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. 


Roy Rosenzweig

I am so sorry to hear of the death of historian Roy Rosenzweig.  From The Washington Post:

Roy A. Rosenzweig, 57, a social and cultural historian at George Mason University who became a prominent advocate for "digital history," a field combining historical scholarship with digital media’s broad reach and interactive possibilities, died Oct. 11 at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington County. He had lung cancer.

Dr. Rosenzweig, who taught history at GMU for the past 26 years, founded the university’s Center for History and New Media in 1994. As its director, he oversaw the creation of online history projects aimed mostly at high school and college students, including Web sites about U.S. history, the French Revolution and the history of science and technology.


Review of Robert K. Krick’s Civil War Weather in Virginia

This review is slated for publication in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.

On 15 May 1864 Captain John C. Winsmith of the 1st South Carolina Infantry penned a lengthy letter home in which he described the horrific fighting that had taken place in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House. In the seven pages, which included vivid descriptions of the battlefield and the constant movement of troops, Winsmith made only one brief reference to the weather. He reported that on 12 May he spent the night “in a heavy rain.” Winsmith’s failure or lack of interest in reporting the weather reflects our own tendency to overlook the physical conditions in which battles were fought. We know that the summers were oppressive in those uniforms and that they suffered on the march and in winter camp, but beyond that we can’t say much. We are dependent on individual historians reminding us, but here again the subject is covered in varying degrees and typically hinges on the thoroughness of the individual researcher.

Thanks to Robert K. Krick we no longer have to wonder about the weather along the Washington D.C. – Richmond corridor. Krick’s Civil War Weather in Virginia (University of Alabama Press, 2007) brings together the records of C. B. Mackee of Georgetown D.C., who faithfully recorded temperature and precipitation three times a day between 1 October 1860 30 June 1865. Krick organizes Mackee’s readings into fifty-seven tables, which also include sunrise and sunset for Richmond along with the dates of solstice and equinox. The tables make it possible to draw conclusions about the weather over time. For instance, although historians have written about the summer heat in the most colorful terms, a brief survey of the summer of 1864 shows a wide range of afternoon temperatures. We now can be much more precise. Brief reports from other regions can be found in the section that follows each table, which also includes references to the weather by the men in the ranks as well as civilians.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive weather survey for all of Virginia. The focus on the Washington–Richmond corridor reflects Krick’s own interest in the region where the Army of Northern Virginia spent much of its time and won some of its most impressive victories. Readers looking for analysis on the affects of weather on various campaigns will be sorely disappointed as Krick’s agenda is to provide a useful reference source rather than interpretation. That said, given Krick’s knowledge of the war in Virginia it would have been useful to include additional commentary on the ways in which a more complete understanding of weather conditions affects and challenges certain well-engrained assumptions about various battles and campaigns. For instance, Krick admits in the introduction that “traditional lore about weather during some Civil War episodes has been exaggerated, even fabricated” and refers to popular descriptions of the battle of Fredericksburg and its “frigid” conditions (p. 6). In fact, the readings indicate rather mild temperatures with afternoon highs between 56 and 68 during the period 12–15 December 1862.

It will take others to bring to bear the information that Krick has provided to the various battles and campaigns that transpired on the fields of eastern Virginia. Perhaps Krick’s brief reference to Fredericksburg will lead to other revisions. This project may also inspire others to do the same for other regions of the nation that witnessed heavy fighting. One final note: Although Winsmith recorded “heavy rain” for the night of 12 May 1864, table number 44 shows that he may also have experienced hail.

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Short Report From Jamestown

Jamestown2007_058We had a great time today at Jamestown.  It was an early start and we packed quite a bit into a few hours, but it was well worth it.  We started off at the Jamestown Settlement for a tour of a recreated Indian village, fort, and ships.  If you plan on taking a class or traveling on your own skip this site as it is not worth the time nor the money.  They have a brand new facility, but it exudes Disney-style entertainment.  Our guide was mediocre at best; most of my students actually knew more.  The Visitor Center is unimpressive apart from a few exhibits.  They make it a point to describe Pocahontas as an 11-year old girl who probably had her head shaved when she first met John Smith, but there she is in full Disney attire with full-length hair.  After lunch we headed on over to the Jamestown National Historic Site for a few hours.  My advice is to spend as much time here.  We had a beautiful day and the students got to spend time walking the actual site.  Unfortunately, we were not able to organize a tour through the NPS so we allowed students to explore on their own.  The site includes plenty of signs and as I walked I was pleased to see that a good number of the students were actually reading.  There is a new exhibit hall that includes thousands of excavated items, including what could be the skeleton of Bartholomew Gosnold.  It was a bit awkward as I looked on with a group of students and realized that we had just finished reading about him. 

Click here for pics.


Off To Jamestown

Today the entire junior class is going to Jamestown for the day.  We recently finished reading the book Love and Hate in Jamestown by David A. Price and last week my classes took a comprehensive test.  I am still grading, but overall I am extremely pleased with their performance.  I can say with confidence that my students know a great deal about Jamestown from both the perspective of the English and Indians.  They thoroughly enjoyed Price’s book, which is reflected in the thoughtfulness and level of detail on the tests.  My kids are actually excited about going to Jamestown, even the ones who have been there before.  No doubt part of it, of course, can be explained by a day off from classes, but a number of them have said to me that they are interested in walking the ground on which so much of the story is centered.  I’ve heard that a few of the students plan to wear costumes of their favorite characters.  How cool is that? 

I couldn’t be more pleased with my no-textbook approach this year.  The students are much more engaged and enthusiastic.  We are now transitioning into the Revolution and Constitution for a few weeks and plan to read 2 or 3 chapters in Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers.  Once we finish with that we move to Louis Masur’s 1831.  I don’t have any answers for the worry mongers out there who constantly bitch and complain about how little students know about American history.  All I can say is that if you make history interesting and relevant they will respond.  Not only will they respond, but you may even make a few life-long history readers out of them.  I am starting to realize that this is not rocket science. 

At the end of the school year I plan to write up this experience for a few teaching journals.  I am also planning on a few presentations at various teacher conventions to introduce this approach to others. 

I will post pics from the trip later today.