A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including their Own Narratives of Emancipation

The “great man” version of American history teaches that Lincoln freed the slaves, but scholars have long debated the 16th president’s role in emancipation. As evidence in that debate, consider this passage from the recently discovered autobiography of John Washington, born in bondage in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1838. With the Civil War raging and Union forces advancing on his hometown, he was told that he would be relocated to North Carolina to serve an officer in the Confederate Army.

“I began to fear that the object in sending me down there, was to be done to get me out of the reach of the Yankees. and I secretly resolved not to go But I made them believe I was most anxious to go. In fact I made them believe I was tereblely afred of the Yankees, any way. My Master was well satisfied at my appearant disposition and told me I was quite Right, for if the Yankees were to catch me they would send me to Cuba or cut my hands off or otherwise maltreat me. I of course pretended to beleive all they said but knew they were lieing all the while.”

In April 1862, months before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Washington escaped across the Rappahannock River to Union lines — in essence, freeing himself. A decade later, Washington, one of the rare slaves who had learned to read and write as a child, recorded his path to freedom in a manuscript he titled “Memorys of the Past.”

His story, along with that of Wallace Turnage, another slave who escaped during the Civil War, is presented in David W. Blight’s remarkable new book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation. By coincidence, Blight, the director of Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, was asked to examine both narratives in 2003; each had been preserved by descendants for generations. When he read them together, he writes, “I realized with a thrill of discovery that what we possessed were two extraordinary, unpublished, and probably unmediated narratives about one of the most revolutionary transitions in American history. If the lives of these two men could be verified, we would have two original ways of seeing how American slaves achieved freedom in the Civil War.”

Scholars and casual readers alike are fortunate that these writings ended up in Blight’s hands. He was able not only to verify the men’s lives, but, using a wealth of genealogical records, to reconstruct them in exceptional detail (both narratives conclude shortly after freedom is achieved). The first half of the book is written by the historian, who pieces together the biographies of Washington and Turnage and provides illuminating context on slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation; the second half of the book presents each narrative in its original form. The two halves cohere beautifully. Blight writes with authority and grace, whether describing the details of the men’s experiences or, as in this passage, making more sweeping statements to convey their significance: “Their stories are both unique and representative,” he writes. “They remind us that history is unpredictable, anguished, and hidden, but also sometimes patterned, triumphant, and visible in the quiet and turbulent corners of the lives of real people.”

Blight’s erudition never detracts from the drama of the narratives. For instance, after succinctly summarizing the political battles between Lincoln and Congress over slavery, he makes this elegant transition: “Uninformed but not unaffected by policy debates, Turnage did not wait for events.” The historian also has a knack for the well-placed literary reference to create vivid impressions of the times the two men lived in, quoting works by Faulkner, Whitman, and Ellison, among others.

The first section prepares readers well for the raw and gripping narratives that follow. Washington, the son of a white slaveholder he never met, describes a childhood that was relatively happy until his mother and siblings were hired out to another family, leaving him alone to serve his mistress. “Then and there my hatred was kindled secretly against my oppressors, and I promised myself If ever I got an opportunity I would run away from these devilish slave holders,” he writes. The chaos of war provided him that chance; after crossing the river to freedom, he accepted a job cooking for Union officers, who were at first astonished to learn that the light-skinned Washington was a slave.

Turnage, also the son of a white man, was born in North Carolina and sold to an Alabama plantation owner at age 13. As a plantation slave, he had a more harrowing experience than Washington. After clashing with a brutal overseer, he made his first escape attempt. Several more escapes followed, each ending in his capture and return, until his frustrated owner sold him to a slaveholder in Mobile. It was there, at age 17, that he launched his fifth and final escape, in August 1864.

Like Washington, Turnage crossed a river toward Union forces, who took him in and hired him as a cook. “I Now dreaded the gun, and handcuffs and pistols no more. Nor the blewing of horns and the running of hounds; nor the threats of death from the rebel’s authority. I could now speak my opinion to men of all grades and colors, and no one to question my right to speak,” he writes of his deliverance.

So where does Blight position himself in the scholarly debate on emancipation? The evenhanded historian concludes, “To the perennial question — who freed the slaves, Lincoln or blacks themselves?–the Turnage and Washington stories answer conclusively that it was both.” The author gives Lincoln his due while neither sugarcoating his flaws nor discounting the will of slaves themselves in finding their way to freedom. “Emancipation in America was a revolution from the bottom up that required power and authority from the top down to give it public gravity and make it secure,” he writes.

After the war, Washington settled in Washington, DC, eventually reuniting with his wife, mother, and other relatives. He raised his family in the nation’s capital, where he worked as a house painter and was active in his church; he died in 1918. Turnage’s postbellum life, like his experience in slavery, was more tumultuous than Washington’s. He settled first in New York City and then in Jersey City, struggling to support his family. He was widowed twice, and only three of his seven children lived to adulthood; he died in 1916.

“We do not know precisely why Turnage and Washington wrote their narratives,” Blight notes. Indeed, much will forever remain unknown about these men. But it is extraordinary to learn as much as we have nearly 150 years after their escapes. For this, Blight deserves ample credit, and A Slave No More deserves a place alongside classic narratives by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Booker T. Washington in the literature of emancipation.