RecensionsEnglishBook Reviews

Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War, By Kristopher A. Teters (2018) Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 240 pages. ISBN: 978-1-46963-886-7[Notice]

  • Evan C. Rothera

…plus d’informations

  • Evan C. Rothera
    Lecturer, Department of History, Sam Houston State University, Texas, United States

When he began his study of Union officers in the Western Theater of the U.S. Civil War, Kristopher A. Teters hoped to find that many embraced emancipation for moral reasons. However, what he discovered was that “pragmatism, far more than morality, motivated western officers to support emancipation” (p. 2). Although many officers eventually accepted emancipation because they believed it helped the Union war effort, Teters contends that their racial attitudes barely changed at all. Practical Liberators focuses on 410 Union officers in the Western Theater, and how they conducted the work of emancipation. During the first year and a half of the war, the army manifested inconsistent policies toward fugitive slaves. Some officers returned fugitive slaves; others did not. After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the army focused heavily on liberating able-bodied adult male slaves. Thus, according to Teters, “the army proved to be practical liberators” (p. 4). Teters makes an important point about the Western Theater. This theater included Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina, as well as portions of Louisiana and Florida and, thus, contained the vast majority of the slaves in the South. Teters correctly asserts that the Western Theater, rather than the Eastern Theater, is the critical arena for understanding how emancipation unfolded on the ground and officer attitudes. In the early months of the war, Union armies did not fight to liberate slaves. However, the slaves themselves forced the issue by fleeing to the Union lines. As Teters notes, officers responded inconsistently: “Top commanders in the West adopted generally very conservative or moderately conservative approaches in dealing with fugitive slaves” (p. 8). This often meant protecting slavery in border States like Missouri so as to not alienate Missouri Unionists. Interestingly, even as he spins a story of practical army commanders who refused to confiscate slaves and returned fugitive slaves, Teters turns up, again and again, stories of soldiers, lower-ranking officers, and sometimes entire regiments, who rebelled against the policies of their commanders. As he notes, in a revealing statement, “through Grant and Halleck tried to keep slaves away from Union lines during the 1862 campaign into western Tennessee, they faced challenges from below” (p. 18). Officers routinely defied the orders of their commanders. Charles Wills, an adjutant in the Seventh Illinois Cavalry, for example, “contended that army generals assured the slave owners that the slaves would not be permitted to leave with the army” (p. 20). Notwithstanding, General Pope’s army welcomed the slaves around New Madrid into Union lines. In addition, some higher-ranking officers, like Brigadier General Ormsby Mitchel “grasped that confiscating slaves was a military necessity before most other generals” (p. 22). The inconsistent policies changed con-siderably when Congress replaced the relatively weak First Confiscation Act with the stronger Second Confiscation Act. Union officers tended to allow many slaves to enter Union lines and, despite diverse attitudes toward African Americans, officers “were generally willing to carry out emancipation policies” (p. 45). Even Don Carlos Buell, one of the most conservative generals in the Western Theater, “began to grudgingly adopt more proconfiscation policies” (p. 50). That is not the say that all officers acted identically. Brigadier General Lovell Rousseau returned fugitive slaves to Kentucky masters and had an explosive confrontation with the Twenty First Wisconsin. The regiment allowed two slaves to hide in their camp and drove their masters away. Rousseau “ordered the other regiments of the brigade to surround the Twenty-First Wisconsin with their guns loaded” and asked the men if they would tell him where the slaves were and obey his orders. On soldier piped …