My friends at the SHPG were so excited about my first C-SPAN appearance that one member decided to create a short clip of just me. Apparently, my emphasis on the importance of acknowledging northern racism is news. I couldn’t ask for more loyal support and I thank them for it.
I do hope C-SPAN plans on televising the CWI panel on blogging, which also included Harris and Brooks Simpson. Finally, I do want to pass along news of Louis Masur’s new book, which explores the hundred days between Lincoln’s preliminary and final emancipation proclamation. I am about half-way through and enjoying it.
That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom. – Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation
[Image: President Obama views Emancipation Proclamation in Oval Office]
I like the idea behind this short film. Young African-American woman gets an A on an essay she wrote about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry after having viewed the movie, Glory. Her adviser suggests that she visit the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. to talk with curator Hari Jones. The two walk through the exhibit to address some of the inaccuracies in the movie.
So why does this movie, and Hari Jones specifically, feel a need to lash out against Gary Gallagher? Gallagher offers extensive commentary of the movie’s historical basis in Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War. I suspect that Jones knows this, which makes his comment all the more bizarre. Jones strikes me as a knowledgeable and passionate historian. Perhaps this script was written by someone else. I fear that the result, including the embracing of the self-emancipation thesis without any reference to the Union army and other factors, is as much a distortion as Glory.
The other thing that struck me as awkward was the pointing out that you will not find any quotes from historians on the exhibit panels. According to Jones, if you weren’t there than your words will not appear. Fair enough, but it is worth pointing out that their exhibit is built on the backs of decades of careful research on the black experience during the war from professional historians, including Gary Gallagher.
After the war, a slave named Luke would ask for a parole when his master, a Confederate colonel, surrendered to a Yankee officer in Columbia, Mississippi. “Luke, you don’t need one,” said his master. “You never been a soldier.” “Yes, I has been a soldier–for four years,” Luke replied. “Now you and that man don’t want to do me that way.” The Yankee officer declared that Luke “made more sense” than the colonel did, and gave him his parole.
There is quite a bit to unpack here. First, there is Luke who is passionately making his case for recognition as a soldier. It’s not simply the status he is interested in, but the respect and acknowledgment that he had suffered and exercised the same virtues as any other man in the army. Luke is also quite assertive in his sharp response to his master and plea that he ought to be accorded the status of soldier. It’s hard not to see such a strong defiance as a product of his four years with the army, including some experience on the battlefield.
Luke’s master’s response speaks for itself. He was and is not a soldier in the Confederate army. Such an acknowledgment would have rendered the two as equals. Slaves could not be seen as exhibiting the same martial virtues and at the same time continue to be seen as the legal extension of the master’s will. Recognition as a solider also collapses the distinction between slave and citizen. The service of soldiers was a function of their obligation to the state as citizens. Slaves served their masters.
Finally, what are we to make of the Yankee officer’s decision to grant Luke a parole? On the one hand, it is very possible that he sympathized with the slave and believed he had made his case for the official recognition. I prefer a different interpretation. That officer would have understood what that military document meant to Luke’s master. In granting the parole he did something worse than acknowledge Luke’s freedom. He acknowledged Luke as his master’s equal.
This is one of those events that makes me wish that I still lived and taught in Virginia. My Civil War class would be front and center at this event. On September 22 a recreation of an 1862 slave crossing of the Rappahannock will take place at Cow’s Ford near Tin Pot Run. The famous photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan of slaves fording the river in that area on August 19, 1862 will serve as inspiration for the reenactment.
It’s nice to have a visual window into the crossing of slaves to freedom. [See John Hennessy's thoughtful analysis of the image at Mysteries and Conundrums and here] We have so few, but it does mean that the individuals in this photograph must somehow reflect our assumptions about what took place or what we hoped took place on the river. More importantly, we run the risk of reducing the slavery to freedom narrative to one moment. It’s one of the reasons I highly recommend Jim Downs’s new book, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Downs’s study reminds us that the steps toward freedom and beyond were fraught with challenges.
That a reenactment of the crossing is taking place at all is just another indication of how far our memory of the war has evolved. It’s also interesting to see the language of “self emancipation” being used in the online flier for this event – a reference that comes right out of the recent academic debate concerning the proper interpretation of emancipation. I hope the event gets the coverage it deserves and I do hope that people will take part to mark the event.