God gave us R. E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, but did he also give us the Emancipation Proclamation?
I am almost finished with Chandra Manning’s new book on how Civil War soldiers understood race and slavery over the course of the war. It’s a wonderful book and one that I will have much to say about over the next few weeks. Manning gives us a great deal to think about, especially for someone interested in our popular perceptions of Civil War memory. One of the difficult challenges that Manning takes on is in analyzing how the views/sympathies of both Union and Confederate soldiers shifted during the war. I just finished the section of the book that covers the period leading to and following the crucial Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863. Manning argues that a significant number of Union soldiers supported the Emancipation Proclamation when it went into effect on January 1, 1863. She is careful, however, to draw the relevant distinction between slavery and racism. While Union soldiers held tight to deep-seated racist views at the same time they acknowledged that slavery had to end either for moral reasons or as a necessary step to bring the war to a close.
Manning demonstrates that Union soldiers interpreted the summer victories of 1863 as an indication that the nation would only be saved following the end of slavery. Soldiers’ beliefs were shaped in part by their travels through the South and direct encounters with slaves and their stories of hardship along with a fervent belief that they were carrying out God’s will. It is important to note that Manning is not suggesting that we understand the war between North and South as one of good v. evil. Manning does an excellent job of demonstrating that there was a significant shift in thinking within Union ranks by 1863 that brought many to a position that involved a desire to end slavery. This stood in sharp contrast with Confederate soldiers who viewed slavery as a crucial linchpin in their ideas of hearth and home as well as a social hierarchy that slaveowners and non-slaveowners alike had reason to defend. That commitment was strengthened by 1863 in large part owing to the Emancipation Proclamation and the recruitment of black soldiers. Manning brings a great deal of recent scholarship to her study in explaining the long-term and immediate conditions that shaped ideas of freedom and government in relation to slavery during the war.
As I was reading I couldn’t help but be reminded of how distant the image of Union soldiers as carrying out God’s plan must seem within the context of our popular perceptions of the Civil War. As I’ve pointed out in numerous posts for some reason we are much more comfortable thinking about God in relationship to the Confederacy. One need look no further than the latest popular Civil War magazine. There you can find the likes of Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest along with images of Confederate soldiers engaged in prayer. Don’t get me wrong I have no problem at all with these images as I make no claim to being able to fathom whether God was on one side or the other, both sides or no side at all. As a historian the concept itself has no place in my work. What I am interested in is the apparent discrepancy in our thinking about God’s place and role in the Civil War.
It is interesting that the people who find these images attractive or identify them as somehow reflecting Christian virtue rarely acknowledge the possibility that Union soldiers or the goal of emancipation itself was reflective of divine will (whatever that means). If we hold the assumption that, at least on occasion, God shapes history than the Emancipation Proclamation and the actual process of ending slavery in the 1860s would seem to serve as an example to celebrate. A survey of lithographs from the Civil War period and the immediate postwar years suggests that we did at one point, but we clearly do not do so today. Why? Part of the reason is that we’ve pushed the theme of emancipation much too far from our collective memory. Most people tend to see Lincoln as simply a political opportunist who held racist views (which he did) and who cared little about slavery. Recent scholarship (see historians like David Donald, Allen Guelzo, Richard Striner, Douglas Wilson, etc.) has challenged this last point, but it is unlikely that these interpretations will filter down to be considered by those who are more concerned with defending stories rather than serious thought. That’s fine as we can easily keep Lincoln out of this to make the point. Perhaps we can even admit that this question is still up for serious debate.
What is not up for debate is the extent to which Union soldiers viewed themselves as taking part in a war to end slavery. Whatever merits there are in our impressions of Confederates as reflective of Christian virtue and assuming that God shapes history it seems obvious that the images of emancipation and the end of slavery deserve a prominent place in our collective imagination.