Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Dinwiddie County Historical Society

FROM 2:00 TO 4:00 P.M.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A New Book Worth Reading

Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation
By David W. Blight Harcourt.
307 pp. $25
In American mythology, the freeing of the slaves is a top-to-bottom affair: Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, and after that it was up to government to ensure their rights, though for about a century government didn't exactly do a good job of it. David W. Blight makes plain that it never was as simple as that. After careful study of two recently discovered memoirs by former slaves, John M. Washington and Wallace Turnage, Blight writes: "American emancipation was always a complex interplay between at least four factors: the geographical course of the war; the size of the slave population in any given region; the policies enforced at any given time by the Union and Confederate governments through their military forces; and the volition of slaves themselves in seizing their moments to embrace a reasonable chance for freedom. Turnage's and Washington's narratives throw into bold relief and confirm the significance of each of these factors. To the perennial question -- who freed the slaves, Lincoln or blacks themselves? -- the Turnage and Washington stories answer conclusively that it was both. Without the Union armies and navies, neither man would have achieved freedom when he did. But they never would have gained their freedom without their own courageous initiative, either." This is somewhat slippery ground, for inherent in it is the danger of generalizing from the particular -- and in this case, an exceedingly small and selective particular. At the time of emancipation, only about 10 percent of freed slaves could read and write; Washington and Turnage were in that 10 percent. Though reliable documentation of the slaves' response to the Emancipation Proclamation is sparse, we know that if their general reaction was jubilation, some also expressed caution and uncertainty. And, of course, in the places where the proclamation was intended to take effect -- the states of the Confederacy -- emancipation was nothing more than Union rhetoric unless and until federal forces arrived. By no means was it guaranteed even then, as the racial views of many Union soldiers were not discernibly different from those of Rebel soldiers, and their enthusiasm for enforcing emancipation was decidedly limited.