The best recent books on emancipation during the U.S. Civil War

John C. Rodrigue Author Of Freedom's Crescent: The Civil War and the Destruction of Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley
By John C. Rodrigue

Who am I?

I am a historian who has always been fascinated by the problem of slavery in American history. Although a “Yankee” by birth and upbringing, I have also always been drawn to the history of the American South—probably because it runs so counter to the dominant narrative of U.S. history. My childhood interest in history—especially in wars, and the Civil War in particular—was transformed in college into a serious engagement with the causes and consequences of the Civil War. I pursued this interest in undertaking graduate study, and I have devoted my entire scholarly career to the examination of slavery and emancipation—and their consequences for today.


I wrote...

Freedom's Crescent: The Civil War and the Destruction of Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley

By John C. Rodrigue,

Book cover of Freedom's Crescent: The Civil War and the Destruction of Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley

What is my book about?

My book examines the destruction of slavery in the lower Mississippi valley during and after the U.S. Civil War, from Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 to final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. Focusing on Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, it weaves into a coherent narrative military events, political developments in the four states and Washington, D.C., and the “on-the-ground” disintegration of slavery that was precipitated by the enslaved people themselves. Scholars have written much on the military, political, and social aspects of the Civil War in the lower Mississippi valley. This is the first book, however, to trace the process of emancipation and abolition in this distinct and historically important region.

The books I picked & why

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Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

By James Oakes,

Book cover of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

Why this book?

This epic study traces the destruction of slavery throughout the United States during the Civil War. James Oakes argues, provocatively, that the Civil War did not “become” a war against slavery, as most scholars maintain. Instead, Abraham Lincoln and other Republicans were committed to a war against slavery right from the start. Oakes roots Union emancipation policy in the prewar struggles over slavery, as that institution became an all-consuming issue in national politics. Once hostilities commenced, and as enslaved persons responded by seeking shelter behind Union military lines, Republicans were ready to put their emancipationist views into practice. I may not necessarily agree with Oakes’s argument, but his book is a monumental achievement and essential reading on the topic.

Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

By James Oakes,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Freedom National as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Freedom National is a groundbreaking history of emancipation that joins the political initiatives of Lincoln and the Republicans in Congress with the courageous actions of Union soldiers and runaway slaves in the South. It shatters the widespread conviction that the Civil War was first and foremost a war to restore the Union and only gradually, when it became a military necessity, a war to end slavery. These two aims-"Liberty and Union, one and inseparable"-were intertwined in Republican policy from the very start of the war.

By summer 1861 the federal government invoked military authority to begin freeing slaves, immediately and…


Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery

By Joseph P. Reidy,

Book cover of Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery

Why this book?

In the best scholarly tradition, Joseph P. Reidy manages to synthesize a half-century of groundbreaking scholarship on emancipation during the Civil War era while also anchoring his work in deep archival research and forwarding a unique and original argument. Utilizing the historian’s equivalent of a theory of relativity, Reidy contends that time and place become malleable during moments of upheaval and trauma—such as war and emancipation. Although historians generally adhere fairly strictly to chronology, I find this to be a bold and innovative idea, one that has implications far beyond the study of the U.S. Civil War and emancipation. Time does indeed seem to “stand still” or to move at “warp speed” during a crisis.

Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery

By Joseph P. Reidy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Illusions of Emancipation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As students of the Civil War have long known, emancipation was not merely a product of Lincoln's proclamation or of Confederate defeat in April 1865. It was a process that required more than legal or military action. With enslaved people fully engaged as actors, emancipation necessitated a fundamental reordering of a way of life whose implications stretched well beyond the former slave states. Slavery did not die quietly or quickly, nor did freedom fulfill every dream of the enslaved or their allies. The process unfolded unevenly.

In this sweeping reappraisal of slavery's end during the Civil War era, Joseph P.…


Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction

By Jim Downs,

Book cover of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction

Why this book?

Jim Downs offers an essential corrective to the view of emancipation as a kind of liberal or progressive “triumphalist narrative.” Downs approaches the illness and death that the freed people suffered during and after the Civil War as a major public health crisis. He does not question the historical necessity or the morality of emancipation, but he shows that the disruptions and chaos that attended emancipation—often exacerbated by federal policy—also resulted in immeasurable human suffering and countless deaths. Historians have long recognized that emancipation was a messy affair. But what I find especially compelling is that Downs raises the question of whether the hardship caused by federal emancipation policy was intrinsic to that policy (however unintentional) or incidental—what we might call today “collateral damage.”

Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction

By Jim Downs,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sick from Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bondspeople who fled from slavery during and after the Civil War did not expect that their flight toward freedom would lead to sickness, disease, suffering, and death. But the war produced the largest biological crisis of the nineteenth century, and as historian Jim Downs reveals in this groundbreaking volume, it had deadly consequences for hundreds of thousands of freed people.
In Sick from Freedom, Downs recovers the untold story of one of the bitterest ironies in American history-that the emancipation of the slaves, seen as one of the great turning points in U.S. history, had devastating consequences for innumerable freedpeople.…


The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

By Thavolia Glymph,

Book cover of The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

Why this book?

Thavolia Glymph is one of the nation’s foremost scholars on emancipation, in particular on how questions of gender factored into this process. In this book, she examines the experiences and viewpoints of women in all of their diversity and complexity—those of Black and white women, slave and free, northern and southern, Unionist and Confederate, and of various social and economic classes—during the U.S. Civil War. Glymph shows that while one can speak of a “woman’s” perspective on the war, it was far more often the case that the lives of individual women were shaped by their loyalties and their particular social conditions and circumstances. Gender was essential to understanding the war and emancipation, but it was not—and I think she is right here—necessarily determinative.

The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

By Thavolia Glymph,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Women's Fight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Historians of the Civil War often speak of "wars within a war--the military fight, wartime struggles on the home front, and the political and moral battle to preserve the Union and end slavery. In this broadly conceived book, Thavolia Glymph provides a comprehensive new history of women's roles and lives in the Civil War--North and South, white and black, slave and free--showing how women were essentially and fully engaged in all three arenas. Glymph focuses on the ideas and ideologies that drove women's actions, allegiances, and politics. We encounter women as they stood their ground, moved into each other's territory,…


Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War

By Chandra Manning,

Book cover of Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War

Why this book?

Chandra Manning explores an essential but oddly overlooked aspect of wartime emancipation—the experiences of freed people in the “contraband” camps and other places of refuge that the federal military established in occupied Confederate territory. While this might seem like a narrow topic, Manning’s book addresses any number of larger issues surrounding the war and emancipation, and it brims with original insights. She provides an overview of life in these places of “troubled refuge,” but she also delves deeply into particular camps, showing the experiences of individual people. Manning also argues—persuasively, I think—that the camps served as training grounds in which the freed people came to stake a claim not only to freedom but also to equal citizenship guaranteed by the national government.

Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War

By Chandra Manning,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Troubled Refuge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the author of What This Cruel War Was Over, a vivid portrait of the Union army’s escaped-slave refugee camps and how they shaped the course of emancipation and citizenship in the United States.

Even before shots were fired at Fort Sumter, slaves recognized that their bondage was at the root of the war they knew was coming, and they began running to the Union army. By the war’s end, nearly half a million had taken refuge behind Union lines in improvised “contraband camps.” These were crowded and dangerous places, with conditions approaching those of a humanitarian crisis. Yet families…


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