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Review: 'The Slaves' War' recounts U.S. slavery in the victims' own words

Award-winning historian, journalist and National Public Radio commentator Andrew Ward has written a book that reminds us how some facts cannot be contemplated often enough.

Slavery was legal in significant portions of the North American continent for 246 years. Thomas Jefferson never owned fewer than a hundred slaves during his adult life, yet he drafted the Declaration of Independence, one of history's most eloquent odes to freedom.

Eighty-seven years later, the Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves residing in the Confederacy. In much of the South, citizenship rights supposedly guaranteed by the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution were ignored for most of the century following Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.

Of course, the list of tragic historical paradoxes has never shown any sign of reaching its end and is far from exclusively American. Yet the "peculiar institution" of slavery challenges — and will always challenge — Americans' individual and collective sense of identity and morality.

In their own words

Whereas every comprehensive history of the Civil War confronts readers with paradoxical truths that provoke outrage, boggle the mind and break the heart, few do so with the visceral power of The Slaves' War. Narrated almost entirely in the words of ex-slaves, this meticulous book dramatizes on a sometimes unbearably intimate scale a war suffered in fields and kitchens, smokehouses and cellars, swamps and forests and demolished cities.

In the voices of those who most directly experienced it, we hear of a time "when whites bought and sold their fellow human beings, even their own children; when people were commonly relegated to eating from troughs like hogs; when grown men and women could be savagely whipped for the slightest infraction; when raping a black woman was not a crime; when mothers were denied the right to nurse, let alone name, let alone direct the destinies of their offspring."

A bewildering loyalty

Yet even in such appalling conditions, slaves' experiences of and convictions about loyalty, property, courage, love and freedom were often contradictory, sometimes tragically so: "Some had come to believe that if all that was theirs was their masters, then all that was their masters' was in some way theirs."

This "deeply instilled servile code of honor" led some slaves to act in ways directly opposed to their interests: House slaves hid masters and mistresses capable of psychotic levels of cruelty from Federal troops; freedmen returned from service in the Northern army and worked the harvest for those who no longer owned them; children dried their owner's tears as he grieved over his son's body — the same owner who had sold off the children's parents and siblings.

In a case that reads like a model for Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, a man carried his dead owner hundreds of miles so he could be buried in his home ground. These and many more examples of slaves' complex responses to their circumstances force us to forsake easy judgments of their actions.

The value of context

The Slaves' War isn't perfect. Organized chronologically, beginning with the surrender of Fort Sumter, Ward's summaries of military campaigns and political developments are clear but often perfunctory.

Compelling as it is to hear this story in the ex-slaves' voices, more of an authorial presence would have been welcome — to sketch in geographical detail, to reflect more deeply on the local effects of battles both military and political, and to provide more material from white witnesses for context and contrast.

Finally, to name each ex-slave each time that person's testimony appears is both laudable — of all people, these deserve the dignity of not remaining anonymous — and frustrating. No matter how skilled the attributions, I too often couldn't become as absorbed in the material as it warranted because the blizzard of names never relented.

These quibbles aside, Ward's book represents a considerable accomplishment. Every American needs to hear and heed these voices.

John Repp is a poet, fiction writer and book critic living in Erie, Pa.

The Slaves' War

By Andrew Ward

Houghton Mifflin, 386 pages, $28

Review: 'The Slaves' War' recounts U.S. slavery in the victims' own words 07/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 2:02pm]
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