When George Parker decided to risk everything and flee the bondage of a Murfreesboro (NC) plantation for the safety of the Union Army encampment in Suffolk, Virginia he didn’t know how his story would end. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a military order, establishing George’s status as “not slave.” But the proclamation came no where close to defining a new status for Black Americans. Refugees leaving slavery were stateless, neither property nor US citizens.
Chandra Manning’s book, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War, asks the reader to consider that this moment of freedom-seeking was not just a story about who catalyzed emancipation, but about a process of emancipation, in which refugees had to navigate and shape military and civil statutes that defined their identity and relationship to the US federal government. And no discussion of emancipation can transpire without a deep dive into how the concept of citizenship–and who could claim it–transformed as a result of the war efforts of black Americans.
Early in the book, Manning reminds us that historically wartime emancipations did not result in permanent freedom nor had they led to a reduction in the practice of slavery. In spite of attempts during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812, the presumptive status of black Americans throughout antebellum America remained “slave,” not freed, not citizen. This ideological barrier enabled white America–north and south–to accept the fact that the federal government had a relationship with white men only. Thus, the United States was a slave nation on the international stage until Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ruptured that idea, and established a powerful relationship between the federal government and Black Americans.
It was but one step toward altering the place of non-whites in the American consciousness.
Black refugees hoped for more than permanent emancipation. In serving the Army as soldiers, grooms, teamsters, ditch diggers, spies, cooks, seamstresses, laundresses, and nurses, they sought to lay claim to citizenship, and receive the permanent protection of the federal government in securing their rights to mobility, family, jobs with wages, and access to courts. Becoming indispensable to the Union victory was another step in altering the American consciousness.
For emancipation to become permanent and a pathway to citizenship, military authority had to be transformed into civil authority.
It wasn’t until December of 1865, months after the war had ended and President Lincoln had been assassinated, that the federal government codified the abolition of slavery in the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, the ultimate civil authority. It would be another two and a half years before the 14th Amendment established equal protections under the law and citizenship rights.
I revisit the story of George Parker with renewed appreciation for the dangers he faced and the aspirations that buoyed his journey out of slavery.
If reading history isn’t your thing, I strongly recommend watching Dr. Manning’s interview with the National Museum of civil War Medicine.
Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War; Vintage Books: New York, 2016.
“Troubled Refuge: A Conversation with Dr. Chandra Manning of Georgetown University”; National Museum of Civil War Medicine Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvN7ZR9Ssg8), 11 Feb 2021.