Friday, December 7, 2007

Reviewed: Blight, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation

A SLAVE NO MORE: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation by David W. Blight (Harcourt) is reviewed in the New York Times by William Grimes. Hat tip. Grimes writes:
The chaos of Civil War meant only one thing to America’s four million slaves: hope. With armies on the march, and the old social order crumbling, men like John Washington and Wallace Turnage seized the moment and made a break for freedom, issuing their own emancipation proclamations before the fact. They were “quiet heroes of a war within the war to destroy slavery,” as David W. Blight puts it in “A Slave No More.”

Both Washington and Turnage, near contemporaries, wrote vivid accounts of their lives as slaves and the bold bids for freedom that took them across Confederate lines and into the waiting arms of Union soldiers. Recently discovered, both texts have been reproduced by Mr. Blight as written, with misspellings and grammatical errors intact.

Mr. Blight, a professor of American history at Yale and the author of “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” has also provided an extended preface that provides historical context, fills in biographical gaps and extends the life stories of both men past the Civil War, when their manuscripts break off abruptly, to their deaths in the early 20th century. Two remarkable lives, previously lost, emerge with startling clarity, largely through the words of the principal actors themselves.
In one example, the testimony of Wallace Turnage
sheds light on the support network among slaves, nearly all more than willing to feed or conceal a runaway, or provide information on how to evade capture on the road ahead. “They gloried in my spunk,” Turnage writes of a group of slaves who hid him at one plantation.

His final flight, from Mobile to the Union ships anchored offshore, caps his thrilling tale. After nonchalantly walking straight through a Confederate camp and wading barefoot through snake-infested swamps, he reaches an impasse, with Confederate pickets behind him and a broad expanse of water ahead of him.

“It was death to go back and it was death to stay there and freedom was before me,” he writes. He pressed forward and, by luck, found a rickety little boat on the shore.

The rest is here. Blight's powerful interview on NPR is here. Looking for something to listen to on a long road trip? The book is already out on CD.