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Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South.

Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South. By Jaime Amanda Martinez. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. i, 233. $39.95.)

The author of this study has written a well-researched analysis of the Confederate government's policy of slave impressment in Virginia and North Carolina during the Civil War. Countering numerous other historical studies on the Confederacy that argue that slave impressment failed and was indicative of systemic internal dysfunction, Jaime Amanda Martinez contends that the policy was highly successful and demonstrated Confederate strength. She does this by emphasizing the coordinated efforts of local, state, and national governments to fulfill slave impressment quotas. Despite significant slaveholder opposition, impressment quotas were adequately filled, and tens of thousands of African American slaves were put to work building the South's defensive fortifications against the Union. As Martinez concludes, "through slave impressment, slaves, slaveholders, and government officials all worked to defend the Confederate state" (164). In fact, according to Martinez, the Confederacy would have collapsed well before 1865 had it not been for the impressed slaves.

Not only did effective Confederate impressment policy sustain the Southern cause against mounting Northern aggression, it also led to black freedom. "Slave labor on the Confederate fortifications served as the justification for the US Confiscation Acts, which," Martinez posits, "paved the way toward the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment" (17). Additionally, the sustained policy of Confederate slave impressment brought the Confederacy to the verge of arming slaves and enlisting them into the army. According to Martinez, the Confederacy considered this action not as "the last gasp of a dying nation" but "as a long-term plan for victory" (152). These "Black Confederates," as she calls them, would have been repaid for their service with emancipation had they been called to arms. So in sum: (1) the success of Confederate slave impressment policy demonstrated the efficacy of Confederate federalism; (2) large numbers of African American slaves defended and sustained the Confederate cause against overwhelming Northern force; and (3) eventual black freedom proved the result of Confederate policy.

Such conclusions are befuddling and profoundly problematic. Martinez seems to be looking for agency in all the wrong places, and yet this is what must happen when historians attempt to write multicultural histories of Confederate nationalism. When sent on a quest to discover the contributions that African Americans made to the Confederate cause, one cannot be allowed to entertain the fact that finding black agency in support of a white supremacist, slaveholding nation-state might be problematic. The thought that armed "Black Confederates" might turn and kill those white Confederates who just armed them would never even enter the mind. Ultimately, even Martinez seems to have become aware of the potential criticism that awaited her book. In her final and shortest chapter, Martinez tries to preempt future critics by attempting to distance herself from advocates of the "Lost Cause." Yet the weight of her previous five chapters overwhelms the last, crushing it and leaving only the false impression that Southern slaves worked (and would have fought) hard to defend a breakaway Confederacy that went to war to preserve and spread racial slavery. It doesn't figure.

Matthew H. Crocker

Keene State College
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Author:Crocker, Matthew H.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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