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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