Who really freed America's slaves?

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 18, 2007


Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation

By David W. Blight

Harcourt. 307 pp. $25

In American mythology, the freeing of the slaves is a top-to-bottom affair: Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, and after that it was up to government to ensure their rights, though for about a century government didn't exactly do a good job of it. David W. Blight makes plain that it never was as simple as that. After careful study of two recently discovered memoirs by former slaves, John M. Washington and Wallace Turnage, Blight writes:

"American emancipation was always a complex interplay between at least four factors: the geographical course of the war; the size of the slave population in any given region; the policies enforced at any given time by the Union and Confederate governments through their military forces; and the volition of slaves themselves in seizing their moments to embrace a reasonable chance for freedom. Turnage's and Washington's narratives throw into bold relief and confirm the significance of each of these factors. To the perennial question -- who freed the slaves, Lincoln or blacks themselves? -- the Turnage and Washington stories answer conclusively that it was both. Without the Union armies and navies, neither man would have achieved freedom when he did. But they never would have gained their freedom without their own courageous initiative, either."

This is somewhat slippery ground, for inherent in it is the danger of generalizing from the particular -- and in this case, an exceedingly small and selective particular. At the time of emancipation, only about 10 percent of freed slaves could read and write; Washington and Turnage were in that 10 percent. Though reliable documentation of the slaves' response to the Emancipation Proclamation is sparse, we know that if their general reaction was jubilation, some also expressed caution and uncertainty. And, of course, in the places where the proclamation was intended to take effect -- the states of the Confederacy -- emancipation was nothing more than Union rhetoric unless and until federal forces arrived. By no means was it guaranteed even then, as the racial views of many Union soldiers were not discernibly different from those of Rebel soldiers, and their enthusiasm for enforcing emancipation was decidedly limited.

In addition to these qualifications, both Washington and Turnage were successful runaways. The former escaped across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg to the safety of a Union camp, while Turnage made four bold, insouciant escape attempts in Mississippi before succeeding, with an even bolder and more insouciant ploy, in Alabama. Figures on how many slaves attempted to escape and how many actually succeeded are impossible to come by, but successful runaways certainly were in the minority. In the best of circumstances escape entailed incredible risks, and in the worst of circumstances it meant death, sometimes after torture that can fairly be called satanic.

Blight -- a professor of history at Yale whose books include Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which took many history prizes in 2001 -- is a specialist in what are called "slave narratives." It is not surprising, therefore, that the Washington and Turnage memoirs found their way to him or that he welcomed them "with a thrill of discovery" as "two extraordinary, unpublished, and probably unmediated narratives about one of the most revolutionary transitions in American history." ("Unmediated" is academese for "unedited.") He writes:

"Both Turnage and Washington considered themselves quite ordinary; they sought no fame for their courageous escapes. Washington became a house painter and Turnage a night watchman, among other occupations. Each would live well into the twentieth century and forge a working-class family that struggled against the barriers of class and racial discrimination in teeming American cities. Yet they possessed the will to write, to make their stories of liberation known, to find readers and garner recognition -- even if only within their families -- as men who had conquered their condition as slaves, remade themselves as free people, and left a mark on time as best they could. They wanted someone to know they were veterans of the great struggle between North and South, quiet heroes of a war within the war to destroy slavery that Americans were beginning to forget."

They finally get to tell their stories in A Slave No More, which consists of extensive (and for the most part interesting and informative) introductory material by Blight followed by the full (and almost entirely "unmediated") texts of both memoirs. They are fascinating documents that live up to Blight's claims for them. Blight gives pride of place to Washington, perhaps because he was born in 1838, eight years before Turnage. But in my view Turnage's story is by far the more dramatic, and his narrative the more engaging. This is not to disparage Washington, whose courage, resourcefulness and intelligence are beyond question, but to argue for Turnage's journal as the more significant of the two.

It begins on a completely disarming and charming note: "Wallace Turnage's apology for his book. My book is a sketch of my life or adventures and persecutions which I went through from 1860 to 1865. I do not mean to speak disparagingly of those who sold me, nor of those who bought me. Though I seen a hard time, it had an attendency to make a man of me. . . . I will also beg my reader to excuse my ungrammatical and desultory biography because my kind reader can see that I have been deprived of an education, and what knowledge I have to present this biography to you, I learnt during that time and since I escapted the clutches of those who held me in slavery." His accounts of his attempts to escape are scary but also wryly humorous, as when he reckons that his sassy retort to his mistress in Mobile "counted the height of impertinence of a slave in the South." He was impertinent, which along with his daring and persistence helps explain why he simply refused to quit, capture after capture, beating after beating. The impulse for freedom burned mightily within him, and he was determined to fulfill it.

Washington had less to overcome to gain his freedom, but the fire was every bit as intense. When at last he was welcomed into a Yankee camp across the river from Fredericksburg, his joy was palpable: "Before morning I had began to fee like I had truly Escaped from the hands of the slaves master and with the help of God, I never would be a slave no more. I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim Every cent that I should work for as my own. I began now to feel that life had a new joy awaiting me. I might now come and go when I pleased." Turnage's response to freedom was remarkably similar: "The next morning I was up early and took a look at the rebels country with a thankful heart to think that I had made my escape with safety after such a long struggle; and had obtained that freedom which I desired so long. I Now dreaded the gun, and handcuffs and pistols no more. Nor the blewing of horns and the running of hounds; nor the threats of death from the rebel's authority. I could now speak my opinion to men of all grades and colors, and no one to question my right to speak."

Blight tells us that "a recent study of runaway slaves in the antebellum South found that slaveholders' advertisements often described a slave as 'proud, artful, cunning . . . shrewd' or 'very smart' " and that "historians Loren Schweninger and John Hope Franklin conclude that the typical runaway exhibited "self-confidence, self-assurance, self-possession . . . self-reliance." Obviously all of that was true of John Washington and Wallace Turnage. There is no reason to believe that their paths ever crossed -- Turnage migrated to New York, Washington to the District of Columbia -- but they could well have been brothers. In this context the old cliche "together at last" has real meaning. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company