Home / General / Book Review: Adam Rothman: Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery

Book Review: Adam Rothman: Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery

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I have said before that we are in a renaissance of excellent historical writing for a general public that wants to read something more than hagiographic narratives. Add Adam Rothman’s Beyond Freedom’s Reach to the list. Rothman tells the story of Rose Herera, a New Orleans slave whose children were spirited away to Cuba by her master during the Civil War. Centering kidnapping in the slave experience, Rothman takes what could be a fairly slender story based upon a relative paucity of evidence to build a tale of great bravery and persistence within a rapidly changing world where African-Americans had relatively little power even in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Herera lived in New Orleans, where slavery was always different than the rest of the South. Some of this was the urban factor, where slaves always had more relative freedom in their daily lives than rural slaves, but New Orleans was also different in profound other ways, including the large free black population that had real economic power thanks to the French background. While the southern white elite successfully began to compress this into a smaller group before the war, New Orleans still remained scary and different to whites, making it a place where the dominance of slaveholders was always challenged.

Yet much of Herera’s story was typical of lots of slaves in that she kept changing hands in a slave society that valued people as nothing more than property. And each of those sales was basically a kidnapping. Louisiana had a law that children under the age of 10 could not be sold without their mother so she kept her family together for awhile. But her husband was a free man in New Orleans who lacked the ability to buy his family. Such relationships were not uncommon in southern cities but with children following their mother’s status a core of southern slave society from the original lawsuits by slaves with free fathers in the 17th century, there was not much of anything they could do, meaning their families were constantly at risk of separation.

The Civil War came to New Orleans quickly. While the city’s white population largely, although not completely, embraced the war, the city itself became occupied by the Union in April 1862. Benjamin Butler’s rule over that city is well known as this conservative Democrat realized what this war was about quickly and ruled the city as occupied territory, outraging the Confederate elite and empowering the slaves. And the story of slave empowerment is key. For Rothman, building on DuBois and many more recent scholars, what ended slavery ultimately was the collected actions of slaves resisting individually. Among them was Rose Herera. Her owners, like a good number of elites, decided the answer to Union occupation was to leave for Cuba. The South wanted to take over Cuba anyway to expand the slave empire. So they tried to force Herera to go. She refused. Her owners put her in prison to try and convince her but she absolutely would not go, understanding what it might mean for her future (and very much understanding what the Civil War meant for that as well). Even though her children were under 10, her owners left for Cuba with the oldest three. And there they remained for the rest of the war. One can only imagine the heartbreak.

As the war ended and Reconstruction began, black families around the nation tried to find their lost loved ones. Usually they did not succeed. Sometimes they did. Herera at least knew where her children were and she fought for them. It took a tremendous effort for Herera to get her children back. She managed to get the attention of local lawyers and politicians interested in the fate of stolen people and they took on her case. The military government arrested Mary DeHart, the wife of Herera’s owner, when she returned to New Orleans without the children and put her in prison, outraging the white New Orleans elite. The case took on national importance, with William Seward inquiring directly about the children with the Spanish colonial authorities. The case against the DeHarts was complicated by a number of factors. First, a lot of the white Reconstruction appointees didn’t care about black rights. Also, was it illegal for a master to take a slave out of Louisiana at the time? That New Orleans was union occupied when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect made this even more complicated, for of course that famous issuance freed no slaves in areas under U.S. control on January 1, 1863.

But the judges eventually ruled in Herera’s favor because of the law for children under ten being separated from their mother without consent, which Herera consistently claimed she never gave, and ordered the children given back. Had the DeHarts never returned to New Orleans, it’s quite possible Herera never would have found the children, although the Spanish were somewhat cooperative with U.S. authorities on returning kidnapped slaves. Finally, on March 17, 1866, they were reunited. But not with their father, who died during the war. Herera was a poor widow with two more small children to take care of and now had five. She disappears from the historical record after this until 1880, when her family was still largely together.

What’s more, so many people kidnapped to Cuba during the Civil War never came back. Over the next decades, several examples were found there, but there’s little doubt there were many more who lived out the rest of their lives on the island, at first in slavery and then not, once slavery finally ended there as well. Rose Herera is the exception, not the rule, to the sad story of the massive kidnapping of African people that lasted hundreds of years.

By telling the story of slavery through one brave soul, Rothman humanizes an institution often talked about en masse. He also opens up the possibility of this being taught in the college classroom, where it would work well. It’s well-written while integrating the latest historiography in a narrative fashion. I haven’t made my book choices for my Civil War era course this spring, but I could easily see assigning Beyond Freedom’s Reach.

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  • cpinva

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this tactic used, to keep their slaves, before. no doubt it will be an interesting read. one favor I would ask of you, on behalf of your students (and their parents): see if there’s a less expensive, .pdf version of it available for acquisition, and help keep the cost of books down just a little bit for the spring semester.

    • Lee Rudolph

      The full cover price, $29.95, seems very low to me, and paying that at the URI bookstore would see more money going to the author than paying a few dollars less at Amazon (which is notorious for its bad terms for publishers and—as is not the case here—authors it “publishes” directly) for a printed copy, or $19.95 for Amazon’s Kindle version (spit).

      On Labor Day of all times, don’t further enrich that fucker Bezos.

      • Thom

        There are many reasons to avoid Amazon, but the royalties going to the author will be the same whether the student buys it at URI or through Amazon. And even though $30 is not bad for a single book, the cost of books does add up for students. I encourage them to find used copies if they can (no royalties to authors for those, of course). My college bookstore, owned by a national chain, is a complete ripoff.

        The book sounds great, thanks Erik.

        • Lee Rudolph

          but the royalties going to the author will be the same whether the student buys it at URI or through Amazon.

          Which is why I wrote “as is not the case here”; Bezos will only be screwing Harvard University Press, not the author. And although I’m no particular fan of HUP (my plan, if I had won a raffle they were running back in 1970 or so for a complete copy of Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf, was to burn the lot of them in Harvard Square), I’d still rather they get a few dollars per copy than Bezos get a penny.

          We all want Loomis to make some money from his book. I think we should want the same for Rothman.

          • Yes.

          • Thom

            To repeat my point, Rothman will make the same amount no matter where you buy it, though he will almost certainly make less on sales of e-books. By the way, typical royalties on academic paperbacks are about 6%, though there is a lot of variation.

            But all this is a lot less important than the history of slavery and its demise.

            • Lee Rudolph

              To repeat my points, if you buy through Amazon rather than (say) a local bookstore (even a dreadful one), HUP will make less and Bezos will make something, and I disapprove of both those outcomes (particularly the second). If you buy used, none of HUP, Bezos, and Rothman will make anything; I slightly disapprove of the first, and greatly disapprove of the last.

              I am aware of the typical royalties on academic books, and even get some, sometimes.

              Of course it’s less important, but it’s important just the same, and bringing up the monetary difficulties authors face (as well as the monetary difficulties students and their parents face) takes nothing away the discussion of the history of slavery.

              • Thom

                Thanks. I do understand what you are saying. However, book costs are a real problem for students, and I favor their trying to find ways to minimize those, though I do recommend to the, that they get their own hard copies of each book if they can.

      • cpinva

        I certainly have no interest in helping to increase mr. bezos’ fortune, but the royalties are paid by the publisher, not the retail seller.

        as a parent who just recently finished one kid in college, with another coming along in the (hopefully) not too distant, I was stunned by the price of text books these days. obviously, cost depends a great deal on subject matter, but the average per semester ran my son (even with used) close to $500. every little bit helps.

        • Warren Terra

          This isn’t even a textbook – just a hardback issued by one of the country’s largest university presses, for the popular audience.

          At ten cents a page it might actually be cheaper to photocopy it than to buy it. I’m not offering that as a serious suggestion (it ignores the labor cost, and it doesn’t pay the writer or the editor), I’m just pointing it out because I don’t understand how book prices are set and where the money goes (as I understand it, not much of that $30 makes its way to the author).

          On the other hand: I’ve long argued that if a billionaire wanted to make a big impact on a lot of students’ day-to-day lives (and make their own name famous), they could pay for the creation of high-quality, open-access textbooks. The current edition of a standard undergraduate textbook now costs $180 a copy (meaning they’ve tripled since I was an undergraduate at a big state university – which is actually considerably lower than the increase in tuition!). Students now regularly fork over $500 a year or even a semester in textbooks. And yet: it wouldn’t cost much to make open-access electronic textbooks of equal quality, with equally distinguished titular authors. You could probably do it, and keep it updated, for a few million dollars a year per textbook (possibly less!) – if that saves tens of thousands of students more than a hundred dollars apiece, all of whom see your name on the textbook, it’s cheap at the price.

        • Bruce Vail

          Suggest you do a little more on-lie shopping (or better yet, make your kid do the leg work). Our son is beginning his sixth year in college and we’ve learned there is a thriving on-line market in used textbooks. You could save a ton.

          (Have also heard a lot of talk about book rentals, but we never tried it ourselves.)

  • New Orleans still remained scary and different to whites

    Even today I that attitude among people in other parts of the South.

    • See also – The District of Columbia.

      This sounds like a very interesting book, Loomis. Thanks for the review.

  • Malaclypse

    This is well worth reading through. Heartbreaking.

  • Gregor Sansa

    OT: are we going to get a Guatemala post today? There’s certainly plenty to discuss…

    • I was planning on this at some point, so as a special request, why not.

  • Yankee

    what ended slavery ultimately was the collected actions of slaves resisting individually.

    And here Ithought it had something to do with all those white people murdering each other. My bad.

  • Barry Freed

    This book looks excellent.

    In other news I can’t believe shit like this is still getting made. According to The Film Stage it’s one of the films I should watch this month (no fucking way):

    The Keeping Room (​Daniel Barber; September 25th)

    Synopsis: Left without men in the dying days of the American Civil War, three Southern women – two sisters and one African-American slave – must fight to defend their home and themselves from two rogue soldiers who have broken off from the fast-approaching Union Army.

    Why You Should See It: After premiering at last year’s TIFF, this Civil War-set, female-led drama will finally arrive in theaters. Led by Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, and Muna Otaru, we said it “floats in and out of conventional editing and exposition, but, while laconic in delivery — and not to be confused ​or associated ​with a Terrence Malick style of filmmaking — the message comes across clear and powerful.”

    What’s the message I wonder. Sounds like Gone with the Wind redux to me.

    • Bill Murray

      the message is I guess “some things are worth fighting for”. Maybe slavery isn’t one of those things

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