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.