Book Review: Navigating Liberty: Black Refugees and Antislavery Reformers in the Civil War South


by John Cimprich

Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2023. Pp. xii, 226. Illus. maps, tables, appends, notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 0807177997

The Influence and Experience of the Newly Freed in the Wartime South. 

The author of Slavery’s End in Tennessee, 1861–1865 and Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory, Prof. Cimprich (Thomas More University, ret'd), examines how the liberation of vast numbers of enslaved people as a result of the Civil War brought about significant social change and some of the complexities and limitations of that process.

Cimprich looks at the interactions between the enslaved and the newly liberated with Northern idealists and reformers who came South to help, as well as the slave holders and secessionists, and Federal bureaucrats, during the war and Reconstruction, and the consequences of those interactions, which were not always positive. He notes that, for various reasons there's not a lot of primary source material from the African American side of these interactions, but that he did find that the Missionary Association had managed to preserve considerable materials, which were of significant value to his analysis and conclusions.

Cimprich notes that despite Lincoln's repeated claim that war was only about saving the Union (lest he lose support from Unionist slaveholding elements), from the start many of those enslaved believed the war offered the hope of freedom, and from the beginning began to free themselves, fleeing to Union lines, creating the phenomenon of the "Contraband", which both weakened the Confederacy through the loss of their labors, and also helped bring about the Emancipation Proclamation. That, in turn permitted some 200,000 African Americans, most of them newly freed from slavery, to join the Union's armed forces, to help end the Civil War and slavery.

Cimprich examines the many problems that resulted from liberation, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. The newly liberated required housing, food, work, education, protection, and more. They were also not always welcome. For example some military commanders considered them a burden on the army's resources. Some self-proclaimed reformers and do-gooders were condescending, even racist in their views, regarding themselves as superior to the newly free people whom they were supposedly trying to help, their attitudes ranging from overly paternalistic to promoting self-help, while a few listened to the needs of freed people and believed that they deserved equal rights. Cimprich notes that while the newly freed people certainly appreciated the intentions of the reformers and anti-slavery activists, those same reformers and activists often had different ideas about freedom and equality for African Americans, which often led to mistrust and disappointment.

This is a meticulously researched, well written, eye opening work, well worth reading by anyone with an interest in the Civil War and its consequences for America.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His most recent previous reviews here include Their Maryland, The Lion of Round Top, Rites of Retaliation, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era, Benjamin Franklin Butler, Dreams of Victory: General P. G. T. Beauregard, Bonds of War, Early Struggles for Vicksburg, True Blue, Civil War Witnesses and Their Books, Love and Duty, When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, Lost Causes, Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, Cedar Mountain to Antietam, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Count the Dead, All Roads Led To Gettysburg, Unhappy Catastrophes, The Heart of Hell, The Whartons' War, Gettysburg’s Southern Front , Civil War Monuments and Memorials, The Tale Untwisted, The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, The Civilian War, The Carnage was Fearful, and The Civil Wars of Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army, Vol. I.




Note: Navigating Liberty is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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