Desertion and Resistance among Slave Soldiers of the Union Army

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 4:10 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Jonathan Lande, Brown University
Scholars explain that black soldiers fought for the United States during the Civil War out of patriotism and a hope they could earn freedom, rights, and even citizenship. Undoubtedly, many did fight for the Union and emancipation, and their service was essential to making freedom substantive. However, many soldiers also fled the army—even among the 130,000 enlisted former slaves. If, as historians suggest, the stakes were so high and service so ennobling, why did men leave service?

To explain the reasons for their flight, I recast African American service in the context of the African Diaspora. By reconnecting the history of slave enlistment in the U.S. with the use of enslaved men in warfare in British, Portuguese, and Spanish forces, I break the national political and legal framework black Union soldiers are read within and identify the similarities between modes of resistance by maroons and enlisted slaves throughout slave societies. With this context informing my analysis, I argue former slaves abandoned the army to take back their freedom, not because of waning patriotic fervor. As opposed to “deserting,” a loaded legal term that describes a defective relationship between a white citizen and federal government, the soldiers took what I call “leaves of freedom.” I claim many freedmen considered service replicated the racial subjugation of enslavement, so they fled. The men left not to protest the state but to be free, seeking liberation outside the military when they determined the army would not provide it.

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