Brett Schulte over at American Civil War Gaming and Reading posted a summary of the latest issue of North and South. Six historians debate “The Ten Greatest Successes of the Civil War.” Schulte finds it surprising that many of the panelists focused on non-military events thus “discount[ing] the military side of things.” He concludes, “It was a WAR after all.” Let me start out by saying that I can’t stand when N&S does this kind of thing. It smacks of entertainment; there is very little that one can take away that is worth seriously considering. That said, what does emerge from this exchange is the ascendency of non-military events (namely emancipation) over the battlefield. The Emancipation Proclamation emerged early on the lists of 4 of the 6 commentators. Gerald Prokopowicz doesn’t even mention a battlefield moment until #6 (Jackson and Lee at Chancellorsville). I for one am not surprised by their choices. Perhaps this does point to the relative success of social/political history within the academy. Or perhaps it is just common sense. The Emancipation Proclamation clearly changed the course of the war in a way that no battlefield event can compare. In 1860 few people would have predicted that within 5 years slavery would be abolished. Not only was the price of slaves continually rising, but as William Link has recently shown in his fine book Roots of Secession, slaves were being employed in a wider range of jobs. Without a war some historians have speculated that slavery could have continued into the first few decades of the 20th century. The Confederate states refusal to rejoin the Union placed slavery on a gradual course to extinction and paved the way for the recruitment of roughly 200,000 USCT. As we all know, at the beginning of the war Lincoln focused on Union as the primary goal of the war. Not until the summer of 1862 did he push for a preliminary emancipation proclamation and this was done out of military necessity. I find Prokopowicz’s explanation of its importance the most convincing and the most complete: “As a military decree, it opened up a significant manpower pool for the North; as a foreign relations gesture, it ended any realistic hope of foreign recongnition for the Confederacy; as a domestic political stroke, it harnessed the growing willingness of Northerners to do what was necessary to win; as a moral act, even with all its limitations, it was still (as Lincoln said to Francis Carpenter in 1865) “the central act of my administration, and the great act of the nineteenth century.” What I glean from P’s brief summary is the Proclamation’s importance as both a political and military measure. Events off the battlefield shaped military policy and clearly, battles shaped political strategy. As military historians the panel is correct in emphasizing the importance of the Proclamation over more traditional responses.
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