This innovative book examines how African Americans in the South made sense of the devastating loss of life unleashed by the Civil War and emancipation. During and after the war, African Americans died in vast numbers from battle, disease, and racial violence. While freedom was a momentous event for the formerly enslaved, it was also deadly. Through an investigation into how African Americans reacted to and coped with the passing away of loved ones and community members, Ashley Towle argues that freedpeople gave credence to their free status through their experiences with mortality. African Americans harnessed the power of death in a variety of arenas, including within the walls of national and private civilian cemeteries, in applications for widows’ pensions, in the pulpits of black churches, around séance tables, on the witness stand at congressional hearings, and in the columns of African American newspapers. In the process of mourning the demise of kith and kin, black people reconstituted their families, forged communal bonds, and staked claims to citizenship, civil rights, and racial justice from the federal government. In a society upended by civil war and emancipation, death was political.
Ashley Towle is assistant professor in the History Department at the University of Southern Maine.
Chapter 1 “Let’s Go to Buryin’”: African American Civilian Funerals and Cemeteries in Freedom
Chapter 2 “To Repose with Their Comrades”: African Americans and the Creation of National Cemeteries
Chapter 3 “The Widows and Families of the Heroic Dead”: African American Kinship and Domestic Economy
Chapter 4 “The Invisible Army”: African American Religious Life and Death
Chapter 5 “We Are Killed All the Day Long”: Testifying and Writing About Death
Conclusion “In the Cold Valley and Shadow of the South Land”
About the Author
This is a fascinating study of how African Americans made meaning of death in freedom. The author deploys death as an analytical tool through which to view shifting power relations between whites and the formerly enslaved in the uncertain and inchoate state of emancipation. As death abounded during the Civil War and through Reconstruction, African Americans could have easily fixed on the destructive aspect of death and devolved into despair. Instead we see how death could be “generative” and spark hope. In the author’s hands, and building on the path breaking work of Vincent Brown and his conception of “mortuary politics,” death is reworked and re purposed for political agendas. It is a compelling argument, full of great insights and stories that need to see the light of day.
Ashley Towle’s book is a beautifully rendered and deeply researched excursion into the paradoxical danse macabre constituting African American engagement with death. It explores how “mortuary politics” shaped the actions of African Americans as they carved out their own burial places under the noses of their enslavers, as they fought to end slavery in battle, as they labored—quite literally—to intern the dead in national cemeteries, as freedwomen petitioned for their pension rights as widows of veterans, as they created syncretistic religious communities that nourished political will, and as they testified before Congress to say the names of the victims of racial terror killings during Reconstruction. Towle is a sensitive and nimble guide whose use of primary sources is exceptional and whose command of the literature on American slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction is spot on. This is a moving and humane book that recognizes how African Americans might deploy death as an instrument of liberation, while also acknowledging the sheer human toll and brutal inheritance of enslavement. The history drawn in this book is pentimento for the present.