Book Review

Review of Adam Rothman, Beyond Freedom’s Reach

By: R. M. Davis

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee officially surrendered to the commander of the Union forces, Ulysses S. Grant, in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, effectively ending fighting in the state and triggering similar capitulations across the South.  For many Americans, however, the Civil War was far from over.  Over 800 miles away in the city of New Orleans, widowed mother and former slave, Rose Herera, was still doing battle in a Louisiana courtroom.  Sitting in the defendant’s chair was Herera’s former owner, Mary DeHart, shocked and dismayed by the insolence and disloyalty of her old servant. Ironically, DeHart found her own freedom threatened due to charges brought about by her ex-slave.  After spending five nights in a local jail, DeHart was released only after posting the $1,000 bail—the exact sum her husband had spent to purchase Herera and her children four years earlier.

This little known, but compelling legal battle is chronicled in Adam Rothman’s new book, Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery.  Relying primarily on a Reconstruction era report from the State Department investigating the threat of kidnapping and containing official documents from Herera’s case, Rothman constructs a narrative of the Louisiana slave’s life, culminating in the fight to recover her children.

In 1863, when Herera was still considered to be the property of the DeHarts, the family left New Orleans for Havana, acutely aware of the Confederacy’s—and slavery’s—precarious position.  Herera was too sick to make the journey.  Her three children, six-year-old Joseph Earnest, four-year-old Marie Georgiana and two-year-old Marie Josephine, however, were taken to Cuba (where slavery would remain legal until 1886) against her will, forced to leave their ailing mother behind.  When Mary DeHart returned to the United States in 1865, Herera, a recently-freed woman, demanded that authorities arrest her former master on charges of kidnapping, sparking a long, arduous–but ultimately successful–struggle for custody of her children.

Rothman begins with a description of Herera’s place of birth, Point Coupée, Louisiana, reciting a familiar story of cruel antebellum slavery and slave-owners’ self-serving, paternalistic justifications.  In the second chapter, the author examines the pre-war culture of New Orleans and its unique type of urban savery.  His analysis of newspaper ads and auction reports (reminiscent of historian Walter Johnson’s more in depth investigation, Soul by Soul) works to uncover the city’s lucrative slave market and the interstate trading of men and women that thrived up until, and even during, the Civil War

Rothman is most effective elsewhere, however, shedding light on what he calls the “mayhem of wartime emancipation.”  As Herera’s story suggests, freedom did not come easily; for many, the transition was a complicated, non-linear process.  Although it is possible that few slaves were actually taken to Cuba, the fact that rumors about this kind of post-war kidnapping were so pervasive is evidence of slaveowners’ very real dedication to the preservation of their property as well as newly freed people’s genuine fear of slavery’s restoration.  Moreover, Rothman explains, the fight continued beyond emancipation.  Some brave, outspoken men and women advocated for equality, agitating for full black citizenship and the right to vote.  More commonly, people fought personal battles.  Once liberated, former slaves worked tirelessly to reconnect with loved ones.  For many, like Herera, freedom was not truly achieved until the ties of kinship, heartlessly severed by the inhumanity of slavery, were recovered and families were rightfully reunited.

This interesting microhistory, appealing to both scholars and casual readers, exposes some of the South’s confusion in grappling with unprecedented moral, legal and political questions after the war, as former slaves and slaveowners alike tried to adjust to a restructured society.  Above all, Beyond Freedom’s Reach brings to life for the reader Rose Herera, a bold, determined and inspiring figure.  Herera’s story is that of a woman who vowed never to relent in the quest to be with her children, and who fulfilled that vow in the face of enormous and institutionalized adversity.  While not a groundbreaking work, Rothman’s book reveals a more personal side to slavery and shines a long overdue light on one woman’s amazing ability to shed the image of a helpless, dependent servant and assert herself as a fierce, loving mother and free citizen of the United States.

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