Civil War impressions. From American archives, voices of slavery

Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867. Series 1, Volume 1: The Destruction of Slavery, edited by Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Thavolia Glymph, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 896 pp. $39.50. THE history of wars, it's often said, is written by the victors. Yet to a surprising extent, the history of the Civil War, especially as popularized in literature and film, still bears the stamp of the losing side, in lingering impressions of gallant Confederate soldiers, charming Southern belles, jovial slaves, and a lost world of ``gracious'' aristocratic values. There are reputable historians who have even tried to argue the relative merits of slavery compared with the harshness of life in the industrial North.

Popular history also suggests that emancipation was the dominant motive of the war.

Reading contemporary documents we soon learn that to most of the men who fought on the Northern side, and to most historians who would later chronicle and interpret its origins, course, and ramifications, the overriding purpose of the Civil War was to preserve the Union. The issue of slavery, although bound up in so many ways with the dispute, seemed less central.

President Lincoln, writing to editor Horace Greeley on Aug. 22, 1862, expressed the position with characteristic clarity:

``My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.''

Yet the very need to issue such a clarification reveals the extent to which the question of slavery could not be set aside.

In the veritable forest of documents selected from the holdings of the National Archives by members of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project and assembled in this volume, we can see firsthand how long and complicated a process the eradication of slavery proved to be.

These letters, documents, orders, affidavits, complaints, and heart-rending pleas written by slaves, free blacks, soldiers black and white, officers, generals, Cabinet secretaries, slaveholders, and ordinary civilians show a process fraught with confusion, contention, and unexpected setbacks.

Yet, thanks to the opportunities that arose from war's disruptions, the end of the ``peculiar institution'' came more swiftly than many Northerners -- and most Southerners -- had anticipated.

In these pages, we hear a kaleidoscope of voices.

A fugitive slave writes to his wife: ``I had a little truble in giting away/ But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare fredom Will rain in spite Of earth and hell. . . .

``I am With a very nice man and have all that hart Can Wish/ But My Dear I Cant express my grate desire . . . to See you.''

From Boston, a crippled ex-slave writes asking the secretary of war how he can rescue his children, still held as slaves in the loyal (hence exempt from the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation) State of Maryland in July 1864: ``please excuse my Miserable writeing & answer me as soon as you can/ I want get the little Children out of Slavery.''

A soi-disant ``peasable Saterson'' of Virginia writes to Union authorities in 1862, requesting the return of his runaway slaves, including ``A blind Boy of 23.''

Earlier, in 1861, Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler ponders the status of fugitives.

``If property, do they not become the property of salvors? But we . . . will not hold such property. . . . Have they not become, thereupon, men, women, and children? . . . If not free born, yet free, manumitted, sent forth from the hand that held them, never to be reclaimed.''

Even when free, former slaves risked retribution, as did the wives of black Union soldiers. This book grimly documents episodes of cruelty and abuse, sometimes made the more horrible by the terseness of the victims' accounts.

``The Destruction of Slavery'' is the first in a two-part series, which, in turn, is part of a five-series project. Series 2, ``The Black Military Experience,'' received considerable acclaim upon its publication in 1982. The present volume (unsequentially) is part of Series 1.

The material is divided into geographical sections, reflecting the differences among the regions. Each section is preceded by a detailed historical overview of events affecting that region.

The editors' commitment to presenting each document exactly as written, without comment or emendation, not only gives us a precise feel of the times but also conveys faithfully the individual sounds of a multitude of voices, the many stories of which history is made.

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