Two newly discovered narratives of slaves who escaped to freedom during the Civil War.
Blight (American History/Yale; Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, 2001, etc.) tells the stories of John Washington and Wallace Turnage, whose manuscripts came to him after being preserved by members of their families. The two had little in common beyond their experiences as slaves and their eventual flights to Union lines where they were granted their liberty. Washington, light-skinned enough to pass for white when a boy, was born in northern Virginia in 1838. He took advantage of the arrival of federal troops in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, where he worked largely as a house servant, to escape. Turnage, born in Snow Hill, N.C., was sold to a cotton plantation in Alabama, where he worked under much harsher conditions than Washington. He made four unsuccessful attempts to escape before reaching Union lines near Mobile, then under siege by the U.S. Navy. Blight summarizes their stories, adding commentary on the time period and the institution of slavery as both men experienced it, making comparisons to other well-known slave narratives, such as that of Frederick Douglass. He then devotes a chapter to each of their post-slavery lives. The men spent their postwar lives in the North—Washington in the nation’s capital, where he worked as a sign painter, Turnage in New Jersey and New York City, where he worked as a waiter and janitor—and both lived into the World War I era. Toward the end of the book, Blight reproduces the two men’s narratives of their experiences as slaves—by far the most interesting section. Washington is the more polished writer, with a more conventional structure to his narrative. Turnage, however, went through a far more harrowing experience, both in his treatment by overseers and in his several breaks for freedom. Both are well worth reading.
A powerful, welcome addition to the Civil War library.