Themes of movement and mobility unite the essays in this issue. We begin with Amy Murrell Taylor’s 2019 Watson Brown Award acceptance speech for her book Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps. The speech encapsulates a central contention of Taylor’s book—that movement was critical to the lived experience of emancipation. Historians are already familiar with the broad strokes of this story: refugees from slavery escaped plantations and followed Union armies or sought shelter behind Union lines. In the process, they drove American generals and politicians to enact emancipation. Taylor uncovers a lesser-known, bottom-up politics of freedom that emerged as mobile refugees built and rebuilt communities with the ebb and flow of war, traveled in search of new economic opportunities or spiritual fulfillment, and struggled for access to resources. Following novelist Tayari Jones’s advice to “write about people and their problems, not problems and their people,” Taylor emphasizes the importance of listening to individual refugees’ voices to understand how they built the foundations of freedom in their day-to-day struggles for survival.
Marco Basile’s essay continues on the theme of mobility by examining how the movement of enslaved Africans and American bureaucrats presented opportunities for US empire-building during the 1860s. Abraham Lincoln sent two commissioners to Sierra Leone to sit on a “mixed court” of British and American officials charged with suppressing the international slave trade. Although from an antislavery viewpoint the court was a failure—Lincoln’s commissioners never prosecuted a single slave trader— the movement of federal bureaucrats to West Africa laid the groundwork for American imperial interests in the region. Basile’s research reveals an ambitious vision for American expansionism in Africa inspired by the conquest of North American indigenous people. The commissioners wrote home to ask for treaty-making power that could extend American “protection” over indigenous communities in Sierra Leone, as well as to request shipments of agricultural tools that could be distributed to native Africans with an eye toward “civilizing” them. The history of American intervention in Sierra Leone pushes the chronology of antislavery imperialism into the 1860s and moves the story of American empire beyond the terrestrial boundaries of North America.
Jonathan Jones’s essay deals with the movement of ideas, specifically the circulation of popular discourses and medical knowledge about opiate addiction. Veterans across the North and the South developed opiate dependency as they struggled to cope with pain from wartime injuries or chronic illness. Nineteenth-century popular discourse about addiction portrayed opium eating as a character flaw stemming from an individual man’s lack of masculine fortitude to bear pain or from a moral weakness that left him “enslaved” to the vice. Meanwhile, trained physicians repeated these assertions and circulated scholarship that characterized severe opiate addiction as a type of insanity. Civil War veterans suffered not only the debilitating effects of opium dependence but also social ostracism, exclusion from soldiers’ pensions, and incarceration in asylums.
Movement is central to Alaina Roberts’s new take on two well-known postwar stories, the Native American struggle for territorial sovereignty and African American freedpeople’s quest for citizenship rights. Allotment, the process of breaking up indigenous communal lands into individually owned parcels, posed a massive challenge to the self-governance of slaveholding Native nations in Indian Territory. At the same time, allotment proved one of the only successful programs of land redistribution to former slaves. Black freedpeople in the Chickasaw Nation did not have citizenship in the tribe or many of the civil rights that African Americans enjoyed in the postwar United States. Despite these restrictions, Chickasaw freedpeople who left for the United States deliberately maintained connections with the nation for decades through repeated return migrations and the creation of extended kin networks. These connections ultimately enabled Chickasaw freedpeople to claim land allotments from the US government thirty or forty years after emancipation. Shifting focus to Indian Territory reorients the story of the African American freedom struggle around access to land rather than access to citizenship rights.
Finally, Alison Clark Efford’s review essay on immigration history considers how policing the movement of people was critical to the construction of an “imperial” American state during the second half of the nineteenth century. As scholars have shifted focus away from the social history of immigrant communities and toward immigrants’ relationship with the American state, a new picture of US nation-building comes into focus. The United States did not absorb newcomers with a promise of eventual assimilation and equal citizenship; rather, it acted more like an empire, maintaining racial and economic hierarchies as it conquered new territories or admitted new immigrants on decidedly unequal terms. Efford finally advocates returning to local community studies, with a particular focus on the role of the federal government in shaping immigrants’ daily lives, as a method for mapping the uneven and capricious power of the American imperial state.
(article from the JCWE Editor’s Note – Muster blog)