The Cook and the General: Black Women, the Union Army, and the End of Slavery in New Orleans

Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:30 AM
Room A704 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
James Illingworth, University of California, Santa Cruz
Historians of the Civil War era have recently begun to reconsider the boundaries between the categories of “civilian” and “combatant” in the wartime South, and to ask how groups such as white women, free people of color, and slaves affected the outcome of the military struggle. This scholarship has added a fresh cast of historical actors to the field of Civil War history, and advanced a research agenda that seeks to synthesize the social, political, and military aspects of the conflict. My paper builds on this work by examining the relationship between black working women (free and unfree) and the Union army in occupied New Orleans. Drawing on Union army records, regimental histories, and the diaries and letters of private citizens, I argue that an alliance emerged between black working women and the Union army in wartime New Orleans. African American women provided vital assistance to the northern occupation forces, leveraged their interactions with the Union army to win their own freedom, and navigated the risks of physical and sexual violence at the hands of their new allies. The making of this shifting, unstable alliance was important for both the success of federal military strategy and the destruction of slavery in southern Louisiana. The close and detailed examination of alliance building at the heart of my paper therefore sheds new light on the relationship between military occupation, civilian political action, and social transformation in the Civil War era.
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