Did Lincoln Free the Slaves?: Interpretation in the Classroom

This week my Lincoln class will focus on the summer of 1862 and the events that led Lincoln to issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, just five days following the battle of Antietam.  I want my students to tackle the question of how to explain emancipation and why historians disagree over Lincoln’s role specifically.  In addition to William Gienapp’s biography students will read an article by Ira Berlin titled "Who Freed the Slaves: Emancipation and its Meaning" which is included in a wonderful collection of essays edited by Brooks Simpson and David Blight titled Union and Emancipation: Essays on Politics and Race in the Civil War Era (Kent State University Press, 1997).  Finally, students will watch scenes from Ken Burns’s Civil War.  Their assignment will be to compare the three interpretations.  Gienapp presents a well rounded interpretation of how Lincoln responded to both political pressure and military events within the context of emancipation.  The Berlin article offers an interpretation that places the abolitionists as well as the slaves themselves at center stage and offers a corrective to our traditional top-down picture of Lincoln as the primary agent of emancipation.  I am going to emphasize and spend the most time on Burns who I believe offers a rather convoluted picture of emancipation.  I’ve said before that the worst thing a teacher can do is show Burns without any guide or activity that engages students.  My emphasis on Burns is in part preparation for a talk that I will give (assuming the panel is approved) on teaching the Civil War at the upcoming June meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians.  In addition, I am in the beginning stages of a book-length project with my former thesis advisor that will provide the most complete analysis of Burns’s documentary to date.  More on that at a later date.

I plan to begin the Burns documentary with Episode 3 and the sections "Saving the Union" (August 1862) through "A Higher Object" (September 1862).  Students will have part of the transcript available to follow along.  What is striking is the complete absence of any discussion on how the military situation for the Union is shaping policy on slavery.  The first section focuses on McClellan’s reappointment to command as well as the defeat of Union armies under the command of Gen. John Pope.  Shelby Foote makes a few appearances to talk about the camaraderie of men in arms as well as the human price of war.  The only mention of slavery before the section on Antietam is a reference to Horace Greely’s letter to Lincoln calling for the emancipation of slaves as well as Lincoln’s famous response.  In addition, British Prime Minister Palmerston hints at the possibilities of official recognition of slavery.  Burns then shifts to Lee’s invasion of Maryland as well as the battle of Antietam itself.  Following that section is the final chapter to be shown, titled "A Higher Object" which opens with an image of Ulysses S. Grant and his failed attempt at taking Vicksburg.  A short interview with historian Ed Bearrs follows:

The Confederacy was on the offensive over a thousand mile front. Mr. Gladstone, a power in the English cabinet, is saying, “Jeff Davis has made a navy. He’s made an army and what’s more important,” intimating that he’s made a nation. But, the invasion of Maryland fails. Lee is defeated, falls back. They lose at Perryville in Kentucky. They lose at Iuka and Corinth in Mississippi, and even Newtonia, Missouri. And the Confederate tide rolls back. Lincoln, as a result of Antietam, converted the war to a higher plane, again the master politician. He announces the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Of course, it doesn’t free a single slave in revolt, frees only as a war measure and only frees a slaves in states where the Confederacy is in control. And it will take effect on the first day of January.

Bearrs is a bizarre choice to interview on this subject.  When you get beyond his mannerisms he offers a rather simplistic overview of Lincoln’s decision.  This is the extent of the analysis of what led to Lincoln’s decision to issue the proclamation.  Images of slave families follow as the viewer listens to  Sam Waterston recite a few choice lines from the document.  There is no attempt whatsoever to look at this moment from the perspective of African Americans and this will provide a nice point of contrast with Ira Berlin’s article.  The British perspective and decision not to recognize the Confederacy is given voice by the philosopher John Stuart Mill: "The triumph of the Confederacy would be a victory of the powers of evil which would give courage to the enemies of progress and damp the spirits of friends all over the civilized world. The American Civil War is destined to be a turning point, for good or evil, of the course of human affairs."  The only African American quoted comes at the end of Episode 3 as Burns wraps up, from various perspectives, the changes that have taken place throughout 1862.  No surprise that the individual in question here is Frederick Douglass: "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree- “Free forever.” Oh, ye millions of free and loyal men who have earnestly sought to free your bleeding country from the dreadful ravages of revolution and anarchy, lift up now your voices with joy and thanksgiving for with freedom to the slave will come peace and safety to your country."

This alone would give the class plenty to analyze, but in fact Burns does not completely ignore the story of slaves or the perspective that they influenced events at the highest level of government.  Burns does this with a number of short interview clips with historian Barbara Fields who has worked with Ira Berlin on the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.  What makes this interesting for the purpose of analysis is the placement of those clips throughout the documentary.  I plan to collect these interviews as reference points for my students.  Here are a few examples:

Prologue to Episode 3: It could have been a very ugly filthy war with no redeeming characteristics at all. And it was the battle for emancipation, and the people who pushed it forward – the slaves, the free black people, the abolitionists, and a lot of ordinary citizens – it was they who ennobled what otherwise would have been meaningless carnage into something higher.

"The Beast": Episode 3: The slaves understood that that war was about slavery before it was a war. They made a nuisance for the army and they also made an issue that the army had to deal with. And if they army had to deal with it, the War Department had to deal with it. If the War Department had to deal with it, Congress had to deal with it. That means that every fugitive slave who made a nuisance of himself to the local commander eventually made a figure of himself to the Congress of the United States

"Oh! Be Joyful": Episode 4: The people most affected by the Emancipation Proclamation obviously did not receive it as news because they knew before Lincoln knew that the war was about emancipation and moreover they knew, as perhaps Lincoln did without fully realizing it, and certainly as many people today do not realize, that the Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to get them their freedom. It said that they had a right to go and put their bodies on the line if they had the nerve to believe in it and many of them had the nerve to believe in it and many suffered for that.

Again, these clips are sprinkled throughout the documentary and should bring additional perspective to our discussion.  Students can think about why Bearrs was interviewed instead of Fields in the section immediately following Antietam as well as whether these passages are properly integrated into the overall narrative that Burns introduces.  Hopefully, the discussions will be informed and students will leave with a greater appreciation of the challenges involved in interpretation. 

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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10 comments… add one
  • Bill Stevens Oct 31, 2018 @ 9:58

    I’ve been using a unit in which students read Fields, McPherson, amongst others, and then analyze primary sources. Finally, participating in a debate around the question, “Does Lincoln deserve the title, “The Great Emancipator?” I’m at a new school, with a large percentage of ESL students. I am looking to modify my resources for some. Any chance you have come across a copy of the Fields essay as a Word Doc. This would allow me to modify appropriately. I know this is a bit random, but I’m desperate.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 31, 2018 @ 11:44

      Hi Bill. Sounds great. Do you have a specific Fields essay in mind?

  • Geoff Elliott Nov 15, 2007 @ 13:50

    This course seems to be put together very well and I wish I could take it myself.

    Lincoln’s journey towards the Emancipation Proclamation is indeed a fascinating one. As you carefully point out, the Proclamation in and of itself did not free even one slave, but it did have a huge impact on both sides of the Civil War. What always must be remembered is that Lincoln, being the brilliant politician he was, waited until a major Union victory before issuing it.

    The Proclamation also helped to secure his re-election in 1864. It enabled him to garner the political support of the powerful abolitionists.


  • Kevin Levin Oct 16, 2007 @ 7:10

    Thanks for the suggestion Andrew. Unfortunately, that would go beyond the goal of the lesson which is to address the proper way to view the events that led to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Remember this is a course on Lincoln and not the Civil War more generally.

  • Andrew Stegmaier Oct 16, 2007 @ 0:05

    To add a third dimension to the lesson (beyond Bearrs and Fields), I suggest introducing that of confederates who did not see a struggle for political independence as “meaningless.” Perhaps a few passages from Jeff Davis’ “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.” Or a more contemporary source–I’m sure there are plenty.

  • Brooks Simpson Oct 15, 2007 @ 15:05

    FWIW, I think the very question “who freed the slaves?” is miscast. “How did emancipation come about?” suggests the many paths to freedom.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 15, 2007 @ 10:50

    Stephen, — You are right on every point. I should have pointed out that I’ve used that McPherson piece before and it does indeed work well. Your comment serves as a reminder of just how much excellent material is out there that can be integrated into a high school history class. Thanks again.

  • Stephen West Oct 15, 2007 @ 10:25

    Kevin – Sounds like a great lesson plan to me too, and I especially like the way you’re asking questions about the Burns documentary.

    You’ve already got your students reading a lot, but I would just echo Caleb’s recommendation of the McPherson article. It’s useful for several reasons. First, because it allows you to ask questions about how historians talk–or talk past–one another, and how they characterize each other’s work (e.g., the use of the “self-emancipation” label). Second, it allows you to talk about how current-day politics figure in historical interpretation (the question of “great men” and “history from the bottom up,” and McPherson’s appeal to the view of the “man on the street” vs. that of professional historians). Finally, the articles show two very different modes of historical reasoning (esp. interesting are the counterfactual aspects of McPherson’s approach, which have lots of echoes in other parts of ACW historiography.)

    I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but I thought it might be useful for some of your readers.

    Good luck with the class, and with the SCWH paper.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 14, 2007 @ 15:24

    Hi Caleb, — It’s nice to hear from you. I know exactly the McPherson article that you have in mind here. It is reprinted in his collection of essays, Drawn With the Sword. I thought about using it, but went with Berlin instead.

  • calebmcd Oct 14, 2007 @ 15:10

    Sounds like a great lesson, Kevin. In one of my freshman classes I’ve also paired the Berlin article with a 1995 article by James McPherson, also titled “Who Freed the Slaves?”, which argues that Lincoln was the crucial agent of emancipation, even though he was not the only one.

    The article is under 10 pages and explicitly engages with the work of Berlin, Fields, and the Freedmen and Southern Society Project. You can find it on JSTOR.

    Hope this comment finds you well!

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