These Boots Were Made For Walking to Freedom

slavery kaufmann

I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying James Oakes’s new book, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865.  At some point soon I will share some thoughts, but for now I wanted to highlight the cover art by Theodor Kaufmann.  “On to Liberty” is in my mind the most compelling visual interpretation of the emancipation experience of tens of thousands of slaves during the Civil War.  Here we have a group of fugitive slaves walking confidently toward the sound of Union guns off in the distance.  The flash of the cannon and United States flag function as a beacon for this particular group.  It’s interesting that there are no adult black men present.  But what I want to point out is that apart from one child, who is wearing boots, everyone else is barefoot.  Whose boots might they be?  Are they military?  If so, Confederate?  Perhaps they belong to the boy’s former owner?  What might that mean?


Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

10 comments… add one
  • TFSmith1 Jan 9, 2013 @ 20:47

    Hand-me-downs from a slaveholder who had outgrown them?

  • Lyle7 Jan 5, 2013 @ 9:06

    They boy must have been put to work on a horse.

  • bummer Jan 5, 2013 @ 8:01

    Beautiful cover! Comparing the boots to Auction Civil War boots, Cavalry boots had a more tapered toe and prominent heel, for stirrup safety. These may be a well worn “house boot” with little or no heel or sole. Fleeing slaves sure look healthy and clean.

  • Jim Roehm Jan 5, 2013 @ 6:53

    An evocative painting, and I enjoyed the embedded links. The rough hopsack clothing was a telling detail, if far too clean. The ‘Emancipation Memorial’ statue is replicated in several places — I’ve seen the one in downtown Boston.

  • EOD Jan 5, 2013 @ 5:39

    I too love this painting and included it in a visual feature in a US history textbook (Visions of America) I co-authored. It’s paired in the book with a photo of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington DC to provided two very different interpretations of the role African Americans played in their emancipation. I use this pairing with my college students and it always generates a lot of discussion. I wish I could tell you something about the boots, but I don’t know anything about them. Great blog!

    • Kevin Levin Jan 5, 2013 @ 5:45

      Thanks for the comment and for the kind words re: the blog.

  • dudski Jan 4, 2013 @ 17:13

    A reenactor could probably identify them. I don’t think they are military boots because the toes tended to be square and the heel was a little taller (although with wear maybe they could have gotten to this condition). The pullup straps on the side look right, but some civilian boots also had those.

    Reading about supply during the war I can’t imagine a soldier giving away boots. For all the talk about Lee’s often barefoot army at Antietam, there is also a good deal in the Official Records about Union soldiers without shoes.

    Here is a link to a picture of Lincoln’s boots to give some comparison with civilian footwear.

    What would also be unusual about the picture would be a child having any kind of shoes. From the little I’ve read, slaves generally didn’t get shoes until they became adults. Then they might be issued a pair of brogans. One company in Massachusetts, T. & E. Bacheller, did a very large business selling these to the south.

  • Dan Vermilya Jan 4, 2013 @ 15:59

    I am reading that book as well, and greatly enjoying it too. I think it is a great treatment of Emancipation. I am using it in part to brush up for a talk on Emancipation next week. Enjoy your blog!

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