Book Review: African Americans, Death, and the New Birth of Freedom: Dying Free During the Civil War and Reconstruction

African Americans, Death, and the New Birth of Freedom: Dying Free During the Civil War and Reconstruction. By Ashley Towle. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2023. 201 pp, hardcover, $95.00.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

Joining a number of rather recent books[i] over the last decade or so that examine the tragic violence inflicted upon Black people and the suffering they endured while transitioning from slavery to freedom, Ashley Towle’s African Americans, Death, and the New Birth of Freedom: Dying Free During the Civil War and Reconstruction provides a new interpretation. Towle’s study supplements many of the previous books by emphasizing that, “Freedpeople strove to wrest control over their lives and deaths from their former enslavers, and through death, they found valuable opportunities to assert their new status as free people and citizens” (4).

Along with an excellent introduction and provocative conclusion, Towle organizes her study into five insightful chapters.

In the first chapter, which covers African American funerals and cemeteries, Towle provides numerous examples of recently freed Black people finally experiencing the ceremonies of death on their own terms and in their preferred manner rather than as they had under the watch and direction of their former enslavers during bondage. While enslaved, cemeteries were often places enslavers did not want their bondspeople spending valuable time by remembering lost loved ones or expending their labor efforts in beautifying. With freedom, cemeteries evolved into places that helped forge stronger relationships between Black families and neighbors. Many communities and church congregations formed burial societies, which provided freedpeople with opportunities to experience a sense of political participation. In addition, Black burial grounds also became places for organizing, creating solidarity, and applied activism as they attempted to attain the goals of citizenship, suffrage, and equality.

Chapter Two examines the important role Black people played in the creation of National Cemeteries. Formerly enslaved African Americans provided much of the labor required to exhume and reinter the bodies of United States soldiers, many of whom were United States Colored Troops. They were also some of the sole participants in Decoration Day and Memorial Day activities at these locations in the former Confederacy. During Reconstruction, African Americans utilized National Cemeteries as places of employment to provide for themselves and their families and as focused centers that supported and reinforced their understanding and interpretation of the Civil War, its causes, and sacrifices, and in doing so, rebuked the Lost Cause narrative that found dominance around them.

Almost 40,000 Black soldiers died from disease and battle wounds during the Civil War. Many of those soldiers left behind dependent wives, children, and elderly parents. Chapter Three looks at how the pension system provided family members of deceased soldiers with at least a measure of financial independence in compensation for their sacrifice to the nation. The martyred deaths of African American soldiers also helped to strengthen freedpeople’s attempts to remain living on government confiscated lands. In addition, the deaths of Black men fighting for maintenance of the United States government inspired those who survived and their allies to press for the constitutional amendments that terminated slavery, granted citizenship, and established voting rights for Black men.

Chapter Four focuses on religious practices following emancipation. African Americans utilized a variety of spiritual outlets to help sustain their day to day lives and maintain hope in a better future. Understanding and applying the life and death cycle through spiritual practices “provided Black men and women with mechanisms for shaping their own lives and communities” (116).

In the final chapter, Towle provides striking evidence to show that despite numerous Reconstruction White supremacist-inflicted murders, African Americans, through congressional hearings and Black-operated newspapers refused to capitulate. Their voices of protest led directly to federal government actions that curtailed some of the violence and inspired later generations to continue the fight for freedom and equality.

Each chapter of the book includes an endnote section to help readers quickly find the sources Towle utilizes as evidence. An impressive bibliography highlights the various primary and secondary sources Towle consulted. In addition, historic and modern photographs, and archival and woodcut images dot the work and provide emphasis to the author’s arguments without being distracting.

African Americans, Death, and the New Birth of Freedom makes a valuable contribution to Civil War-Era scholarship and Black history. It will likely become a popular selection for undergraduate and graduate college classes, and is highly recommended for those wishing to better understand this sad, yet extremely important and timely topic.

[i] For more scholarship see: Stephen Ash, A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War (2013); Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (2017); William Blair, The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction (2021); Jim Down, Sick from Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (2012); and Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (2018), among others.

4 Responses to Book Review: African Americans, Death, and the New Birth of Freedom: Dying Free During the Civil War and Reconstruction

  1. I suppose there’s a bright side to anything, including the collateral damage done to c. 300K African Americans by an unnecessary War that was billed as being for them but actually was nothing of the sort, and the dismal and vengeful aftermath of that War, but I have to say that putting a happy spin on exterminating a certain class of Southerners, ref. Sherman, regardless of the human cost of one million deaths and untold economic damage is a new concept for me.

  2. That’s a heck on a run on sentence. Sorry the South lost. Maybe they shouldn’t have started the war.

    Another good book is “Sick from Freedom” by Jim Downs

  3. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

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