Dismantling the Master's House: How Freedom Seekers Claimed and Shaped a Landscape of Liberation during the U.S. Civil War

Bell, Bethany, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Varon, Elizabeth, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia
Hill Edwards, Justene, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia

In December of 1864, General William T. Sherman and his army made their headquarters at an ornate new mansion in Burke County, GA. Louisa, an enslaved woman laboring in this dwelling, told one of Sherman’s officers that the house ought to be burned down because of all the cruelty enacted against enslaved people in order to pay for the house to be built. Through her request, Louisa explicitly connected the conditions of bondage for enslaved people to the built environment and asserted what should happen to the physical space in response to their treatment. This paper attends to the logic that guided Black actors like Louisa as they sought to reshape the built environment of slavery. It investigates the role of Black people as agents of destruction during the Civil War as well as other methods that Black actors sought to lay claim to and reshape sites of slavery, namely preservation and appropriation. This paper considers their acts of destruction, preservation, and appropriation as dimensions of a "landscape of liberation" during the war. Drawing on memoirs and narratives of formerly enslaved people, military journals, and records kept by Union officers of Black regiments, this essay argues that free and unfree Black people used the Civil War as a catalyst to claim and reshape the built environment in order to respond to past harms, attend to present needs, and prepare for the future. In doing so, it attends to how the motives of Black actors often diverged from those of white military and civilian actors.

MA (Master of Arts)
Civil War, Slavery, Emancipation, Rival Geography, Plantation, Architecture, Resistance, U.S. Colored Troops, Antebellum United States, U.S. South
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