Thursday, May 3, 2012

Yael A. Sternhell's "Routes of War"

Yael A. Sternhell is Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Tel Aviv University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South, and reported the following:
In some ways, Routes of War is a peculiar book. Its focus is neither the battlefield nor the homefront, it does not revolve around any specific subset of the South's population, and it cannot be properly defined as a work of political, social, cultural, or military history. Rather, this book aims to zero in on one basic, universal, experience of life during wartime, spatial mobility, and reveal its significance to several key elements in the history of the Confederate South. Principally, Routes of War is interested in the rise and fall of the Southern nation, the transformation of white Southerners into a people at war, and the social revolution that destroyed slavery and opened the path for the rise of black freedom. Bodies in motion, my book argues, played a variety of instrumental roles in launching, perpetuating, and embodying these vast processes of change.

Page 99 plunges the reader into the last theme. The page begins with the tail end of a discussion about the role of the Union army in instigating flight from the plantations, but quickly moves to describe other conditions that pushed slaves to take the risk and abscond:
While the arrival of the Federal army in slave territory provided bondspeople with the initial opportunity to leave, there were other factors encouraging their flight. The first and most critical threat to their fragile existence was compulsory removal in an attempt to prevent either their confiscation by the soldiers or their own escape. “Dey shifted niggers from place to place to keep de Yankees from takin’ ’em,” recalled Dilley Yellady, who was enslaved in North Carolina. “When dere got to be too many Yankees in a place de slaves wus sent out to keep ’em from bein’ set free.” By the second half of 1863 this practice, which contemporaries named “refugeeing,” had become commonplace in plantations along the coastline from Virginia to Florida and in the Mississippi Valley.

Blacks dreaded and despised these forced relocations that stripped them of any stability and comfort they had achieved. Refugeeing meant disintegration of families and communities, as well as abandonment of the little property accumulated in their cabins and of carefully cultivated plots. It also meant a harsh journey, harder labor, and scarcity of food. A former Louisiana slave who was compelled to leave his home remembered the journey as “the awfullest trip any man ever make”: “We had to hide from everybody until we find out if dey Yankees or Secesh, and we go along little old back roads and up one mountain and down another, through de woods all de away.”
As the following page explains, African-Americans who refused to undergo these forced relocations wasted no time and capitalized on the confusion of departure to hide in the woods, run to the nearest Union camp, or simply stay behind. It is one example among many of how wartime movement challenged the social order of black slavery and white freedom, and contributed to the upending of the customary relations of power as both blacks and whites were thrust on the road. Later on I complicate things by discussing the relationship between runaway slaves and the movements of deserters from the Confederate army, refugees from Union-occupied areas, as well as other white folks who struggled to retain the right to move freely. So if you happen to open the book on page 99, I hope that you'll continue reading (at least) until the end of the chapter, and see how the history of slavery's collapse fits into a larger story about wartime flight and its impact on the Confederate South.
Learn more about Routes of War at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue