About this Project

Practices of Emancipation is a collaborative research project applying social scientific and digital humanistic methods to the study of African Americans in the Civil War era. We will be building and mapping a database containing detailed Union Army records on hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved people. Our goal is to deepen our understanding of the agency of enslaved people in their own emancipation, as well as to better understand how emancipation was lived by, and what emancipation meant to, freedpeople. At the same time, we aim to provide genealogists, students, and scholars with an opportunity to discover the life stories of individuals who are largely absent from the history books. By inscribing ex-slaves within familial and national histories, genealogical work directly confronts the enforced conditions of kinlessness and natal alienation constitutive of chattel slavery. We hope to invite researchers and stakeholders to a series of colloquia in which we will present our findings and explore the potential for further collaborative research on digital historiographical methods and nineteenth-century Black history.

For the database we will be geo-coding two existing projects that are currently digitizing Union Army records: the military service records of the United States Colored Troops (African American Civil War Soldiers) and “contraband camp” registers (Last Road to Freedom). In some cases an African American soldier’s family will appear as refugees in the camp registers, allowing us to link these databases together. Most of the people in these registers had fled enslavement to arrive at Union Army lines, and these records were typically the first official documents to record their names, in addition to age, birthplace, occupation, pre-war residence, etc.. Making this data freely available and searchable online will allow descendants to trace enslaved ancestors beyond what African American genealogists call the “brick wall” of 1870. The work of linking and geo-coding records will also allow us to produce a dynamic map of emancipation as it played out in movements of fugitivity and armed resistance to slavery. 

IMAGE: Colored Troops, Under General Wild, Liberating Slaves in North Carolina, from Harper’s Weekly, January 23, 1864.

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