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

Adam Rothman’s new book Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2015) brings to light the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children on the eve of and during the Civil War.

Rothman follows the case of Louisiana’s enslaved woman Rose Herera and her three young children Joseph Ernest (6), Marie Georgiana (4) and Marie Joséphine (2). The book shows how by the middle of the nineteenth century, even in urban areas like New Orleans, the boundaries between freedom and bondage were often blurred. The book emphasizes the importance of slave families, but also shows how slave mothers had little control over their children, submitted to the will of their masters.

Beyond Freedom’s Reach is divided into five chapters, in addition to a prologue and an epilogue. The first chapter explores the parish of Pointe Coupée, where Rose was born, as the child of an enslaved mother. Although about 150 miles from the “cosmopolitan” New Orleans, by the mid-nineteenth century, the institution of slavery in this parish had many elements in common with other large slave societies. Among others, there was high mortality and low birth rate among the slave population. Like in other areas (such as Brazil) where the slave trade from African had been prohibited in 1850, in Pointe Coupée, the slave population was increasing, but through the domestic slave trade. The growing slave population in the area was connected to the blooming of sugar and cotton production that was replacing tobacco and indigo production in the area. In Pointe Coupée, in 1850, two thirds of the population was enslaved.

Then the second chapter moves to New Orleans, where Rose (and consequently her three young children who by the law could not be separated from their mother) were sold. There she passed through various owners, and ended up in the hands of James De Hart, a dentist married to a woman named Mary De Hart. New Orleans had a large population of color, but slaves were a minority. The city had also a huge population of foreigners as well and was the largest slave market of the United States by 1850. This is an important chapter to understand the dynamics of urban slavery in the US South and especially the working conditions of domestic slaves. It demystifies the idea that domestic slaves benefited from good treatment by their masters.

The third chapter explores the explosion of the Civil War and how it affected the lives of the free and enslaved population of New Orleans, especially Rose and her children. In New Orleans things were becoming increasingly difficult for black residents and black travelers.

Among the enslaved population, there was hope of being freed by the federal troops that took control of the city. Thousands of black soldiers entered the military service on the Union side. Slave insurgency was visible at various levels and this raised great concern among the masters, especially the mistresses who gradually saw the seeds of revolt among their slaves. The picture described here is the very opposite from what viewers saw in the film Gone with the Wind.

In this turbulent context, Rose (now married to a free man) and her young children were sold to the aunt of Mary De Hart (James De Hart’s wife), probably to avoid him having his slave property seized. Weeks later, James De Hart left New Orleans to Havana, in Cuba. Slavery was well alive in Cuba and ships carrying slaves from Africa continued to arrive at its shores. Merchants and businessmen from Havana and New Orleans were involved in this trade. Now that her husband was gone, Mary had to convince Rose (along with her children) to follow her family to Cuba, leaving behind her husband and the hopes of freedom. In December 1862, about two weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation, Rose was thrown in jail. Mary De Hart failed in convincing Rose to leave New Orleans. She then kidnapped Rose’s three children and brought them with her to Havana.

The next two chapters, “Justice” and “Reunion,” explore the consequences of this drama in Rose’s life in the context of the end of the Civil War until the final abolition of slavery in 1865. Freed people were looking for their relatives, a dramatic moment explored by Heather Andrea Williams in her book Help to Find My People (2012). Rose fought to recover her children. Her defense used various arguments, including the 1829 law and previous codes that prohibited the separation of enslaved children under ten years old from their enslaved mothers. Among others, by the time the children were kidnapped, the Second Confiscation Act of 1862 had already passed. Moreover, when Rose’s lawyers defended these arguments by in April 1865, the new constitution of Louisiana had abolished slavery, anyway making Rose and her children free.

Rose’s story and her fight to recover her children shed light on many elements that characterized slavery, and especially the experiences of enslaved women, in other part of the Americas. In New Orleans, like in Brazil for example, paternalism was an important feature of the discourses of lawyers and slave owners, who claimed that enslaved children were treated well like they were members of the master’s family. Rothman’s book also highlights the nefarious relations between mistresses and enslaved women. Although Mary De Hart was not the legal owner of Rose and her children, she was the one who committed the crime of kidnapping and the one who was sent to jail.

Rothman shows how emancipation was a very long and complex process. In the United States, unlike Cuba and Brazil and other parts of Latin America, there was no Free Womb Law. Children remained legally enslaved until the final abolition of slavery in 1865, after the end of the Civil War. Several years after the abolition of slavery, fears and rumors of re-enslavement and kidnapping continued to spread.

The book is an exemplary work of micro-history. It examines many important aspects for historians working on slavery in the North and the South Atlantic worlds. It explores the problem of slavery borders, the issue of the illegal slave trade, re-enslavement, and enslavement of free persons. It raises questions about the limits of motherhood under slavery as well. The book also contributes to the understanding of the crucial role of enslaved women in fighting for freedom during and after the Civil War. It provides elements to study the enslavement of children, aspect that only recently has gained attention from scholars of slavery.

The book is in dialogue with several recent works of scholars working on similar issues in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. As I am most familiar with the scholarship of Brazil and Latin America, I think especially of Camilla Cowling’s latest book Conceiving Freedom: Women of Color, Gender, and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro (2013) and Gerald Horne’s The Deepest South (2007). In Brazil, it is also in dialogue with the works of several Brazilian scholars. Here I think especially about the works of Keila Grinberg, Karl Monsma,  Lisa Earl Castillo, Luciana Brito, and Maria Clara Sampaio.

Scholars, graduate, and undergraduate students will love this book that really reads like a novel. Moreover, beyond its scholarly scope, the general public can easily read and enjoy Beyond Freedom’s Reach, without having to pay attention to the well-documented endnotes.

About Ana Lucia Araujo

I am a cultural historian of Latin America and the Atlantic World. I am Full Professor in the Department of History at Howard University. My work explores the history and the memory of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery and their social and cultural legacies. I am particularly interested in the public memory, heritage, and visual culture of slavery. To know more about my research and publications, visit my personal website or my webpage at Howard University.