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. 

Related Posts:
Christian Warrior 101 12/13
The Fundamentalists’ Civil War 12/17
Were Southern Slaveowners "Trapped"? 12/19
One Step Back 12/21
Looking For A Few Righteous Men: How About Slaveowners? 12/22


No Confederate History Month in Suffolk, Virginia

Mayor Linda Johnson of Suffolk, Virginia rejected the Tom Smith Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans request to designate April as Confederate History Month.  Her reasoning is as follows:

"It is my goal to work towards unity of all Suffolkians … of all heritages,
faiths and ethnicities," her statement read. "All soldiers of all wars that have
fought or died for their cause are to be honored and remembered. We do this on
Veterans Day, Memorial Day and, hopefully, throughout our daily lives."

Meanwhile the North Carolina State Senate passed a resolution expressing "profound regret" for the actions of the state in promoting and sanctioning slavery.  The House will take this issue up next week and is expected to approve it.

And so it goes.

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Sherman’s March on the History Channel

The History Channel sent me a promotional copy of the upcoming feature "Sherman’s March" which will air on April 22.  I had a chance to view it and plan to write up a review to be posted on the 22nd.  I assume that I was not the only blogger contacted.  If you were in fact contacted and plan to write a review perhaps we can plan to post at the same time, build in the necessary links and get a discussion going — sort of an online roundtable.  Feel free to respond to this post or contact me through my private email.


Are You a Pro-Union Scholar?

James I. Robertson is one of the most visible and respected of our Civil War historians.  I’ve read all of his books, and his biography of “Stonewall” Jackson is rightly considered a major accomplishment in the field of biography.  That said, I still find his participation in and continued support of the movie Gods and Generals to be somewhat amusing  Here is an interview with Robertson from Planet Blacksburg, which included a response that caught my attention since I have no idea what point he was trying to make:

Q: Are there a lot of scholars that are very Pro-Union or Pro-Confederate?

The majority are Pro-Union.  The overwhelming majority [of scholars] are Pro-Union, yes.  We southerners are in the minority.

Very strange response indeed.


Teaching Lincoln

With the end of the school year not too far off it’s time to think about electives for next year.  I’ve already decided to offer my Women’s History class next spring; that should give you an idea of just how much I am enjoying this class.  For the fall term I’ve decided to offer a class specifically on Abraham Lincoln.  I have yet to write up a detailed course description and I don’t even know what to call the class.  Perhaps “Lincoln’s America” or Lincoln’s Civil War” will work.  I foresee a fairly straightforward class that explores both Lincoln’s personal life as well as the war years, and if there is time I will introduce the class to issues related to Lincoln and memory.

As far as books are concerned I’ve decided to use the late William Gienapp’s short biography, Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America (Oxford University Press, 2002) along with the companion volume of primary sources.  The biography is right around 200 pages which will make it easy to bridge off from to examine other sources and work on various projects.  The companion volume of letter, speeches, etc. is compiled from Roy Basler’s The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.  I also wanted to order one book of essays on Lincoln, but am having some difficulty narrowing it down.  Right now Gabor Boritt’s The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces Of An American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2001) is the front runner.  The essays cover a wide swath.  The essays include Douglas Wilson on Lincoln’s early life, David H. Donald on Lincoln and Davis as commander in chief as well as Allen Guelzo on Lincoln and the Constitution.  Finally, there is a wonderful collection of artistic interpretations of Lincoln by Boritt and Harold Holzer.  Feel free to offer any other suggestions that you think might work well.

I plan to write up something fairly substantial about the course in light of the upcoming Lincoln Bicentennial celebrations.  I am already working on a lesson plan that looks at how the Ken Burns documentary interprets Lincoln’s life.  Who knows, maybe I will take the class on a pilgrimage to Springfield, Illinois.