ARC review: ‘I Freed Myself’ by David Williams

8th April 2014
Cambridge University Press

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Contrary to popular belief, Abraham Lincoln, while finding the practice of slavery distasteful, had no intention of abolishing the institution of slavery at the start of the American Civil War. He was only interested in saving the Union. Circumstances – several defeats and severe lack of troops by the second year of the war – forced his hand, and it was with much reluctance and leaving himself space to back track if necessary – once the American Civil War was over – that he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The Union needed black troops to keep fighting the war. The price for their service was freedom.

David Williams presents the view that the lauding of Lincoln has obscured the real events. Black Americans, both free and enslaved, volunteered to serve right from the start but were refused; slaves ran away from the plantations of the southern states to Northern lines in droves, convinced that the war was a freedom war; they assisted the Union army in many ways despite the racism of white Americans, acting as guides, labourers, nurses, cooks etc; once permitted to enlist most black regiments fought with bravery and fiercely; they assisted deserters from the Confederate army; they continued to push for abolition and universal male suffrage. The Union, Williams contends, would not have won the war without the efforts of the former slaves, whether as soldiers once they were permitted to form regiments or in the almost guerrilla-war like conditions prevailing in the Confederate states which diverted troops from the frontline and caused fear among the planter class.

Definitely worth reading, to gain another perspective, if you’re interested in the American Civil War. This book is well written and draws on plenty of primary material, and extensive footnotes. There is a complete index and many illustrations. I would have liked to see more maps though, for those without intimate knowledge of American Civil War campaigns.

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