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I Freed Myself
African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era


  • Date Published: July 2014
  • availability: In stock
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107602496

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About the Authors
  • For a century and a half, Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation has been the dominant narrative of African American freedom in the Civil War era. However, David Williams suggests that this portrayal marginalizes the role that African American slaves played in freeing themselves. At the Civil War's outset, Lincoln made clear his intent was to save the Union rather than free slaves - despite his personal distaste for slavery, he claimed no authority to interfere with the institution. By the second year of the war, though, when the Union army was in desperate need of black support, former slaves who escaped to Union lines struck a bargain: they would fight for the Union only if they were granted their freedom. Williams importantly demonstrates that freedom was not simply the absence of slavery but rather a dynamic process enacted by self-emancipated African American refugees, which compelled Lincoln to modify his war aims and place black freedom at the center of his wartime policies.

    • Challenges the dominant narrative of how African Americans obtained their freedom
    • Is accessible for all reading/education levels
    • Brings a new perspective to understanding the emancipation of slaves
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'If asked 'who freed the slaves?' most Americans would probably still answer Abraham Lincoln. But that answer does not do justice to the far more complicated process by which freedom was achieved or give credit to the primary movers behind it. This book reclaims the term 'self-emancipation', which only fell out of favor after the Civil War, to show how slaves were central to initiating and sustaining their own freedom. It is an imminently readable and engaging testament of stories that emanate from below, which provide a fuller picture of how the nation survived one of its most searing crises.' Tera Hunter, Princeton University

    'I Freed Myself challenges more than a century of accepted scholarship that has situated Lincoln at the center of the emancipation story. By making black voices loud and clear, David Williams tells a story that historians will no longer be able to dismiss: how African Americans, the most powerless people in American history, collectively forced emancipation to be the fulcrum of the American Civil War and won their own freedom.' Scott Hancock, Gettysburg College

    'Mastering primary sources and a vast secondary literature, and writing with verve and clarity, David Williams has made an important, lasting contribution to studies of the Civil War era. His book proves beyond doubt that the actions of America's slaves repeatedly, and in many different ways, pushed emancipation onto the nation's agenda.' Paul Escott, Wake Forest University

    'Timely and engaging, I Freed Myself offers a bold and unapologetic challenge to the conventional narrative of one of the most significant events in American history. Demonstrating that black freedom wasn't bequeathed in an eloquent proclamation or bestowed as an inadvertent by-product of the Civil War, Williams draws on recent scholarship and his own meticulous research to place African Americans at the center of a negotiated process through which they leveraged their freedom. This is a passionately argued, gracefully written, and genuinely provocative book, one that deserves a wide readership and a place in undergraduate classrooms.' Mark Hersey, Mississippi State University

    'One of the most accomplished and often most provocative historians of the Civil War home front, Williams has long stressed class conflict and grassroots dissent as integral parts of a social struggle waged in the North and the South from 1861 through 1865. … it is the cumulative effect of multiple stories, voices, and perspectives, laid out in forceful and often-impassioned prose that renders Williams' account so fresh and so convincing. From the outbreak of the Civil War, African Americans turned what was meant to be a conflict to restore the Union into a war for their freedom. I Freed Myself fully lives up to its bold title by effectively documenting the variety of forms that 'self-emancipation' took and the variety of fronts on which it played out.' John C. Inscoe, The Journal of American History

    'Williams has written a provocative, authoritative entry into the scholarly debate over African American emancipation in the Civil War era. He takes issue with those who argue that slavery was ended primarily by national leaders and the political process that culminated in the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Rather, he argues, blacks were largely 'self-emancipated' - the collective weight of their own actions against the teetering institution of slavery. In Williams' telling, emancipation was thus a process of both Northern and Southern African Americans pushing a reluctant class of leaders to frame policies that only partially reflected the actual progress of blacks' claiming freedom for themselves. Therefore, the full potential of emancipation was never realized, with white resistance (both implicit and explicit) limiting freedmen's and freedwomen's scope of liberty. Williams' archival research is prodigious and his argument convincing. A must read for students of the era. Summing up: essential.' K. M. Gannon, Choice

    'This is an important, inspiring, and at times a rather sad book about African American fights for freedom in the Civil War era. Williams makes a vital historiographical contribution to his field and uses a vast array of primary sources to make the point that enslaved people ultimately freed themselves. Situating black people's fight for freedom within a long-run context of resistance to oppression, Williams argues for survival as a form of resistance, that black people fought for freedom by degrees, and for continuities in racial oppression running through slavery, the Civil War and subsequent emancipation. Throughout this book, Williams draws upon a wide range of primary evidence … this significant work provides an important counter-narrative, especially for more general readers of the Civil War era.' Emily West, Civil War Book Review

    'David Williams has given us a thorough and provocative statement of the 'self-emancipation thesis' and in the process has painted a vivid picture of slave flight, slave resistance, and slave collaboration with the Union armies. Together they form a composite picture of an oppressive institution being dramatically shaken to pieces from within.' Allen Carl Guelzo, The Journal of the Civil War Era

    '… Williams has provided a potent readable account replete with African American voices: one that reveals their central role in ending slavery and expanding the boundaries of freedom.' Robert Colby, North Carolina Historical Review

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    Product details

    • Date Published: July 2014
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107602496
    • length: 275 pages
    • dimensions: 228 x 152 x 15 mm
    • weight: 0.39kg
    • contains: 24 b/w illus.
    • availability: In stock
  • Table of Contents

    Introduction: following the footsteps of slaves
    1. 'Yes, we all shall be free': pressing the nation toward freedom
    2. 'Shedding the first blood': forcing a war for freedom
    3. 'Ready to die for liberty': expanding the boundaries of freedom
    4. 'Full equality before the law': claiming the rights of freedom
    5. 'All we ask is justice': continuing struggles for freedom.

  • Author

    David Williams, Valdosta State University, Georgia
    David Williams is Professor of History at Valdosta State University in Georgia, where he specializes in the Civil War era and the antebellum South. He is the author of ten books, including Bitterly Divided: The South's Inner Civil War and A People's History of the Civil War.

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