South to Freedom

Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War


By Alice L Baumgartner

Formats and Prices




$23.99 CAD



  1. Trade Paperback $18.99 $23.99 CAD
  2. ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
  3. Hardcover $32.00 $40.00 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around December 6, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A “gripping and poignant” (Wall Street Journal) account of the coming of the American Civil War, showing the crucial role of slaves who escaped to Mexico 

The Underground Railroad to the North promised salvation to many American slaves before the Civil War. But thousands of people in the south-central United States escaped slavery not by heading north but by crossing the southern border into Mexico, where slavery was abolished in 1837. 

In South to Freedom, prize-winning historian Alice L. Baumgartner tells the story of why Mexico abolished slavery and how its increasingly radical antislavery policies fueled the sectional crisis in the United States. Southerners hoped that annexing Texas and invading Mexico in the 1840s would stop runaways and secure slavery’s future. Instead, the seizure of Alta California and Nuevo México upset the delicate political balance between free and slave states. This is an essential new perspective on antebellum America and the causes of the Civil War. 

Winner of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award 

Winner of the California Book Award for Nonfiction 

Winner of the Caughey Western History Prize 

Winner of the Willie Lee Rose Prize 

Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Nonfiction 

Finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize 

Finalist for the California Independent Booksellers Alliance’s Golden Poppy Award 



NO ONE KNEW HOW THE TWO SAILORS ESCAPED—WHETHER they risked swimming from the Metacomet, anchored in the deep water off the port of Veracruz, Mexico, or whether someone had rowed them to shore under cover of darkness. It was the summer of 1857, and the Metacomet was due back in its home port of New Orleans, where another shipment of cotton awaited transport to Mexican markets. But the steamship could not leave Veracruz without the two missing sailors, and the shipmaster had reason to fear that the men were gone for good. Although it had become routine for Mexican authorities to arrest seamen who broke their contracts, George and James Frisby were no ordinary deserters: they were black slaves—brothers, in fact—hired out by their owner in Louisiana.1

If George and James Frisby had escaped in New York or Boston, they would have been returned, if captured, under the US Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act, but Mexico’s laws offered no such guarantees. Not only had Mexico abolished slavery, but its laws freed the slaves of “other countries” from the moment they set foot on its soil. To have any chance of returning the Frisby brothers, the shipmaster of the Metacomet avoided mentioning that the two men were black slaves. Assuming that the missing sailors were ordinary deserters, the local police “promptly” apprehended George. But his brother proved harder to find. As the police searched the streets and alleyways of Veracruz, James hid inside of a house. Nothing is known for certain about the house or its owners, though there is reason to believe that while in hiding, James learned about Mexico’s antislavery laws. When the police finally found him, he did something that his brother did not: he claimed his freedom—ironically—by producing evidence of his enslavement.2

Since Mexican law abolished slavery and freed all slaves who set foot on its soil, the Commander of the Port of Veracruz refused to arrest James, even when the US ambassador to Mexico protested that the incident would undermine the “increasing and beneficent commerce” between Mexico and the US South. Much more was at stake than commercial relations. The freedom that Mexico promised would threaten slavery not just in the nearby states of Texas and Louisiana, but at the very heart of the Union.3

THERE WAS NO OFFICIAL UNDERGROUND RAILROAD TO MEXICO, only the occasional ally; no network, only a set of discrete, unconnected nodes. Some fugitive slaves received help while making their escape—from free blacks, ship captains, Mexicans, Germans, gamblers, preachers, mail riders, and other “lurking scoundrels.” Most, though, escaped from the United States by their own ingenuity. They forged slave passes to give the impression that they were traveling with the permission of their masters. They disguised themselves as white men, fashioning wigs from horsehair and pitch. They stole horses, firearms, skiffs, dirk knives, fur hats, and, in one instance, twelve gold watches and a diamond breast pin. And then, while either gathering oysters or collecting firewood or walking to a camp meeting, they disappeared.4

Two options awaited most runaways in Mexico. The first was to join the military colonies, a series of outposts that the Mexican government established to defend its northeastern frontier against foreign invaders and “barbarous” Indians. The second was to fill Mexico’s labor shortage by seeking employment as servants and day laborers. Both alternatives came at a cost. The demands of military service along the northeastern frontier constrained the autonomy of former slaves. Runaways who worked as servants endured other forms of coercion. In parts of southern Mexico, such as Yucatán and Chiapas, indentured servitude sometimes amounted to slavery in all but name. Even in regions where the labor system differed from human bondage, coercion continued in other forms. In northern Mexico, hacienda owners enjoyed the right to physically punish their employees. Farther to the south, in San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, and Zacatecas, indentured servants often had no choice but to work on haciendas because their alternatives were far worse. These labor systems were coercive, even though the mechanism of coercion was economic necessity rather than physical violence.5

The differences between the southern route to freedom and its more renowned northern counterpart are not as pronounced as they might appear. Although popular understandings of the Underground Railroad describe hundreds of white antislavery activists ferrying largely anonymous runaways to freedom, recent scholarship has shown that the “conductors” on the northbound route, like the southbound one, were individuals and small groups who were largely oblivious to one another’s existence. Runaways who escaped to the North also found that their “freedom” was abridged, just as it was in Mexico. In the “free” states, runaways enjoyed only a “doubtful liberty,” as Frederick Douglass later put it. The Constitution, reinforced by the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, provided for the return of runaways who managed to get across the Mason-Dixon Line. Even “free” blacks were denied the same rights as their white neighbors. Although they paid taxes, they were not always allowed to vote, and their children were often denied access to public schools. Nor could “free” blacks travel freely or settle where they wished. In Ohio, black residents had to post a five-hundred-dollar bond “to guarantee their good behavior.” The state of Illinois excluded African Americans altogether in 1853.6

For all of their similarities, the northern and southern routes differed in one important respect: numbers. Determining how many enslaved people actually reached Mexico is difficult. My estimate, based on scattered and incomplete Mexican sources, puts the number somewhere between three and five thousand people—considerably fewer than the thirty thousand to one hundred thousand runaways who crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. The number of slaves who reached Mexico was undeniably small. Still, each escape was important in its own right. And their collective story had strategic and political significance out of all proportion to the numbers involved. Their experiences reorient our understanding of the Civil War, showing that one of the most distinctively “American” events in US history was in part ignited by the enslaved people who escaped to the south and the laws by which they claimed their freedom in Mexico.

BLACK SLAVERY TOOK ROOT IN THE VICEROYALTY OF NEW SPAIN (as Mexico was then known) at the end of the sixteenth century, when a series of epidemics decimated the indigenous population that had provided the bulk of the viceroyalty’s labor force. Between 1580 and 1640, New Spain imported more slaves than any other European colony in the Western Hemisphere except Brazil. But after 1640, a decline in sugar prices and an increase in the indigenous population slowly shifted New Spain’s labor system away from black slavery. As former slaves became free laborers, they formed black militias; they joined lay religious organizations known as cofradías; they worked as butchers and barbers, domestic servants and ranch hands; and they married people of European and indigenous descent.7

By the time Mexicans took up arms against Spain in 1810, Mexico’s population of eight million included only around nine to ten thousand black slaves. Though the enslaved population was comparatively small, Mexican leaders could not abolish slavery outright. Like the United States, Mexico was founded on two competing principles: liberty and property. In both countries, masters insisted that enslaved people be counted as chattel—that is, movable property. Slaveholders in the United States capitalized on this logic to argue that any interference with slavery amounted to a violation of “property” rights. In 1787, when the Continental Congress prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River, disgruntled slaveholders convinced the territorial governor that the measure did not apply to enslaved people already in the region. Eleven years later, the US Congress rejected a bill to abolish slavery in the Mississippi Territory, after slaveholders around Natchez made clear that they would sooner revolt than submit to such a measure. In 1804, Congress succeeded in prohibiting the importation of slaves to the Louisiana Territory, but reversed course the following year in the face of resistance from slaveholders. Pressured not to interfere with the “peculiar institution,” Congress hesitated to abolish slavery or even to enact gradual emancipation policies.8

In Mexico, slaveholders also opposed any interference with their “property,” but local and national authorities did not comply with these demands as often as politicians in the United States. The threat of a revolt convinced Mexico’s leaders that the only way to ensure political stability was to bring slavery to a gradual end. Between 1824 and 1827, more than half of Mexico’s states promised that the children born to enslaved people would be free—a free womb law that would end slavery within a generation. Meanwhile, Mexico’s Congress prohibited the introduction of enslaved people to the republic, promising freedom to illegally imported slaves from the moment they set foot on the national territory. In 1829, Mexico’s president tried to end slavery by executive decree, but Mexico’s Congress overturned the decree less than two years later, in the face of resistance from cotton growers, mine operators, hacienda owners, and sugar refiners. Although Mexico’s leaders would not abolish slavery outright, they remained committed to putting the “peculiar institution” on the path to ultimate extinction.9

As Mexican politicians tried to enforce their gradual emancipation policies, Anglo-American slaveholders who had moved to the province of Téjas in the 1820s and 1830s realized that the future of slavery was not as assured in their adopted country as it was in the United States. In the fall of 1835, the Anglo colonists revolted, and a year later, declared their independence. The Texas Revolution confirmed the danger that slaveholders posed to Mexico. In 1837, Mexico’s Congress prohibited slavery across the nation. This abolition policy boosted morale among Mexicans, galvanized international support for Mexico, and encouraged slaves in Texas to revolt or escape. But Mexico’s attempts to undermine slavery in Texas gave credence to rumors that another foreign power—Great Britain—was scheming to promote abolition in Texas, in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. To prevent such interference, the US Congress voted in favor of annexing Texas in 1845. Within a year, war broke out between Mexico and the United States.10

Southern planters predicted that the war with Mexico would extend slavery to the Pacific. Instead, the conquest of Mexican territories threatened the very existence of slavery in the United States. Although US congressmen believed they had an obligation to respect the existing “property” rights of slaveholders, Northern representatives refused to reestablish slavery where it had been abolished, including in the territories that the United States seized from Mexico. Southern politicians’ attempts to extend slavery into the former Mexican territories ignited a sectional controversy—that is, a controversy between North and South—that would lead to the overturning of the Missouri Compromise, the outbreak of violence in Kansas, and the birth of a new political coalition, the Republican Party, whose success in the election of 1860 led to the US Civil War.

THIS BOOK TELLS THE STORY OF ENSLAVED PEOPLE LIKE GEORGE and James Frisby, the law by which they claimed their freedom in Mexico, and the crisis that they provoked in the antebellum United States. It begins in the early nineteenth century, with the United States Congress caught up in debates over slavery and the rebels in Mexico fighting for their independence from Spain. It ends in 1867, when civil wars in Mexico and the United States had concluded and both countries began to take up the question of what freedom meant in the wake of emancipation. The pages in between take us from the floor of the US Senate in Washington, DC, to the stage of the National Theatre in Mexico City, from the barricaded doors of the Alamo to the military outposts of northern Mexico. In the process, this book makes the case that enslaved people who escaped to Mexico and the antislavery laws that entitled them to freedom contributed to the outbreak of a major sectional controversy over the future of human bondage in the United States.

To make this argument, this book weaves together three narrative threads. The first examines why the United States permitted human bondage to expand without check across the Southern territories. The second explores why Mexican leaders restricted and eventually abolished slavery, and the profound consequences that these policies had for the United States. The third takes up the lives of some of the thousands of slaves who escaped to Mexico in defiance of their masters, bringing forceful but forgotten figures into the light: Jean Antoine, who hid in the hold of a ship bound for Campeche; Honorine, who escaped with the help of a Louisiana merchant; François Dupuis, who joined an artillery unit of the Mexican Army; and Burrill Daniel, who demanded compensation before a claims court for being held as a slave in Mexico.

The histories of Mexico and the United States are not often told together. During most of the nineteenth century, people in the United States described themselves as irreconcilably different from Mexicans. “Among the nations of the earth, we are the one above all others,” noted Nicholas Trist, the diplomat who negotiated the treaty that ended the US-Mexican War. “Mexico occupies the very lowest point of the same scale, a point beneath even the one proper to the Indian tribes without our borders.” Trist was expressing a common view. People in the United States considered themselves enlightened, educated, democratic, hardworking, generous, and just; while, to them, Mexicans seemed bigoted, tyrannical, obstructionist, lazy, fanatical, and treacherous.11

Although such comparisons now sound outdated, the histories of Mexico and the United States continue to seem distinctly unrelated. Mexico was so unstable that forty-nine presidents took office between 1824 and 1857, while the United States enjoyed political stability and economic prosperity. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the population of the United States doubled and then doubled again; its territory expanded by the same proportion, as its leaders purchased, conquered, and expropriated lands to the west and south. By almost every metric, the United States was stronger than Mexico, and according to most accounts, the US government could impose its will on its Latin American neighbors without consequence.12

But Mexico’s relative lack of power did not mean that it was powerless. Power can take on other, subtler forms than economic success or brute force. In the nineteenth century, newly independent Mexico gained moral power through the rejection of slavery. These policies would alter the lives of enslaved people in Texas and Louisiana, and ultimately obstruct the expansion of slavery across the southwestern United States. By showing that we cannot understand the coming of the Civil War without taking into account Mexico and the slaves who reached its soil, this book ultimately contends that “American” histories of slavery and sectional controversy are, in fact, Mexican histories, too.


During my first research trip to Mexico City, a man on the subway asked where I was from. I told him that I was an American. The man responded that so was he. He gestured to everyone on the subway. “We are all Americans,” he said. And he was right. Derived from the name of the sixteenth-century explorer Amerigo Vespucci, the word “America” originally referred to the entire hemisphere. From the sixteenth century to the present, Mexicans have called themselves Americans or americanos. To most of the inhabitants in the Americas, this label did not—and does not—only refer to people living in the United States. Instead my sources referred to US residents as norteamericanos. I have adopted this term, because I believe that it is inaccurate to use the word “American” to describe residents of the United States when the rest of the hemisphere refers to themselves as Americans, too.13

I take similar care when referring to Southerners. Although this term embraces the population of the Southern states as a whole, historians often use it when discussing white Southerners. I am careful to specify when I am talking about Southern whites, in order to remind readers that a substantial proportion of Southerners were free and enslaved blacks, with very different experiences and views than their white neighbors and owners.

I have also adopted an unusual lexicon to discuss Texas. During the fourteen years that Texas belonged to Mexico, the province was known as Téjas. I refer to it as such, in order to help mark the complicated shifts from Mexican Téjas to the Republic of Texas to the State of Texas. I have also adopted this terminology in order to call into question the deeply rooted assumption that even when Téjas belonged to Mexico, the province was an extension of the United States, destined to join the Union.

I refer to the nonslaveholding states as “free” states, as a reminder that the freedom people of African descent enjoyed in these states was not the same as the freedom available to whites. I also put the “property” rights of slaveholders in quotations to draw attention to the casuistry of any argument to define human beings as property.

All of the translations from original sources are my own unless otherwise noted.

MAP 1: The United States and Mexico, 1824



FROM THE DENSE MAGNOLIA FORESTS AROUND PORT HUDSON, Louisiana, rose the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” on July 7, 1863. As Confederates gathered to listen at the parapets and behind piles of sandbags, they began to make out something else: the Union soldiers were shouting through cupped hands that Vicksburg, a major Confederate stronghold in Mississippi a hundred and fifty miles to the north, had surrendered three days earlier. Suddenly the Confederate soldiers understood why the Union forces were singing. If Vicksburg had fallen, Port Hudson was next.1

Among the soldiers who heard the news was John H. Kirkham of Lamar County, Texas. For three generations, Kirkham’s family lived in the Mississippi Valley. Like other slaveholders in the region, the Kirkhams defended their right to hold human beings as property, without interference from the United States government or from foreign powers. And for the most part, they succeeded. The threat of a revolt dissuaded congressmen in Washington, DC, from passing legislation to restrict slavery in the Southern territories. The remonstrations of slaveholders convinced the executive branch to wield the power of the federal government repeatedly against neighboring empires that granted asylum to fugitive slaves from the United States. But over the previous two decades, a political faction had risen to prominence on a platform that promised to halt the expansion of slavery. Their candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency in 1860, and in response, John Kirkham and thousands of other Southern white men enlisted in the Confederate Army to fight for their right to hold people as property.

After enlisting in the First Battalion Texas Sharpshooters in 1862, Kirkham spent more time in hospitals than in battle. In February 1863, he was laid up at an infirmary in Mandeville, Louisiana, while the rest of his regiment captured a federal ironclad named the Indianola on the Red River. Two months later, he fell ill again in Clinton, Louisiana, where the local hospital did not have enough medicine, despite the best efforts of its matron, who slipped in and out of Union-occupied New Orleans with vials of morphine and quinine sewn into her skirts. By the time that Kirkham recovered, the Sharpshooters were marching toward Jackson, Mississippi. Kirkham was ordered to join a detachment of his company that had been assigned to serve with the Louisiana Legion at Port Hudson, halfway between Vicksburg and New Orleans. His detachment arrived just before the Union Army put Port Hudson under siege on May 22, 1863. In the weeks that followed, neither food nor munitions entered the town. The soldiers began skinning rats, knowing that in another month the rats would be gone, and their only sustenance would likely be shoe leather.2

Six weeks into the siege, the men gathered on the parapets understood that they would not starve after all. The rebels could not hold Port Hudson now that Vicksburg had fallen. After the Confederates gave their word not to bear arms against the United States, they would return home, parole in hand. John Kirkham must have felt relief but also fear. After Port Hudson surrendered, the Union Army would take control of the Mississippi, dividing Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana from the other Southern states. The Confederate States of America seemed unlikely to survive. Nor did the system of slavery that the Kirkham family had defended for generations. “This [is] the darkest day of the war,” wrote a Confederate War Department clerk when he heard the news. The future that awaited Confederate soldiers looked bleak. “Your negroes will be taken from you, the men put into the army to fight against you, the able-bodied women and men not too old to labor will be put on your farms to work under Yankee overseers,” Brigadier General Henry Eustace McCulloch predicted. When Kirkham laid down his arms on July 9, 1863, he knew he stood to lose much more than his country—and much else.3

THE FIRST OF THE KIRKHAMS TO CROSS THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER was James, the brother of John H. Kirkham’s grandfather. Born in Hillsborough, North Carolina, in 1775, James Kirkham came of age during the American Revolution. A year after he was born, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. When James turned six, the British surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, three hundred miles away from his home. The War of Independence in the United States transformed the political system under which Kirkham lived, but the revolution that would have the greatest impact on his life was not the one that began at Lexington and Concord. This revolution was an economic transformation, which was taking place at almost the exact same time in northwestern England, and it would lead norteamericanos like James Kirkham to turn away from the Declaration of Independence’s revolutionary claim that “all men are created equal.”4

At the end of the eighteenth century, small factories in northwestern England began to turn cotton into thread using water-powered machines. To spin one hundred pounds of cotton by hand took upward of fifty thousand hours. In 1790, the mechanized hundred-spindle mule decreased the time to one thousand hours. Five years later, the water mule took only three hundred hours to spin the same amount. Productivity had increased, in less than a decade, by a factor of three. These innovations transformed what was once a luxury good—cotton cloth—into an everyday fabric. To meet the growing demand, bales of cotton arrived from Jamaica, Saint-Domingue, the Ottoman Empire, and the Gold Coast of Africa, but not even the thirty-one million pounds imported to England in 1790 was enough to keep the water mules humming. Paying two to three times more for the fiber than a decade earlier, English manufacturers were “quite convinced that unless some new source of supply could be found, the progress of the rising industry would be checked, if not altogether arrested.”5

The high price of cotton did not go unnoticed in the United States. But the short staple cotton that thrived along the Eastern Seaboard had a significant disadvantage compared to the long staple varieties cultivated elsewhere. The seeds of the short staple variety were so difficult to remove that it took an entire day to clean one pound of cotton by hand. In 1793, a recent graduate of Yale College named Eli Whitney solved this problem by inventing a machine that could clean fifty pounds of short staple cotton in a day. With the turn of a crank, a studded roller picked up the cotton fibers, forcing them through a metal grate through which seeds could not pass. Following the invention of the cotton engine—or cotton gin, for short—planters who had grown tobacco, rice, or indigo began to cultivate cotton. The price of prime cotton lands tripled. Cotton production skyrocketed from 1.5 million pounds in 1790 to 36.5 million pounds ten years later.6

The invention of the cotton gin positioned the United States to become the world’s leading producer of cotton. The United States had land in abundance. Since cotton depleted the soil within two to three years, access to land was crucial. Cotton production also depended on a large labor force, and in the United States, planters could rely on enslaved people to plant, tend, and harvest the crop. Although the Founding Fathers declared that all men were created equal, the Constitution they drafted extended several important protections to slaveholders in the United States: fugitive slaves would be “delivered up” to their owners; the international slave trade would be sanctioned under federal law until at least 1808; and three-fifths of “all other persons”—that is, slaves—would be counted when determining the number of seats that a state would have in the House of Representatives.7

The United States had millions of acres of land on which to grow cotton, and a system of slavery that could meet the crop’s enormous labor demands, but the ideas that inspired the American Revolution endangered the future of cotton production. In Washington, DC, a growing number of congressmen argued that human bondage violated the founding principles of the young republic. If they succeeded in prohibiting slavery in the newly opened territories to the west, the United States would never become the world’s largest exporter of cotton, as Southern planters hoped.

AFTER THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, EVERY STATE EXCEPT GEORGIA and South Carolina banned the international slave trade. New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts abolished slavery outright. Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island adopted gradual emancipation policies that would end human bondage within a generation or two. Every Southern state except North Carolina made it easier for owners to manumit—or free—their slaves. Between 1782 and 1790, slaveholders manumitted over ten thousand people in Virginia alone. But as cotton prices continued to rise during the late eighteenth century, planters defended their right to hold slaves, particularly in the newly opened territories to the west.8

Request Desk/Exam Copy


  • “The story of how Black people in a slaveholding society affected federal policy by their movements, by their defiance and by their very existence has been told before. But rarely has this story been told as compassionately, or rendered as beautifully….Masterfully researched….Baumgartner’s important conclusion is that we must reconceive the impact of the supposedly powerless on the economically and politically powerful.”—The New York Times Book Review
  • “Scholars of the Underground Railroad have long known that a small stream of runaways escaped to Mexico, but Alice Baumgartner’s South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War offers its first full accounting….It is primarily concerned with understanding why the U.S. failed to stop slavery’s expansion, why Mexico did, and using that knowledge to cast the coming of the Civil War in a new light….Baumgartner has achieved a rare thing: She has made an important academic contribution, while also writing in beautiful, accessible prose.”—The New Republic
  • “A meticulously researched monograph that examines the political and diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States to explain how Black movement south paved the road to conflicts such as the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, and ultimately the Civil War....South to Freedom makes a significant contribution to borderlands history.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
  • “Gripping and poignant….Unlike many experts who study the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, [Ms. Baumgartner] has crafted her book from Mexican as well as American archival collections, and she is deeply versed in the secondary historical literature of both countries….Ms. Baumgartner describes, with skill and great sensitivity, the experiences of those enslaved men and women who, in resisting their oppression, bravely quit the United States altogether. Their stories challenge the glib assumption held by many Americans—those of the 19th century as well as the 21st—who have long taken for granted the idea of Mexican national inferiority. Most of all, their accounts serve as a stark reminder of the severely circumscribed nature of liberty in the antebellum United States and its tragic costs not only for the enslaved but also the republic itself.”—The Wall Street Journal
  • “Baumgartner’s book explores an underrecognized period when the US couldn’t so easily claim a position of moral leadership.”—Literary Hub
  • “Baumgartner’s debut book deftly traces parallels between Mexico and the U.S., examining why both permitted and later abolished slavery while offering insights on how the past continues to shape the two countries’ relationship.”—Smithsonian
  • “Baumgartner is a rising star in an emerging generation of historians who focus on the social forces underlying political conflict….She reverses the contemporary narrative that assumes U.S. norms and institutions are superior: in the mid-nineteenth century, Mexico was a safe haven for fugitives fleeing oppression, and the Mexican constitution was more consistent in defending universal rights than were U.S. laws.”—Foreign Affairs
  • “Baumgartner brilliantly enhances our understanding of the antebellum period and the Civil War by turning toward ‘slavery’s other border.’”—National Book Review
  • “Baumgartner presents a convincing case that Mexico shaped the freedom dreams of enslaved people in states like Texas and Louisiana while invoking nightmares of emancipation and slave revolt in the minds of white Southern enslavers....South to Freedom is a valuable contribution. It provides us with a fuller understanding of slave flight in this area and offers much needed insight on how enslaved peoples’ escape to Mexico shaped the multiple meanings of freedom for the enslaved. Most importantly, it suggests a revised narrative of the significance of the flight of enslaved people to Mexico in shaping the political events leading up to the Civil War.”—Black Perspectives
  • “This revelatory look at the enslaved people who did not follow the north star sheds new light on Mexican influence on U.S. history.”—Shelf Awareness
  • “Deeply researched and eloquently argued....Baumgartner's fast-paced yet detailed exploration is consistently illuminating and offers a new way to understand the past....A must read.”—BookPage
  • “Baumgartner brings to life the stories of slaves who escaped to Mexico and how they made it to freedom….Well-written and well-researched.”—Library Journal
  • “Baumgartner debuts with an eye-opening and immersive account of how Mexico’s antislavery laws helped push America to civil war....This vivid history of 'slavery’s other border' delivers a valuable new perspective on the Civil War.”—Publishers Weekly
  • "A lucid exploration of a little-known aspect of the history of slavery in the US."—Kirkus
  • "South to Freedom reorders the way we should think and teach about the slavery expansion crisis in the middle of the nineteenth century. Indeed, it reorders how to think about the huge question of the coming of the American Civil War. Not many books these days can make that claim. With astonishing research and graceful writing, this one can."—David W. Blight, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
  • "Enslaved freedom-seekers in the antebellum United States looked not only to the North Star, but also to the southern border with Mexico. In a fast-paced narrative that moves deftly between the histories of both countries, Alice Baumgartner demonstrates the far-reaching impact of Mexico's free-soil policies. She shows, with eloquence and insight, how enslaved people themselves ignited the fuse that led to a civil war -- and the final abolition of slavery on the North American continent."—W. Caleb McDaniel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America
  • "In this deeply researched and pathbreaking study of southern slaves who escaped to Mexico and carved out new lives in the decades prior to the Civil War, Alice Baumgartner has succeeded in explaining a mystery that historians had been unable to unravel. How many slaves ran South to freedom, rather than North, and how did their assertiveness influence the coming of the Civil War? Baumgartner explores not only the familiar sectional controversy that led the southern states to secede from the union, but more importantly, South to Freedom examines the rich and complicated lives and the multifaceted roles that enslaved people played in Mexico. This book will contribute immensely to our understanding of sectional politics, as well as the manner in which Mexico asserted its 'moral power' to reject an inhumane institution and to assist fugitive slaves in recreating their lives as free men and women."—Albert S. Broussard, author of Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 1900-54
  • "Taken for granted, borders between two nations have the power to constrain curiosity and limit the self-understanding of both nations. But when the research of a gifted historian defies a border, as Alice L. Baumgartner's South to Freedom demonstrates, the result is the revelation of a story of great consequence. When Texas slaves seized the opportunities presented by Mexico's precedent-setting initiatives in emancipation, the actions of a comparatively small group of people shaped a historical event of enormous scale: the American Civil War."—Patricia Nelson Limerick, author of The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West

On Sale
Dec 6, 2022
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Alice L Baumgartner

About the Author

Alice L. Baumgartner is assistant professor of history at the University of Southern California. She received an MPhil in history from Oxford, where she was a Rhodes scholar, and a PhD in history from Yale University. She lives in Los Angeles, California. 

Learn more about this author