People Want To Be Free

[Hat-tip to Donald Schaffer]

I don’t have much patience for the long-standing debate of who freed the slaves.  The question itself is much too simplistic and sterile.  Why historians have felt a need to single out one factor or engage in wholesale reductionism, in the end, tells us much more about the assumptions we employ than about the complexity of the story of emancipation that needs to be told.  Today is the 150th anniversary of General Benjamin Butler’s letter informing his superiors of three escaped slaves who had made their way to Fortress Monroe.

Since I wrote my last dispatch the question in regard to slave property is becoming one of very serious magnitude. The inhabitants of Virginia are using their negroes in the batteries, and are preparing to send the women and children South. The escapes from them are very numerous, and a squad has come in this morning to my pickets bringing their women and children. Of course these cannot be dealt with upon the Theory on which I designed to treat the services of able bodied men and women who might come within my lines and of which I gave you a detailed account in my last dispatch. I am in the utmost doubt what to do with this species of property. Up to this time I have had come within my lines men and women and their children—entire families—each family belonging to the same owner. I have therefore determined to employ, as I can do very profitably, the able-bodied persons in the party, issuing proper food for the support of all, and charging against their services the expense of care and sustenance of the non-laborers, keeping a strict and accurate account as well of the services as of the expenditure having the worth of the services and the cost of the expenditure determined by a board of Survey hereafter to be detailed. I know of no other manner in which to dispose of this subject and the questions connected therewith. As a matter of property to the insurgents it will be of very great moment, the number that I now have amounting as I am informed to what in good times would be of the value of sixty thousand dollars. Twelve of these negroes I am informed have escaped from the erection of the batteries on Sewall’s point which this morning fired upon my expedition as it passed by out of range. As a means of offence therefore in the enemy’s hands these negroes when able bodied are of the last importance. Without them the batteries could not have been erected at least for many weeks As a military question it would seem to be a measure of necessity to deprive their masters of their services How can this be done? As a political question and a question of humanity can I receive the services of a Father and a Mother and not take the children? Of the humanitarian aspect I have no doubt. Of the political one I have no right to judge. I therefore submit all this to your better judgement, and as these questions have a political aspect, I have ventured—and I trust I am not wrong in so doing—to duplicate the parts of my dispatch relating to this subject and forward them to the Secretary of War.

The letter offers a window into the kinds of questions that military commanders on the ground and politicians in Washington would have to face throughout the Confederacy as thousands of slaves took the risk to escape slavery.  I agree with Donald that it is very interesting to see Butler working through some of his own racial assumptions to acknowledge the humanity of these new residents of Fort Monroe.  For now it is enough to acknowledge one simple fact: People want to be free.

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16 responses... add one

Hi Kevin. Thanks for the hat tip–it’s appreciated. BTW, the anniversary of Ben Butler writing his superiors about the three slaves is May 25, 1861. May 27 is the day he reported about hundreds of Virginia slaves seeking sanctuary at Fortress Monroe. The initial three fugitives had appeared at the Fort on the evening of May 23 and Butler refused to return them to the Virginia militia on May 24–that’s what started the flood of slaves seeking sanctuary at Fortress Monroe. I have been tracking these anniversaries on my blog (address above).

Thanks for the correction, Donald. That’s what happens when you rush to publish a post.


It is a great document, but with all due respect I think that you are doing a disservice to the valuable scholarly discussion that surrounds the issue. The “Who Freed the Slaves?” discussion is not about monocausality, but it is about differing interpretations of causality. [Interested readers would want to look at the crucial essays by Barbara Fields, Ira Berlin and James McPherson.] I have used this debate in workshops with high school teachers on several occasions to great effect. The obvious point is not to determine a single cause for an event, but rather to rethink how history happens and who has an effect on history.

In this case this is really a discussion of “slave agency.” That is, scholars like Fields and Berlin and others were pushing back against the notion that slaves were essentially the passive victims of mean white people and/or the fortunate recipients of the goodness of kind white people. They argued, instead, that slaves in many cases “freed themselves” (ie ran away) and that the actions of slaves in some cases forced Northern whites to respond, sometimes sooner than they would have liked. McPherson’s response argues that the agency argument had gone too far.

I felt that McPherson was mostly right, but that the claims about agency in this case – even if overdrawn – were valuable and the discussion provided a valuable corrective to how we have framed these issues (my teachers have thought so as well I think). Consider how your post here and Donald’s original post might be changed by looking more closely at this debate and particularly at folks like Berlin and Fields.

Schaeffer posts this great quote from Butler that comes directly out of the “slave agency” playbook. But look at Donald’s analysis. None of it is wrong, but the entire discussion is framed around the actions of white men. That is, every VERB has as its subject Butler himself, white slave owners, or the federal government, He uses the passive form – “was forced” – at three crucial points. It is as if circumstances “forced” Butler to act. But if you reread Butler’s passage in the context of what I just wrote above, isn’t it obvious that the active participants in this drama were runaway slaves? That is, “the actions of these slaves forced Butler to respond.” he could have done different things, and so could Lincoln. But the fact is that this “who freed the slaves?” discussion – if taken seriously – could inform this conversation.

Your own discussion begins by taking some shots at academic historians who engage in reductionism while ignoring the true complexity of emancipation. Seems to me that that quite literally is a case of reductionism, missing the complexity of the debate. Then you turn to the document and completely miss how that document illustrates the complexity that you say we should concentrate on. You do note that the slaves “took a risk” (that is, you treat them as historic actors), but your analysis of the document is really no different from what it might have been in 1955. By that point scholars had pretty much come to accept the fundamental humanity of slaves (“people want to be free”) But the richness of this document is in how the words of a powerful white man can also be used to uncover the actions and fundamental historical significance of seemingly powerless black men and women. Their fundamental preference for freedom should be a given, shouldn’t it?

I guess my crucial point is that emancipation really is a fascinating and complex drama, with many actors playing different roles. This document is a perfect illustration of that point. And it is those academic historians who have really underscored that richness.

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the comment. You are absolutely right that I gave the back of my hand to the rich debate surrounding how to understand emancipation. Actually, I am quite familiar with this debate. I have also used this debate in teacher workshops because it provides an avenue into the relevant historiography. As you well know, Gallagher offers a much needed corrective that situates the Union army into the narrative of emancipation.

As for Donald’s analysis I would remind you that he is a graduate of the University of Maryland and (I believe) the Freedmen and Southern Society Project.

What I was trying to do was simply bypass the scholarly debate to point out what I see as fundamental. Unfortunately, I published this post in haste, which was probably a mistake. You are right to call me out on that. :)

I’m glad Matt Gallman brought up the debate between my mentor, Ira Berlin, and James McPherson, about “Who freed the slaves?” I agree with Kevin that this debate is largely non-productive, a classic example of “wholesale reductionism.” For example, I watched McPherson and Leslie Rowland debate this issue way back at the 1992 AHA. McPherson, who is normally a scholarly giant, on that occasion resorted to the straw man approach in calling to task Berlin, Rowland, and their associates at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project for promoting the “self-emancipation” thesis. When Rowland got up for her commentary, she let McPherson have it in her polite but firm way. Her essential point was that McPherson was misrepresenting their argument about slaves and emancipation. The FSSP never has pushed the position that the slaves freed themselves, but that they played an active role in their own emancipation. They are quite willing to acknowledge that the Lincoln administration played an important, essential part in freeing the slaves–but so did the slaves. And having been re-reading the original documents–such as Ben Butler’s letters–as part of my day-to-day revisiting of emancipation in my blog for the sesquicentennial, I am more than ever inclined to agree with Berlin, et al. For example, it was certainly Ben Butler who made the critical decision to give slaves sanctuary by declaring them “contraband of war,” but it was the slaves who forced him to deal with the issue of slavery by presenting themselves at Fortress Monroe. Otherwise, the historical record is reasonably clear that the inclination of Butler, the Lincoln Administration, and most people in the North would have been to ignore slavery and carry on with their white man’s war to save the Union. Indeed, there are few serious scholars, except perhaps Vincent Harding and his ilk, that would argue the slaves freed themselves by themselves. But it is equally ridiculous to argue that the slaves were passive in their own liberation, which is what some people in the scholarly community have at certain points seemed inclined to do.


I think you are right on target re: McPherson’s straw man argument. I am thinking of his essay in Drawn With the Sword, which I used along with a Berlin essay in a recent class I taught on Lincoln. I am interested in reading more of what Ed Ayers and Scott Nesbit have found in their recent essay in The Journal of the Civil War Era, which utilizes computer modeling of patterns of emancipation during the war. I was thinking of their essay when I suggested that the current debate is sterile:

Trying to make sense of this complexity, historians of emancipation have tended to focus on agency, on the ways actors in different spheres and places strove for freedom. In its simplest form, that inquiry has turned around the question of who freed the slaves. Thanks to innovative work since the 1980s, we now see that freedom came as a result of many struggles–in cataclysmic battles and in protracted debates, on farms and in bureaucracies, in political parties and on lonely roads. Freedom demanded action on many fronts because slavery was entrenched throughout American society. A full understanding of emancipation requires that we put the pieces together. To do that–to comprehend the patterns, proportions, and timing of emancipation, to see multiple forms of power in interaction in space and time–we need an analytical framework that is inclusive, self-aware, and disciplined.

Here is a link to Ayers’s presentation on the subject at a recent conference in Richmond.

Brooks Simpson raised this in a post at Crossroads recently, and – granted the respondents ae self-selecting – there was a reasonable cross-section that accorded due respect to the self-agency point.

Obviously, Butler was a very sharp individual; the letter hits and disposes of the counter-arguments quite neatly.

How about this as what if: Butler as the first JAG, rather than Holt?

You might be interested in Elizabeth Leonard’s excellent forthcoming book on Holt

Thank you for the tip. I will look for it; interesting subject for a book-length treatment.

Are there any US army CGs or significant arms and branches chiefs from the Civil War era who have yet to get a biography?

Now we’re getting somewhere :)
I think that there are multiple issues involved here.
One set of issues centers on the specifics of a debate among historians. I don’t fully agree with the characterization of the debate (and participants) as presented here, but I would agree that as pieces of rhetoric neither McPherson or Berlin really were at their best. (There is more value in McPherson’s essay than acknowledged here, but I don’t think that is really at issue.) In my view the real value of the debate is not in anyone claiming a monocausal view of history, but in scholars putting their finger on the scales and suggesting that a particular perspective calls for more consideration. It is useful, I think, to consider essays that engage in what Hofstadter called “the heroic overstatement” (or something like that) But there is no point in tossing out the baby with the bathwater. The issues are useful even if the essays are flawed.

My reaction to the two initial blog posts was to point out that this debate – whether or not it is flawed – yielded a valuable interpretive contribution. That is, we as historians should consider the “agency” of slaves in the context of the other crucial issues. Butler’s statement is a fine illustration of that point.

That raises another topic that I think is interesting. The academic historians write about lots of things that may or may not find their way into broader discourse. I think that reasonable folks can disagree about “who freed the slaves?” (in a productive manner). But I also think that it is a good thing if the fundamental points about agency find their way into textbooks, high school classes, blogs etc. I don’t think that the scholarly DEBATE needs to be engaged, but it is useful when the punchline does trickle down into the broader discourse, And that punchline is that Ben Butler found himself pressured to make decisions because of the actions of anonymous, powerless, illiterate slaves.

[Most of these sorts of debates are what I call “stone soup” discussions. The question is silly or reductive, but the discussion is valuable. Here are two examples:
(1) “Why Did the Confederacy Lose?” (or the Union win) That is a reductive question question, yet the scholarship on the theme have produced valuable points.

(2) “Was the Civil War a Total War?” This is in my view a silly question. The term has a history that is largely ignored by the participants of the debate. I disagree with what many of said on this question, but the discussion is really useful I think.


I agree with the point you make re: the importance of moving beyond a monocausal view of history. My only concern is when the interpretive shifts that take place end up getting bogged down themselves with defending a specific causal factor at the exclusion of others. No doubt, both Berlin and McPherson have contributed to our understanding of the process of emancipation.

As for your point re: the “broader discourse” I think it is important to note that a narrative of slave agency is very much apparent in various CW Sesquicentennial events. It’s a reflection of the important scholarly work that has been done on the subject over the past few decades. I often use short case studies in historiography to give my students a sense of how historians engage one another and how it leads to new interpretations. It’s a small way for me to move the popular discussion of what professional historians do beyond the language of politics.

Perhaps the “who freed the slaves” debate was necessary in order to dislodge the grateful slave narrative from the place it occupied in the larger national narrative. In its simplest form, the grateful slave narrative is the white narrative that most closely corresponds to the faithful slave narrative of some white southern men and women and other proponents of a pro Confederate narrative.

In the faithful slave narrative, African American men and women supposedly had no quarrel with the institution of slavery In the grateful slave narrative, African American men and women were, supposedly, freed by white men who had nothing to do with their enslavement, and whose ancestors had nothing to do with the enslavement of previous generations of men and women of African descent. Thus, the freed slaves and their descendants should be grateful to their white liberators. Vestiges of both of these narratives still exist in the modern American psyche and underlay different expressions of still existing racism.

I agree 100% with what “Sherree” notes: A good scholarly debate can destabilize assumptions and lead us to reconsider familiar ideas in new ways. The agency discussion does that I think.

I just reread the Butler statement looking at it through the lens of gender instead. BB is really interesting here as well. In his early sentences he seems to equate “the negro” with men, while “women and children” are presented as completely passive. That is, at first BB has the Virginias using “their negroes” for labor while sending “women and children” (ie some other category than negro?) South. Then, he describes the male escapees as “bringing their women and children” with them, suggesting that essentially BB sees the women and children as having been the possessions of the white Virginians and now of the black male escapees. [Perhaps they perceived things the same way.]

BUT, then BB shifts gears. In subsequent sentences he speaks of “able bodied men and women” on several occasions and of “Fathers and Mothers.” And in other passages he uses gender-neutral terms like “persons.” That is, he seems to be distinguishing between adults and children, and describing both men and women as equally able-bodied and presumably to be considered on equal terms when it comes to humanitarian and political judgements. There is not much here to suggest that he is using the framework of the male “head of household” that will eventually shape policies towards freedpeople. Much to mull over in all that I think.


Could it be that you are becoming a regular contributor here at CWM? :)

I think we can take your initial statement a bit further; in fact, you may have offered a rough sketch of what progress means in historical studies. We ask new questions and apply new analytical frameworks in order to advance our understanding of old and new evidence. It’s not simply that we understand more, we understand better.

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