Embattled Freedom

Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps

By Amy Murrell Taylor

368 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 14 halftones, 8 maps, notes, bibl., index

  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-4363-2
    Published: October 2018
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4362-5
    Published: November 2018

Civil War America

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Awards & distinctions

2019 Tom Watson Brown Book Award, Society of Civil War Historians

2019 John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia

2019 Avery O. Craven Award, Organization of American Historians

2019 Merle Curti Social History Award, Organization of American Historians

Finalist, 2019 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition

The Civil War was just days old when the first enslaved men, women, and children began fleeing their plantations to seek refuge inside the lines of the Union army as it moved deep into the heart of the Confederacy. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands more followed in a mass exodus from slavery that would destroy the system once and for all. Drawing on an extraordinary survey of slave refugee camps throughout the country, Embattled Freedom reveals as never before the everyday experiences of these refugees from slavery as they made their way through the vast landscape of army-supervised camps that emerged during the war. Amy Murrell Taylor vividly reconstructs the human world of wartime emancipation, taking readers inside military-issued tents and makeshift towns, through commissary warehouses and active combat, and into the realities of individuals and families struggling to survive physically as well as spiritually. Narrating their journeys in and out of the confines of the camps, Taylor shows in often gripping detail how the most basic necessities of life were elemental to a former slave's quest for freedom and full citizenship.

The stories of individuals--storekeepers, a laundress, and a minister among them--anchor this ambitious and wide-ranging history and demonstrate with new clarity how contingent the slaves' pursuit of freedom was on the rhythms and culture of military life. Taylor brings new insight into the enormous risks taken by formerly enslaved people to find freedom in the midst of the nation’s most destructive war.

About the Author

Amy Murrell Taylor is associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky and author of The Divided Family in Civil War America.
For more information about Amy Murrell Taylor, visit the Author Page.


"Gracefully written and exhaustively researched, Taylor’s book offers the reader a vivid and convincing narrative of these slave refugee camps as 'an elemental part of the story of slavery’s destruction in the United States,' one that deserves a broad readership among not only Civil War enthusiasts but anyone interested in the history of race and slavery in the United States."--Publishers Weekly starred review

“A fine example of the latest approach to the study of the Civil War. . . . An important book because it shows clearly that, despite Civil War mythology, the conflict did not result in immediate freedom.”--Civil War Book Review

“A well-written, thoroughly documented, thought-provoking, if not always uplifting, book about an overlooked aspect of America’s Civil War.”--The Journal of America’s Military Past

“A welcome addition to the recent Civil War scholarship that highlights the experiences of people who lived on the fringes of the war. . . . Embattled Freedom brings to life an aspect of the Civil War that many scholars have glossed over . . . well-researched and well-written.”--H-Net Reviews

"A wonderfully conceived and persuasive new history of wartime refugees--innovative in its organization, pathbreaking in its seamless integration of military and social history, and beautifully written."--Leslie Schwalm, University of Iowa

"The largest hole in the literature on the American Civil War is the experience of African American slave refugees called contrabands. Amy Murrell Taylor ably fills much of that gap with her truly impressive book, Embattled Freedom.  Taylor brings to life the remarkable journey of these African Americans, a migration that began with the thrill of fulfilling of their dream of freedom, but in most cases was fraught with hardship and misfortune. Without doubt, this book is the starting point for anyone interested in the saga and often tragedy that befell hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in the wartime transition from slavery to freedom."--Joseph T. Glatthaar, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Multimedia & Links


Taylor talks to Adam McNeil for the New Books Network podcast. (05/29/2019, running time 01:01:33)