Chandra Manning graduated summa cum laude from Mount Holyoke College in 1993 and received the M.Phil from the National University of Ireland, Galway, in 1995. She received her Ph.D. at Harvard in 2002. She has taught history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington and at Georgetown University. From 2015-2017, she served as Special Advisor to the Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She returns to Georgetown University as Professor of History in the fall of 2017. Her first book, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War won the Avery O. Craven Prize given by the Organization of American Historians and was Honorable Mention for the 2008 Lincoln Prize. Her most recent book, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War won the Museum’s 2016 Jefferson Davis Book Award. We asked her a few questions ahead of her July 20 Foundry Series lecture.
ACWM- How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?
CM- At first, I was curious about race relations in the decade immediately following the Civil War, or to be even more precise about it, I was not satisfied with any of the available answers to the questions that students often—and so rightly—ask about how the United States went from a country that could pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments in such quick succession to the country of the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries where lynching and Jim Crow reigned. So I set out to take a close look at ideas and experiences of emancipation and citizenship in the war’s immediate aftermath. But I quickly discovered that I needed to back up and learn more about the experiences of emancipation and citizenship during the war itself, and that realization led me to the “contraband camps,” or camps where roughly half a million formerly enslaved men, women, and children took refuge with the Union Army after fleeing slavery during the Civil War. At the time, very little was known about contraband camps, so I shifted my focus onto them. I remain fascinated, haunted even, by the stories of people’s experiences in those camps, which taught me that to escape slavery was to take the details of whatever any given day brought you and piece them together into what you hoped would be a path out of slavery, and then to step onto that path with no way of knowing where it would ultimately lead you. And I also remain awed by the overwhelming and contradictory and capacious story of what all of those individual experiences collectively added up to: an end to the institution of slavery and a redefinition of the relationship between the federal government and the individual person, otherwise known as citizenship.
ACWM- How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
CM- I see the topic as relevant in ways now that I never imagined when I began, on at least two levels. One has to do with the definition of citizenship. Defining the meaning of citizenship is an ongoing national project, not a once-and-for-all kind of task. Sometimes the meaning expands and sometimes it contracts. We find ourselves right now in a moment of contraction, and I think that makes right now a very important time to examine a key moment when the meaning expanded. Second, the parallels between contraband camps in the Civil War and refugee camps today are inescapable. The enormous risks, the harrowing conditions, the predominance of women and children, the determination to flee something even worse than the almost unimaginable dangers and hardships of the camps. . . contraband camps and today’s refugee camps really do hold mirrors up to one another. I think it ought to humble us to recognize that even with all the technological advances and institutional infrastructure we now enjoy that did not exist in the 1860s, we do no better by refugees now than the Civil War generation did. And I think it is also instructive to note that refugees and their experiences reside right at the center, not the margins, of one of the most pivotal chapters in U.S. history.
ACWM- What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?
CM- The research really clarified that the wartime destruction of slavery was more extraordinary and also more fragile than we generally realize, and the threat of re-enslavement was acute and long-lived. From the perspective of world history in 1861, wars were more likely to make more slaves, not fewer. Even just taking the U.S. experience, the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War resulted in the vast expansion, not reduction, of slave territory. And when warfare did free individual slaves in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and numerous conflicts in South America, emancipation often proved to be a temporary state, followed by re-enslavement. With the exception of Haiti, wars simply did not result in the abolition of the institution of slavery. But the Civil War did result in the abolition of slavery, and it is time that we shake off any assumptions of inevitability and reacquaint ourselves with the magnitude of that development. But if the destruction of slavery was a titanic accomplishment, it was also a tenuous one, and it is equally imperative that we recognize how frail and fragile emancipation was, both for individuals who could be and sometimes were re-enslaved, and for the United States, where the institutional death of slavery was not assured until the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, both of which were influenced in part by interactions between former slaves and the army (and by extension, the federal government) in contraband camps.