"Seeing How the Land Lay" in Freedom
The Civil War and Reconstruction were signal events in the lives of the former slaves who were interviewed for the narratives. They had much to say about these crucial periods, and their recollections were often fresh and strong. They fully realized that the events of these years both altered the course of their lives, freeing them from bondage, and set severe restraints on their future, dooming them to a state of quasi slavery that fell far short of equality. In the stories they told as well as in traditional sources lie many clues to the frame of mind of the men and women who started this journey from slavery toward freedom.
Few white Americans, whether northerners or southerners, have understood the slaves' frame of mind during these critical periods. As outsiders, proud of their own good intentions and forgetful of their own faults, many northerners of the Civil War era simply assumed that the slaves would welcome them as liberators and boldly seize the opportunity to take a stand and live as free men. The books and diaries written by disillusioned northern do-gooders show that these expectations were not always fulfilled. Southerners, sure of their knowledge as insiders and dependent on a protective mythology about faithful bondsmen, generally felt certain that the slaves would remain loyal to their masters, the whites who truly cared for them. The disappointment of these expectations was often profound and baffling for white southerners. Later generations have gained little enlightenment, for the influence of the Civil War ran so deep that northerners and southerners tended to adopt the traditional outlook of their section of the country.