“There were scholars, such as historian W.E. Woodward, who argued that African Americans “were the only people in the history of the world who became free without any effort of their own” (184).
This statement, while partially true thanks to the work of Abraham Lincoln and others in positions of power during the time of slavery, seems wildly inaccurate after reading the second half of this book. Katz gives a multitude of examples showing how hard the slaves worked to try and obtain their freedom every step of the way. In this half of the book, Katz went into detail on several new topics involving revolution, including specific revolts, slave rebels, abolitionists, the slave’s point of view during the Civil War, and the eventual liberation of slaves.
From the very beginning, African American slaves were resistant to their capture and forced servitude. From the early 1700s, slaves were doing all they could to gain freedom, even if they were small scale revolts. Slaves greatly outnumbered the whites who claimed ownership over them, all it took to revolt was timing and planning. As revolts increased and slaves tried to side with Native Americans, Americans living in the North began to sympathize and tried to create antislavery campaigns. The South however, couldn’t even begin to imagine a world without slavery and tried to ramp up even more efforts to contain the growing slave revolt problem. Other countries only made the problem worse for white slave owners when they rebelled against French control. Those black slaves succeeded and created their own government, encouraging other oppressed peoples in other countries to do the same. As pamphlets and stories came from these newly liberated countries, the resolve of the African American slaves only grew stronger.
Because there were so many revolts going on throughout a short period of time, there was a growing need for rebel leaders. The repercussions of those caught planning a rebellion were severe. Once a rebellion started to grow in size, it became susceptible to betrayal, which happened more often than not. Once the government was made aware of the situation, they would capture the leaders, often killing them and their fellow conspirators without a fair trial. To devote yourself to a revolt was to open yourself up to the possibility of death. Things weren’t any easier for abolitionists.
To be an abolitionist at this time in history was almost as dangerous as being a revolt leader. Many abolitionists wrote pamphlets and propaganda showcasing their ideas. Because of the increased number of revolts, these writings were seen as a threat and had to be immediately destroyed. The Southern government and even some leaders in the North made it their mission to stop these abolitionists from spreading their ideas to more slaves and these abolitionists were as much in danger of death as any revolt leader. Abolitionists also helped many slaves escape to freedom by smuggling them out of the country and out of trials they were forced into going to because of the Fugitive Slave Act. It seemed like the slaves were starting to make headway.
The Civil War was a kind of stepping stone for slaves. At first, slave owners tried to press their slaves into continued servitude in helping with simple wartime duties, but it proved a frivolous plan. Slaves weren’t having it and sabotaged any Confederate attempts to fight. The slaves also took this opportunity to escape, fleeing by river and on foot to the North as well as Mexico. Mexico actually became a kind of safe haven for thousands of African American slaves, and most were welcomed with open arms. The North became aware of the slaves’ lack of cooperation and decided to take advantage of it to get a hold over the South. The Northern army was now offering any slave a spot in the Union Army to fight against those who had oppressed them. The first black regiments were some of the bravest and most desperate fighters around, fighting back battalions twice their size. Even though they fought harder than a lot of white soldiers, freed black men still had a rough time adjusting.
Black soldiers were often ridiculed by the white soldiers and given inferior equipment as well as less training time. There was an obvious lack of respect even with the success they had over a few short years. As the soldiers continued to fight, the homefront wasn’t getting any better. Slaves who had run away to join the army were hearing stories of their wives and children being beaten or treated unfairly because of their husband/father running away. The wives who had escaped often lived in the same camps as their husband and received little respect and unfair treatment by white soldiers. Black soldiers, empowered with their newfound freedom, appealed to the government and even the president himself to make slaveholders release their family members still in bondage and help them gain some respect among the army men. While many of these pleas went unanswered, it was a giant step for freed slaves. Eventually all slaves would be freed through the Emancipation Proclamation, leading to a rise in protests by newly freed African Americans who wanted to get all the freedoms they were promised.This book was very interesting to me personally, as I had never really known much about slaves in this time period beyond what was taught in class. I had no idea that slaves had many revolts and several successes against their oppressive leaders. If I had been alive during this time period, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to become an abolitionist or an engineer on the Underground Railroad. The Civil War time period was truly a remarkable time and Katz does a good job describing all of the events in chronological order, but in a way that isn’t boring. He introduces new people and uses pictures to outline his points without being oppressive. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history, especially this time period because it is a completely different take on slaves and their role in American history.