Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation

Meredith Hoar ‘03
Professor Rael
History 336
23 Sept 2001
Source Report on Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867
Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867 is a work in progress sponsored by The Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland. This is a collection of primary source documents grouped to relate to specific topics within the overarching exploration of the immediate circumstances surrounding the emancipation of African American slaves in the United States. The voices that we hear in Freedom are many: they are often those of slaves and freedmen themselves, or through a clerk if they could not write. We also hear from military officers and soldiers. There are complains lodged by slaveowners that their slaves are escaping. We hear the voices of abolitionists. Freedom features myriad speakers and just as many different points of view.
Historian Ira Berlin is the principal co-editor of each volume, with a group of other editors working collaboratively on each. The project team searches through the vast records of the National Archives of the United States, examining documents related to the changing lives of the slave and freedmen population from both the Federal and Confederate governments. The documents include the records of governmental agencies, personal letters, and military correspondence. The editors aim to make the immense collection of the National Archives on this subject more accessible and useful. By going through the vast records and just taking a representative sample of data, they give the standard student of history a more accurate feel for the mood at the time than could be accomplished by a single researcher more haphazardly choosing documents to examine.
Freedom is slated to be a five series work, with each series containing a number of volumes on a specific theme. As yet unpublished are Series Three, Four, and Five. Three is to consider "Land, Capital, and Labor." Series Four will be about "Race Relations, Violence, Law, and Justice." Lastly, Series Five will have documents relating to "The Black Community: Family, Church, School, and Society."
Series One is concerned with "The Destruction of Slavery and the Wartime Genesis of Free Labor" and is made up of three volumes. The Destruction of Slavery, the first volume, was published in 1985. It deals with the wartime shift in focus to the slavery issue and the deterioration of the institution during the war. The book is divided into chapters, based mainly on geography. Documents within the Maryland section include many letters home from former slaves who have escaped and are now fighting in the Union army. Others are complaints from slaveholders that their slaves have escaped and are not being returned to them. The growing instability of the slave system is evidenced, particularly in border states such as Maryland.
The second volume of Series One, published in 1993, is The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South and the third volume is The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South, published in 1990. Each book is divided exclusively by geography. These documents have to do with the adjustment of social, economic, and judicial systems to deal with slaves who are now freed. The sources include complaints from freedmen who are still being treated as slaves, for example, not being paid for their work. Records of abuses are kept by individuals, the army, and in affidavits from former slaves.
Series Two is about "The Black Military Experience" and thus far consists only of one volume, also entitled The Black Military Experience. This was the earliest volume in Freedom published, in 1982. The book is divided into five parts, each on a different element of life as a black soldier. Within each part, the subject is further subdivided, narrowing the focus on the documents in each section. Documents enumerate the progress with enlistments, discuss the life of a black solider both on and off duty, and also deal with the realities that greeted black men who had been soldiers as the war ended.
There are a few different ways of taking advantage of the research in Freedom. If you are interested in documents related to a broad theme, the index in the front of each volume lists the heading for each part and chapter. To search for a more specific type of information, the index in the back of each can refer you to the documents related to it. Also necessary for navigating the text are the "Editorial Method" and "Symbols and Abbreviations" sections in the front of each volume. The "Editorial Method" segment explains policies and procedures about deciphering old handwriting and grammar; mentions making educated guesses as to what mutilated sections say; and specifies the different typographical notations used to convey original intent. "Symbols and Abbreviations" is absolute invaluable for understanding the documents in Freedom. This tool has a condensed chart of the editorial symbols that were fully explained in "Editorial Method." Also listed is a chart that lets the reader know what form the original document came in: who wrote it, what type of communication it was, and who signed it. At the end of each document, an abbreviation such as "ALS" is given. "A" means that the handwriting of the document is the author's own. "L" means it was in the form of a letter. The "S" signifies that the author himself signed the document. Also included are charts with abbreviations for groups of records in the National Archives, short names of texts, and a list of common abbreviations used within the documents themselves.
Though not technically a part of the Freedom series, another work is important to consider. Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War is a 1992 compilation of the introductions of the first three volumes of Freedom published. Slaves No More was also headed by Ira Berlin and the other editors originally responsible for writing the essays. They didn't change the message of the introductions much but does incorporate the sources into the body of the text more fully, as the essays stand alone, they have no documents to make reference to. This book is valuable as a secondary source to someone not using the Freedom series with information encompassing everything from the change from a slave to a free system to the experiences of blacks in the Civil War military.
Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867 helps a researcher discover what the differences in opinion were between difference areas of the country. It can give data about some specifics: what policies did different military officers have for dealing with escapees? What complaints did blacks have about their conditions upon being freed? What was the reaction of whites all over to the end of slavery? Most of all, of course, Freedom helps answers the query of how former slaves themselves were dealing with their newfound freedom.