Tag Archives: Emancipation

Was Abraham Lincoln an Actor or Reactor?

I give fairly regular quizzes in my classes.  In my Civil War course I tend to give students a question that integrates their reading for the week.  I am interested in both whether they’ve retained the relevant content and the extent to which they can evaluate it.  Last week we concentrated on the events that led to Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in July 1862.  We discussed the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the actions of Generals Butler and Hunter, pressure from Radical Republicans, the movements of fugitive slaves, the end of slavery in Washington D.C. and the territories and, of course, the flow of events on the battlefield by mid-summer 1862.  It is very important to me that my students get beyond the “Great Emancipator” view of Lincoln.  Students should understand the complexity of events that led to emancipation and they should be asked to evaluate Lincoln’s place in this overall process.  I agree that the “Who Freed the Slaves Debate” has been played out, but that should not prevent us from continuing to reevaluate Lincoln’s importance in this important process.  With that in mind I decided to ask my students to respond to the following question:

To what extent was Abraham Lincoln and an actor or a reactor in the chain of events that led to his issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862?  Your answer should include references to relevant individuals, events, and concepts.

Want to take the quiz?  Go ahead and I will even give you a grade. :)

How Out Of Touch Is Governor Robert McDonnell?

Come to the former capital of the Confederacy this weekend to find out.  This weekend Richmond commemorates Emancipation Day with a wide range of events sponsored by the city’s history museums and other institutions.  What follows is an email that I received from the Online and Social Media Organizer at the University of Richmond.  I hope to be in Richmond this weekend.

I am sending this information to you as your readers may be interested in a Civil War commemoration coming up this Saturday. With Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent omission of slavery in his Confederate History Month proclamation (which he later corrected), the City of Richmond’s commemoration of the Civil War & Emancipation Day points the discussion of Civil War history in a direction of inclusivity.

As Gov. McDonnell’s proclamation struck a chord in this nation, I hope you will blog about Richmond’s initiative to move the conversation about the Civil War in a more comprehensive direction. [I trust that I've done just that.]

The need to tell a more accurate and inclusive story about the Civil War has led to an initiative in the City of Richmond, Va., to explore the Civil War from a more comprehensive perspective, through Civil War and Emancipation Day, a commemoration of the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in America. The event will be held in downtown Richmond at The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar and Shockoe Bottom on April 17, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, and 15 sites will offer exhibits, activities, performances, discussions, tours and other events.

As there is a clear need in Richmond, Virginia and the United States to include more information about the different perspectives of the Civil War – such as the suffering and triumph of African Americans during one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history – The Future of Richmond’s Past has organized the commemoration to present a more truthful, comprehensive perspective of the Civil War. Slavery will be addressed in addition to Confederate history.

For more info on Richmond’s Civil War & Emancipation Day, visit the event page on Facebook: http://ow.ly/1xsmC.

Visit The Future of Richmond’s Past on Facebook: http://ow.ly/1xsic or the website at http://www.futureofrichmondspast.org.

I thank you for your time.

[Click here for more information on the post image.]

“Now It Concerns Us”: Shenandoah (Part 2)

Shenandoah is a watershed movie for a number of reasons in my view.  As I mentioned in my last post, the movie steers clear of many of the traditional Lost Cause themes that can be found in earlier movies.  What I continue to be struck by, however, is the avoidance of any reference to what the war is about.  It is true that Charlie Anderson emphasizes the importance of slavery in one of the earlier scenes, but that particular discussion is disconnected from what comes after.  In the wedding scene where Sam marries Jenny the young officer is forced to immediately depart for the war.  As he says goodbye to his new bride she asks if he understands what the war is about.  Sam’s inability to offer any sort of response gives the scene a tragic quality as the young couple is split along with their future in doubt.  Another scene set on the Anderson porch also offers an opportunity to discuss the war.  Charlie steps outside with the doctor who has just delivered a child and asks him how he feels about the fact that Virginia is losing the war.  The doctor shares that one son is buried in Pennsylvania, another is home with tuberculosis, and a third is off riding with General Forrest.  In this scene the war is reduced to the personal loss and sadness experienced by the doctor.  The attention to cause and justification that is present in earlier movies is replaced by innocent scenes such as this one where Charlie Anderson offers Sam advice on how interpret the behavior of women.  No one seems to know what the war is about.

Later in the movie Charlie Anderson visits the family grave site that at one time only included his wife, but now includes his own children who he so desperately tried to shield from the war.  He admits, “There is nothing much I can tell you about this war…”  The scene once again steers clear of anything divisive about the war by blaming the politicians and allows the audience to embrace the emotional loss that accompanies all wars.

There are two additional scenes that I want to mention.  The first is a wonderful scene that includes “Federal agents” who have come to the Anderson farm to confiscate their horses.  This scene follows the strong anti-state theme that was mentioned in yesterday’s post.  What I find interesting is that the individuals in question are never identified as representatives of the Confederate government, though the government did indeed follow a policy of confiscation throughout much of the war.  Was this a conscious effort not to alienate any particular segment of the viewing population and maintain the neutral stance of Charlie Anderson?  I don’t know.

The most interesting scene thus far is the emancipation moment involving the young slave boy.  The viewer is not exposed to any working slaves other than one moment early on outside of the church.  Slaves are seen as drivers, including the slave boy who is friends with the youngest Anderson boy.  In a remarkable scene that takes place following a brief skirmish the two boys are confronted by Union soldiers, two of whom are black.  [Note: Black Union soldiers did not serve in the Shenandoah Valley.]  The young Anderson boy is taken prisoner owing to his kepi which he discovered in a stream earlier in the movie.  He asks the young slave to run home to inform his father of what has happened.  In that moment one of the black soldiers informs him that he does not have to do so because he is now free.  It’s an incredibly brief moment, but crucial nevertheless.

Only after learning of his son’s capture does the war finally matter to Charlie Anderson: “Now it concerns us.”

“I Would Save the Union….”

I had one of those moments today in my Civil War course where a student said something that helped me understand a document from a completely different perspective.  We are in the middle of a week-long discussion of the coming of emancipation in the summer of 1862.  We are following the ebb and flow of battle in Virginia and along the Mississippi and tracking the changes taking place throughout the United States surrounding the push toward emancipation.  One of the more interesting documents we read this week was a Congressional address by Ohio Democratic Congressman Samuel S. Cox.  On June 3, 1862 Cox delivered a blistering condemnation of emancipation and outlined a horrific picture of what would happen to the good people of Ohio in the event of a general emancipation.  It was difficult to read, though it is crucial for my students to understand the strong racist views that white Northerners held at this time.

Today we read Lincoln’s famous response to Republican newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, who urged Lincoln to move more quickly against slavery.  We all know Lincoln’s response to Greeley in which he carefully explains how slavery relates to the overriding goal of preserving the Union.  I asked my students to think about who Lincoln was addressing in this response and what he was trying to accomplish.  A number of interesting points were raised in terms of Lincoln trying to find a middle ground by satisfying the Democrats focus on Union and a growing Republican interest in emancipation.  We also discussed the extent to which Lincoln was trying to force those on the extremes to acknowledge that they may have to give up something in return for the preservation of the Union.  At one point one of my students asked if Lincoln was trying to set the terms of what it means to be committed to the cause and the nation.  In other words, that Lincoln may have been trying to define the language of patriotism and loyalty.  With Cox in mind she suggested that Lincoln was forcing him to defend a position that may end up satisfying his own personal/local priorities even if that meant losing the war.  I assume we could apply the same line of reasoning in reference to those on the opposite side who were so focused on ending slavery without considering the possibility that this may not bring about the preservation of the Union.  To be completely honest, I never thought of this.

I always have to remember to control my facial response when a student says something that I find truly insightful.  The last thing I want to do is stifle further discussion.  With all of the talk about mischievous teachers steering their students in ways that reflect our own political values it’s nice to be able to point to an example where it’s the student who steers the teacher.  As far as I am concerned, it’s not about us anyway.

What Political Act Freed the Slaves?

Check out Mode for Caleb for a thorough analysis of the meaning of political action as it relates to the abolitionist movement. The question of how historians should understand the necessary and sufficient conditions of political behavior has tended to focus on those “who were willing to roll up their sleeves and engage in formal “politics,” whether by organizing antislavery parties, running candidates for local and national office, and forging cross-party coalitions” as opposed to those who like Garrison himself who refused to take part in the process or were disfranchised for one reason or another. I agree with Caleb that our definition of “political” must be extended along the lines of Steven Hahn’s analysis in his most recent award-winning book, A Nation Under Our Feet. From McDaniel’s post:

One of Hahn’s central–and most provocative–points is that enslaved and recently emancipated people in the South “constituted themselves as political actors” and created a “distinctive African-American politics,” and that they did so long before being declared legally free or obtaining the right to vote (p. 1). To call people who lacked legal citizenship “political” actors, Hahn argues, requires “a broad understanding of politics and the political … that encompasses collective struggles for what might be termed socially meaningful power” (p. 3). This broad understanding does not exclude the traditional definition of the political arena as having to do with the electoral arena; Hahn’s book follows his “political actors” from slavery through emancipation and into partisan politics during Reconstruction, so he does not mean to diminish the importance of electoral politics by arguing for the existence of what he calls “slave politics” (p. 3). But Hahn does argue that viewing “slaves, who had no standing in the official arenas of civil and political society, as nonpolitical, prepolitical, or protopolitical” prevents historians from understanding the kinds of political choices that freedpeople made once they were enfranchised and endowed with citizenship rights. The transition from slavery to freedom did not transform formerly apolitical slaves into political agents, but rather transposed struggles over power from one political arena into another.

Such an analysis works well in the classroom in reference to the question of who freed the slaves. Most of my students when asked answer the question by pointing to Lincoln, but when asked to explain why he decided to free the slaves when he in fact did so they fall flat. Their image and explanation is of a president who somehow arrives at the conclusion in a vacuum. The act of issuing the proclamation itself becomes a sufficient explanation to the question of who freed the slaves. Hahn’s analysis forces us to step back to look for the external reasons that steered Lincoln in a certain direction. This year my students analyzed a range of source to better understand Lincoln’s decision. One of the first sources we looked at was a famous photograph of fugitive slaves followed by the beginning of the movie Glory which includes a scene showing the passing of escaped slaves along with the voice of Robert G. Shaw reading a letter home. I asked them to think about how fugitive slaves might impact the war effort for both sides. How might their presence in Union camps present both problems and opportunities for local commanders and eventually the Lincoln administration. More importantly, we tried to understand the motivations and intentions of the slaves themselves-as difficult as that is given the lack of traditional documentation. Still, it is not difficult to interpret their motivation and to do so by utilizing political terms. The very act of escape toward Union lines can be interpreted as political behavior. Hahn’s analysis reminds us of our bias towards written sources and the need to acknowledge behavior as an indication of political action. African Americans like Hiram Revels and others did not become political actors during Reconstruction, but moved into different political arenas. The goal is not to ignore Lincoln’s role in bringing about emancipation, but to acknowledge those, including those on the grass roots level, who engaged in political behavior that shaped the president’s policy of preserving the Union.

Introducing students to such an analysis also has a more immediate benefit. Since we tend to interpret political behavior as simply exercising the vote students often feel cut off from any opportunity to voice their concerns about national and world affairs. I’ve seen this intensify over the past few years. Understanding that political action that goes beyond simply casting a vote has the potential to bring about fundamental change can be empowering for those not yet of the voting age.