It’s a question that is on my mind right now as I work to complete an editorial for the Atlantic. We’ve commemorated the trifecta of our Civil War Sesquicentennial, which in my mind includes Emancipation, Gettysburg, and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Other than the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, what else is there to acknowledge? It will be interesting to see whether President Obama accepts an invitation to speak at Gettysburg in November.
It seems to me that the war in 1864-65 takes the kind of turn that is not easily framed in the form of commemorations and celebrations. We shall see.
The other day I briefly noted my surprise by how little the war was being discussed in a conference devoted to Massachusetts and the Civil War. What I am struck by now looking back on the three days of talks at the MHS is the overwhelming emphasis on Boston’s abolitionist community. That should not come as a surprise given the location of the conference and the place of the abolitionists in local memory. I learned quite a bit about them and I accumulated a nice list of books and article from the papers, which were wisely precirculated.
By the end of the conference the abolitionists’ agenda had emerged as the dominant narrative of the Civil War. In fact, if this conference can be defined as reflecting a Civil War memory it would have to be that of the abolitionists themselves and their agenda beginning in the antebellum period through the war and into the era of Reconstruction. It was so palpable that even our understanding of the war’s meaning and the success or failure of Reconstruction had little chance of being critically examined without Garrison, Douglass, and the rest of the gang looking over our shoulders. There was little consideration of the importance of Union, as recently analyzed by Gary Gallagher in his new book, The Union War>, nor was there much of an attempt to distinguish between the goal of ending slavery and the question of civil rights. The war had been reduced to an agenda with racial equality as its ultimate goal. In short, it was all or nothing. Continue reading →
It is not hard to understand the flurry of support for colonization during the Civil War. Notwithstanding the opposition of radical abolitionists, colonization presupposed emancipation, and whenever talk of emancipation arose, so too did talk of colonization. The more difficult question to answer is why it came to so little. In the modern world, wars of unification, especially civil wars inflamed by ethnic nationalism, commonly lead to forced population transfers and sometimes genocide. The Civil War in the United States was certainly a war of national unification, and the Republicans exhibited more than their fare share of ethnic nationalism. Nor was the idea of forced expulsion unheard of in the United States. Most Republican policymakers were old enough to remember the brutal “removal” of the southeastern Indians during Andrew Jackson’s administration. And during the Civil War itself the Union army forcibly expelled some ten thousand whites from their homes in Missouri. The same army systematically uprooted tens of thousands of slaves from their plantations to relocate them in areas safe from the reach of their former masters. And yet not a single emancipated slave was involuntarily “removed” from the United States in the wake of emancipation. (p. 281)
Oakes goes on to suggest an explanation, but for now I am going to leave you with just the excerpt.
Below is a very short video of Oakes offering his own understanding of the popular question of who freed the slaves. His answer offers a concise overview of the main argument in his book. I am going to include this video for my students to consider as they work through a collection of primary and secondary sources on emancipation.
I would love to see more museums and other historical institutions use social media to share lessons learned from visitors. Here are two short interviews with participants, who attended a talk on the Emancipation Proclamation at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. They are, indeed, voices of the Civil War – our voices.