes slaves' accounts of battles and campaigns. A cook at Antietam remembers ambulances with "the blood running down through the bottom of the wagons" and hospitals where "the doctors was cutting off people's legs and arms and throwing them out the door just like throwing out old sticks." At the siege of Vicksburg, a young girl named Rebecca Phillips was more traumatized by the sight of her white mistress crying than by the sound of cannons: "I ain't never see'd Ole Miss cry before. Them tears was worse to me than all that battle what was going on. My throat just started choking up." Elsewhere, Mr. Ward shows us the reactions of slaves far from the battlefield to the latest reports. When news of Grant's capture of Richmond reached Arkansas, Va., Mittie Freeman remembered, "All of a sudden cannons commence booming; it seems like everywhere...Pappie jump up, throws his pole and everything, and grabs my hand, and starts flying towards the house. 'It's victory,' he keep on saying, 'It's freedom. Now we's gonna be free!'"
Yet the sources, no matter how ingeniously cultivated, do not allow for a complete, battle-by-battle narrative of the war. Only a tiny fraction of the slaves who lived through the war, as soldiers, servants, victims, or bystanders, were able or willing to record their memories. In part this was due to illiteracy, and in part to the indifference of the country at large, including its scholars, to the slaves' experiences. But it was also, Mr. Ward reminds us, because many slaves, like survivors of other great historical traumas, preferred to keep quiet about what they had seen. "Heaps of things what went on when I was young, I forgets," said Calline Brown of Mississippi, "and heaps of them what I want to forget I can't." Dempsey Pitts of North Carolina echoed her: "I could tell much more about it, but I don't like to talk. Will be gone pretty soon, and what I knows is going with me."
These were two African-Americans' responses to interviewers who tried to elicit their memories of the 1860s almost 70 years later, when the Federal Writers' Project made an eleventh-hour attempt to preserve their testimony. "More than half of the voices in this book," Mr. Ward writes, come from those interviews, but as he explains, they had distinct methodological limitations. The lapse of time and the blurring of memory; the natural reluctance of black interviewees, in the Jim Crow South, to open themselves up to the scrutiny of white strangers; the interviewers' own biases, including their preference for "colorful" dialect, which they sometimes invented if the African-Americans' speech proved too "correct" -- all these mean that the FWP interviews, even more than Mr. Ward's other sources, have to be used with care.
Then there are what Mr. Ward calls "some demonstrable whoppers masquerading as fact," or what might more charitably be termed folk legends. Many slaves, for instance, reported seeing Abraham Lincoln at their plantations before the war. "Lincoln came to North Carolina and ate breakfast with my master," warning him against "conceiving children by slaves," Frank Patterson insisted. Margaret Hulm spotted Lincoln in Tennessee, where he wore "a gray blanket around him for a cape...jeans pants and big mud boots and a big black hat." These are only the most obvious cases of mythologizing, however, and Mr. Ward's preference for hands-off quotation -- "my role was more editorial than authorial," he says -- sometimes leaves the reader at a disadvantage. Surely it was not the case, for instance, that when Lincoln visited conquered Richmond, he assembled a big heap of Confederate money and invited the oldest slave present to set it on fire; yet Mr. Ward recounts the story with a simple "be that as it may."
Despite all the difficulties with the sources, however, The Slaves' War is very illuminating about the specifically African-American dimensions of the war experience. We learn about "refuegeeing," whereby masters near the front lines would deport their slaves to the Deep South or Texas, where they hoped the peculiar institution was secure; and about "contrabands," the slaves who ran away to join the Union armies, whether as soldiers or camp followers. Not that Union troops were always welcomed by the slaves. One of the many painful ironies of the slaves' war, Mr. Ward shows, is that the armies that promised liberation to African-Americans often brought only violence and spoliation. In Mississippi, Johanna Isom remembered indignantly how "them good-for-nothing white trash rode up to our house and took Miss Sallie's best home-spun blankets and put them on they horses for saddle blankets...and galloped away singing 'Yankee Doodle Dandy.'"
In such testimony, we hear how complex the slaves' loyalties could be. Hope for a Northern victory did not preclude a sense of common interest with Southern whites; longing for freedom went hand in hand with fear of the post-Emancipation future. Only by listening to the slaves' own words can we begin to understand the full ambiguities of their experience -- the kind of ambiguities that are always evident when a human being is the author, not merely the object, of his history.
Adam Kirsch is the book critic of the New York Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org