I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying James Oakes’s new book, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865. At some point soon I will share some thoughts, but for now I wanted to highlight the cover art by Theodor Kaufmann. “On to Liberty” is in my mind the most compelling visual interpretation of the emancipation experience of tens of thousands of slaves during the Civil War. Here we have a group of fugitive slaves walking confidently toward the sound of Union guns off in the distance. The flash of the cannon and United States flag function as a beacon for this particular group. It’s interesting that there are no adult black men present. But what I want to point out is that apart from one child, who is wearing boots, everyone else is barefoot. Whose boots might they be? Are they military? If so, Confederate? Perhaps they belong to the boy’s former owner? What might that mean?
Old Warehouses and canal in Hamburg, Germany
As many of you know I spent my Christmas break with my wife in Germany. This is my third trip and with each visit I’ve grown more attached to the people, the landscape, and the culture. I find myself completely absorbed by my surroundings when abroad, especially in Germany. My passion for the history of the Civil War is replaced by an intense interest in the German experience in World War II. My visits always include a good book about the period. This time around I put a major dent in Richard Evans’s The Third Reich at War. I have little problem imagining the battles, lines of advance and ruins of places like Bonn and especially Koln owing to that iconic image of the bombed-out city center, including the cathedral and nearby railroad bridge.
My interest in the period, however, is not purely military. Even though I do not live a religious life I was raised in a Jewish family and my education early on was filled with survivors of and stories about the Holocaust. I don’t just bring that personal past with me to Germany, I am forced to confront it on a daily basis. It manifests itself in the form of a puzzle or set of seemingly contradictory perceptions. On the one hand I am married to a wonderful German woman. Her family has accepted me with open arms. I have never felt from anyone in my wife’s family – or for that matter anyone else in Germany – any feelings of Anti-Semitism.
At the same time I can’t help but acknowledge the brief span of time between today and the 1940s. For historians 70 years is a drop in the bucket. It’s impossible for me to ignore the fact that just a few decades my presence in this very same country would have been met with disgust, anger, and worse. I know this and at times it colors how I view the people around me. At times I find myself playing with the faces in the streets. I can imagine the elderly in their youth – young enough to have lived through the Nazi era and perhaps somehow contributing to the extermination of the Jewish people. I can imagine them forcing me onto a train. But what troubles me is how easily I can imagine younger male faces in German/SS uniforms. I can’t help but feel a certain amount of guilt and shame for doing so. After all, why saddle a younger generation with the past? The mental act is my way of trying to come to terms with what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” Why would my presence have been so revolting just a few decades ago when now I am welcomed with open arms? I’ve read plenty of philosophy and social scientists on just this question, but they provide me with little in terms of answers.
For me, the past and present collapse when in Germany.
Unfortunately, this may be the closest we get to any formal acknowledgement of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by the federal government. I love the broadside/poster theme and the use of one of the oldest letterpress print shops in the country to create the image. In addition to the stamp, you can also purchase a limited number of signed copies of the poster. Planning on picking up a sheet today.
Update: Thanks to the Virginia Civil War 150 Commission for reminding me that the White House released a Presidential Proclamation acknowledging the EP 150.
From the video description:
For thirty two days, voices of veterans of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars animated a bronze commemorative statue of Abraham Lincoln that has stood silently in Union Square Park since 1870.
The memories and feelings of ordinary Americans spoke through Lincoln as part of an outdoor public art installation by Krzysztof Wodiczko, an artist renowned for his large-scale light projections on architectural facades and monuments. Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection marked a return of sorts to Manhattan for the artist, whose last monumental work here was the influential and still often cited Homeless Project (1988).
“As our troops withdraw from Afghanistan, this commemorative statue, commissioned just a few years after the Civil War, again becomes a place for dialogue about war,” says Micaela Martegani, founding director of More Art. More Art, an eight-year-old organization devoted to bringing new and innovative works of art into public spaces in New York City, is the organizer of Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection.
In collaboration with many New York City veterans organizations, Wodiczko has engaged with dozens of veterans and their family members over the course of several months. He filmed fourteen of the veterans and their family members for the installation of Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, recording conversations about their war experiences and the toll of duty on their family life. It was these points of views, presented in each person’s own words, voice, and gestures, that were projected via sound and light onto the figure of Lincoln.
In 1988 Wodiczko used the monument at Bunker Hill in Boston to share the stories from local mothers who lost sons to street violence.
In response to my last post Al Mackey referenced a North and South magazine article from back in 2001 by William Harris on the Emancipation Proclamation. Al correctly noted that Harris’s article addresses the long-standing myth that the proclamation did not immediately free any slaves in the South. I’ve made use of this particular article (December 2001) on numerous occasions in my courses on the Civil War. What I especially like about the article is the accompanying map, which is incredibly helpful in visualizing the reach of the document.
You may also want to read a recent Disunion essay on emancipation along the Sea Islands of South Carolina by Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle.