Books to Learn More About Black Refugees During the Civil War

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The Immigrants’ Civil War series has always focused both on immigrants coming to the United States from Europe, Canada, and Latin America and on black and white refugees fleeing war and persecution within the U.S. I wanted to bring several recent scholarly studies of black refugees during and immediately after the Civil War to your attention.

As many of you know, I began my career as an attorney in the 1980s helping refugees. I still direct the legal team at the Central American Refugee Center on Long Island. The refugee experience and refugee protections have been part of my life since I was 22 years old. I teach refugee law at Hofstra University and I was a visiting professor at its Political Asylum Clinic. I have inspected refugee camps abroad, and visited with refugee settlements along the United States border.

I know the vulnerability of refugees, the sense of confinement of the refugee living life within the walls of a camp, and the weight of loss that hangs over anyone forced to flee his or her home. I also have seen the resilience of refugees, the formation of ad hoc communities in the seat of war, and the hope that allows the refugee to carry on in spite of the odds.

While there have been scores of books published on the tens of thousands of African Americans who traveled North on the Underground Railroad, there are comparatively few books that treat the lives of the hundreds of thousands of slaves put into motion as refugees during the Civil War. The three books I discuss here are a good introduction to the subject.

refugee-women-near-yorktown
Black refugee women often sought jobs with the Union Army as laundresses like these women near Yorktown, Va.

Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War

troubled-refugeTroubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War by Chandra Manning published by Knopf (2016) examines the interplay of black refugees who arrived by the thousands into Union army camps as the United States forces penetrated ever deeper into the empire of slavery and the Federal policies towards black people that evolved in response to the refugee crisis. Professor Manning provides revealing details of African American interactions with white Northerners which turned the Federal government from the stalwart protector of slavery into the defender of the rights of black men and women. For the first time in American history, the United States government became the protector of blacks fleeing slavery against the wealthy whites who hoped to re-enslave them.

The book provides background on the situation of refugees, the complete unpreparedness of the Federal government to receive them in 1861, and the evolution of refugee policies, laws, and agencies over four years of war. What began as chaos was given some sense of order after the Emancipation Proclamation when black male refugees became soldiers and insisted that their wives and children be protected while they fought.

Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction

sick-from-freedomThe fact that the refugee crisis was not even anticipated at the start of the war led to unbelievable suffering for the refugees. Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs published by Oxford University Press (2012) is a groundbreaking work that describes the human toll of this criminal negligence on the part of the Federal government. Black refugees came in trickles at first, and then in floods, to Union armies moving through the Confederacy. While some commanders treated the escaped slaves with compassion, others allowed them to starve and die. Even some anti-slavery officers favored a do-nothing policy towards the blacks at a moment of dire need in order to demonstrate that emancipation need not cost taxpayers money. Others thought that letting children die from hunger would teach black parents the importance of work. Sick from Freedom is a book with few heroes and much suffering.

After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War

after-appomattoxBefore the 1960s, it was a commonplace to say that Lincoln freed the slaves. After the Civil Rights Revolution, some historians insisted that the slaves freed themselves. Now a more nuanced, multi-causal approach is taking hold. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did free many slaves, but it was issued in response to the growing numbers of slaves who fled to Union lines whenever the United States armies moved deeper into the rebel Confederacy. The combination of African American advocacy and actions, Lincoln’s executive action and Congress’s legal enactments, and the blunt instruments of the Union Armies combined with growing popular abolitionist sentiment worked together to break the back of legal slavery.

After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War by Gregory P. Downs published by Harvard University Press (2015) is an eyeopening scholarly examination of the army’s role in protecting refugees at the end of the war and helping them settle where they would. The military brought freedom at the point of the bayonet to blacks who had been enslaved until Union regiments arrived in their neighborhoods. The tragic story of the withdrawal of military protection by Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson sets the stage for the failures of Reconstruction.

A Story of Refugee Life At The End of the War

The following story illustrates the riches to be had in refugee studies.

General O.O. Howard, the abolitionist general who headed the Freedmen’s Bureau and after whom Howard University is named, was sent to Edisto Island in South Carolina to speak with the refugees there who were farming land General William T. Sherman had set aside for them. Howard asked them to love the former slave owners who had lived there before they took up arms against the United States and return the land the refugees farmed to their former owners. Howard was a man of great authority who had lost an arm in fighting to end slavery.

A committee of refugees gave this response to the general at the end of October, 1865:

“You ask us to forgive the land owners of our Island,  You only lost your right arm. In war and might forgive them.  The man who tied me to a tree & gave me 39 lashes & who stripped and flogged my mother & my sister & who will not let me stay In His empty Hut except I will do His planting & be Satisfied with His price & who combines with others to keep away land from me well knowing I would not Have any thing to do with Him If I Had land of my own.–that man, I cannot well forgive.  Does It look as If He Has forgiven me, seeing How He tries to keep me In a condition of Helplessness.”

Towards a Project to Study Black Refugees During the Civil War

I was happy to encounter the three books I have discussed in this review. I think that they make a great start to a history of black refugees, but the study of this subject is still in its early stages. I hope that young scholars will embark on a project to study black refugees. Here are some of my suggested questions for a research project:

  1. What was the process of escape from slavery and movement towards Union lines?
  2. Were only slaves in the immediate neighborhood of the Union army drawn in as refugees, or did slaves travel from distant places to seek protection from the military?
  3. How did slaves find out about opportunities to escape from slavery?
  4. How did time in refugee camps effect escaped slaves? Did it prepare them for postwar life, or did it retard the transition to freedom?
  5. What forms of organization did black refugees develop in the camps? We know that delegation of blacks sometimes met with Union commanders. Were these delegations reflective of an ongoing leadership structure?
  6. What was the interplay of military officers with camp responsibilities and civilian relief groups?
  7. How much help was provided to the refugees by the civilian refugee relief groups? What were the metrics? Were some camps favored by these groups and other ignored? Did the civilian agencies require religious conformity by the blacks in exchange for assistance?
  8. Did the camps amplify or suppress black cultural expression?
  9. How did encounters with refugees change whites’ attitudes towards slavery and blacks?
  10. What was the impact of the mass refugee flow on the attitudes of white Southerners towards the Confederate war effort.
  11. What proportion of refugees lived in camps, versus moving to the North or resettling with family in liberated areas?
  12. How long after the Confederate surrenders did the camps continue to exist?
  13. How did the camps help the refugees resettle after the end of the war?
  14. What percentages of the refugees returned to their former districts after the war? How did they fare if they returned or moved to other areas?
  15. How did refugee families scattered by the war reunite?
  16. Did refugees do better or worse after the war than slaves who remained enslaved until the end of the war?

This project should be informed by modern research on internal displacement and international refugee experiences.


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