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.