Seattle author's "The Slaves' War" finds new voices in an old conflict
Author Andrew Ward has succeeded at a difficult task: writing a book about the Civil War that seems fresh and even uplifting. "The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves" is available now from Houghton Mifflin, 386 pp., $28.
Special to The Seattle Times
Andrew WardThe author of "The Slaves' War" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Seattle branch of the University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).
"The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves"
by Andrew Ward
Houghton Mifflin, 386 pp., $28
Author Andrew Ward has succeeded at a difficult task: writing a book about the Civil War that seems fresh and even uplifting. With thousands of Civil War books already available, each describing some aspect of the depressing conflict that slaughtered 620,000 Americans, it seemed reasonable to predict that the next title, and the next after that, would add nothing compelling to the mind-numbing cacophony. Ward, however, has carved a new path by weaving the words of the slaves into a chronicling of the war on the eastern and western fronts, year by year until the cease-fire.
Toward the back of the book, Ward, a Seattle resident and author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, devotes 40 pages to what he terms "A Directory of Witnesses." It is an alphabetical list of every person who is quoted. Studying the list drives home the remarkable nature of Ward's achievement.
Some of the entries consist of unadorned biographical information, as with a slave named Lewis Adams. "Born 1824 in Illinois, sold in 1839 to Colonel Tom Dancy, near Houston, Texas. Around the same year he was carried from Illinois to Texas in a covered wagon by slave dealers named Bob and John Kirkendal, and eventually sold to Henry William Stackhouse of Hinds County, Mississippi. He died in 1930." Imagine the stories embedded in such a sparsely summarized life, including stories about living through four years of the Civil War.
As the war raged around them, many of the slaves felt torn about whether to root for the Union military to prevail, or to hope for the safety of their masters. As Ward notes in one of his many insightful commentaries, "The feature of the slave South that puzzled and disappointed the more idealistic Yankees was the diligence with which so many of the slaves they encountered protected and sustained their masters' plantations. Educated on the subject of slavery by abolitionist tracts and Harriet Beecher Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' New Englanders especially expected slaves, if given half a chance, to turn on their masters and abandon their plantations."
Part of the phenomenon unknown to Yankees was the fear Southern whites had cultivated in the slaves. The plantation owners termed Union soldiers "demons" with "only one eye, set in the middle of his forehead, and a horn on the top of his head."
The awfulness of slavery came into focus with the knowledge that, by 1861, "a higher percentage of blacks than whites had been born in America," according to Ward's research. "In fact, only one percent were African-born. No group except Native Americans had deeper North American roots." How these deep roots resulted in slavery instead of citizenship seemed the ultimate injustice and the ultimate irony.
The Civil War yielded a happy ending, sort of, or at least it seems that way from the perspective of the 21st century. But the pain encapsulated in Ward's unforgettable anecdotes will not subside. The anecdote that seems to have stuck most prominently in my mind occurred after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The more intelligent, relatively fair-minded slave owners understood that they must tell the truth to their chattel. Ward includes the story of George M. Hays of Nelson County, Ky., whose announcement is related through the words of slave Harry Smith:
"One morning as the slaves were eating, Master Hays came in and walked around the table very uneasy, and, bracing himself up in the best manner possible, spoke to his slaves as follows. Men and women, hear me. I am about to tell you something I never expected to be obliged to tell you in my life. It is this — it becomes my duty to inform you, one and all, men, women and children, belonging to me, you are free to go where you please." Hays could not help but add that if Lincoln were to show up, "I would kill him for taking all you Negroes away from me."
It turned out, of course, that the Civil War continued for two more years, Lincoln would lose his life to an assassin and "freedom" to many of the slaves became a word for nothing left to lose.
Steve Weinberg is author of "Taking
on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell
and John D. Rockefeller."
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