Illusions of Emancipation

The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery

By Joseph P. Reidy

520 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 25 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4836-1
    Published: March 2019
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-4837-8
    Published: January 2019

Littlefield History of the Civil War Era

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As students of the Civil War have long known, emancipation was not merely a product of Lincoln's proclamation or of Confederate defeat in April 1865. It was a process that required more than legal or military action. With enslaved people fully engaged as actors, emancipation necessitated a fundamental reordering of a way of life whose implications stretched well beyond the former slave states. Slavery did not die quietly or quickly, nor did freedom fulfill every dream of the enslaved or their allies. The process unfolded unevenly.

In this sweeping reappraisal of slavery's end during the Civil War era, Joseph P. Reidy employs the lenses of time, space, and individuals' sense of personal and social belonging to understand how participants and witnesses coped with drastic change, its erratic pace, and its unforeseeable consequences. Emancipation disrupted everyday habits, causing sensations of disorientation that sometimes intensified the experience of reality and sometimes muddled it. While these illusions of emancipation often mixed disappointment with hope, through periods of even intense frustration they sustained the promise that the struggle for freedom would result in victory.

About the Author

Joseph P. Reidy is professor emeritus of history at Howard University.
For more information about Joseph P. Reidy, visit the Author Page.


"Reidy's important book shows that the movement toward freedom was neither linear nor inevitable but was and must be constant. In that, he speaks to not only history but our own day."--Library Journal

“Reidy peers into the lives of enslaved people during emancipation, paying special attention to their experiences under Confederate authority.”--Choice Reviews

"[A] comprehensive analysis of of the journey from slavery to freedom. . . . Explaining the complex and changing concept of home is Reidy's most insightful historiographic contribution. He demonstrates that establishing a new home was much more than a physical endeavor for newly freed people. It involved establishing a distinct identity in relation to the new political, economic, and social order."--Civil War Times

"Reidy's remarkable Illusions of Emancipation puts us in the midst of revolutionary events as only history's participants could have made and experienced them. Reidy offers us multiple perspectives on moments of trauma, triumph, and everyday life that reveal emancipation as the unexpected, determined, lurching, and slippery process that it was, driven by struggles of many sorts in an environment of volatility and uncertainty. Compelling reading for anyone interested in how history unfolds."--Steven Hahn, author of A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration

"In this highly anticipated study, Reidy encapsulates a half century of scholarship on emancipation and its consequences while advancing a fresh and innovative interpretation. Employing something akin to a historian's theory of relativity, Reidy convincingly demonstrates that the supposedly fixed concepts of 'time,' 'space,' and 'home' assumed an essential fluidity within the context of war and social upheaval. This boldly original approach to the destruction of slavery--from one of the foremost scholars in the field--is sure to become indispensable reading."--John C. Rodrigue, author of Lincoln and Reconstruction

"Reidy compellingly shows that the wartime emancipation was not a linear process but, instead, circuitous and unpredictable. A helpful, provocative, and groundbreaking book, and a valuable contribution to historians' ongoing efforts to write an adequate history of what Reidy calls 'the collapse of slavery.'"--Kate Masur, author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C.

Multimedia & Links


Reidy talks to E. Ethelbert Miller on The Scholars. (5/22/2019, running time 28:30).