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Contraband of war.

February 29, 2012, 7:16 pm

Students in my Civil War class tend to be fascinated by the disjuncture between the Lincoln of memory, who stands tall as the Great Emancipator, and the Lincoln of history, who only very gradually embraced emancipation as a necessity of war and then later as a moral imperative.* One of the crucial moments in that evolution was the controversy over treating slaves as contraband of war, an episode during which several of Lincoln’s generals, in fall 1861, outstripped their Commander-in-Chief and began practicing not-quite-emancipation on the ground. They refused to return slaves that crossed the Union lines to their former owners, leaving those people in an odd situation: not quite free, but no longer enslaved either.

The BBC has a story up about one of the sites where that controversy played out: the South Carolina Sea Islands. I have to admit that this is the kind of article that threatens to get under my Civil War historian’s skin but then ends up totally tickling my historian of memory’s fancy. The story is “little known” and a “secret history,” says the Civil War historian? Not so! There’s a great book on the subject! And Chandra Manning is working on a new monograph about contraband camps! But then the historian of memory says, “stop being such nit-picking jerk and check out the stuff about the two Mitchels discussing their sense of shared heritage.”

Anyway, it’s an interesting (and annoying, yes) story that’s at least in part about the enduring nature of a certain kind of reconciliationst Civil War narrative.

* This formulation is decidedly too simple, I know. Consider it a kind of shorthand for the sort of thing about which scholars write long books that win prizes.

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