Please keep in mind that this is a very rough post. I didn’t take the time to review it for grammar since I wanted to post this as part of the day’s proceedings. Perhaps later I will follow-up with a short post on my session as well as my thoughts concerning Prof. Glymph’s presentation.
We are about five minutes from the start of today’s Teaching American History grant session on major turning points between 1850 and 1877. The sessions that I am helping out with are being organized by Andy Mink, who is in charge of educational outreach for the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia. There are 18 teachers and 2 administrators who are participating in a series of talks on the teaching of history. The morning session will be run by Duke University historian, Thavolia Glymph, and I am taking care of the afternoon session.
My plan is to use the battle of Antietam as a case study of a classic turning point of the Civil War. I am using it, in part, because most of us think it is a crucial moment in the course of the Civil War. My goal, however, is to look at the battle and its aftermath by looking at a range of primary sources that give us a richer sense of how people – at the time – viewed events. As teachers we ask our students to think about important events or turning points as a way to understand change over time. The SOLs single specific events out as more important than others and it is up to us to explain why they are important and worth remembering. It’s a way of organizing material and making sense of a past that is incredibly complex. The concept works well when trying to cover a great deal of material in a short period of time and it works effectively to help us distinguish between degrees of importance in the past. In doing so, however, we often reduce the past to a point where we are unable to appreciate the perspectives of those who lived through momentous times. In our need to organize the facts we sometimes fail to appreciate the sense of contingency that defined the lives of historic actors. Finally, we overlook the many perspectives that colored those on the ground. As a teacher I strive to achieve a balance between high-order understanding of the sweep of major events such as the Civil War without overlooking those whose lives were inextricably shaped in ways that they could barely comprehend.
Now to Professor Glymph’s presentation: “The Crisis of the Union”
Focus of the talk is on the Emancipation Proclamation and she chose it because it is not considered a traditional turning point as compared to battles/campaigns. Overall focus on how the EP introduced or forced the question and problem of black citizenship. We must understand the extent to which the United States emphasized that the war was not about emancipation. In 1861 Federal commanders arrived with orders from Washington which prevented them from taking the property of slaveholders. The movement of men and ships, however, placed them in direct contact with fugitive slaves who reminded commanders of the First Confiscation Act. How do slaves know? They hear their masters as well as other whites who discuss the issue in the open. Other important decisions leading to September 1862 include the Article of War (March 1862), the Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act (July 1862). Each step worked to secure the sense among fugitive slaves that their owners could not reclaim them. Glymph emphasizes the Second Confiscation Act since in its emphasis on treason as a sufficient reason for the emancipation of their slaves. It also authorized the president to employ people of African descent; this represents an important transformation for the Federal government. In addition, if the nation continues to move to a point where large numbers of slaves are emancipated a solution must be found as to what to do with them – colonization/”anywhere tropical” according to the 2nd Confiscation Act. The Militia Act stated that if African American men sign up their families will also be freed. So, then why is the Emancipation Proclamation so important?
In what ways was it a revolutionary and conservative document? One of the reasons Glymph believes is important has to do with the emancipation of slaves in Washington, D.C. Slavery had for a long time been considered an embarasment given its symbol and visitors from outside the country. The government focuses on it since it is not a state and comes under its authority. Emancipation was compensated in the capital in April 1862; the government appropriated $1 million dollars for the project. It helps to understand the importance of the EP since it did not involve compensation. It minimizes its importance as a moral decision given that the government is purchasing private property rather than simply declaring them free. If you were a slave in D.C. your freedom was purchased for you; F. Douglass had a serious problem with this decision – slaveholders don’t lose and the plan is to colonize the freed population.
Throughout this period the slaves continued to impose themselves on local Federal commanders and setting up contraband camps. Some black regiments were organized in South Carolina and Kansas in 1862. The EP is critical because it makes it possible for blacks to be recruited as solders and take up arms. On the surface, according to Glymph, this is significant and many Union soldiers acknowledged that it was time to use them in battle, though the government continued to move slowly.
The EP has been criticized for what it didn’t do and Lincoln has been called a racist by some historians. Lincoln was explict in the EP and stated that the EP is a war measure and nothing more. He was not trying to do anything but win the war; the EP, then, must be understood as part of the original intention of Lincoln to save the Union. [Students read the EP] Glymph argues that this is not a document that can be used to say anything about Lincoln’s view on race. Lincoln acted as commander-in-chief and that is how this documen must be read. The document was designed to accomplish one thing and this is why he draws distinctions between where the proclamation will apply and where it will not apply.
Importance of the document must be understood in terms of its refusal to offer compensation. For Glymph’s important not for what if says but for what it makes African Americans feel. It legitimizes what African Americans already knew. Glymph believes that it is important for students to understand the courage it took for thousands of slaves to leave their homes and leave, not knowing where they would end up – think of refugee camps. They were also no longer working for the Confederate nation. Every body removed was potentially a body for the United States. The proclamation fuels this process and because it does, because fugitive slaves are not leaving for foreign land, the federal government must deal with them. The Federal government creates the American Freedmena Inquiry Commission (AFIC)-precursor to Freedmen’s Bureau.
AFIC spent time in various parts of the South to try to figure out what to do following emancipation. They approached the question with typical northern prejudices when interviewing slaves. Asked slaves what they would do with their freedom. Their report led Congress to form the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865. The EP allows former slaves to think about forming families and their place in the civic culture. These are questions that must be understood independently from what we think of Lincoln on race. Freedom would mean the right to an education, the right to marry legally, etc.
When Glymph teaches a turning point she emphasizes what the decision does or how people responded. Group analyzes a set of documents to begin to answer that important question. Doc. 1 is a letter from J. Boston to his wife who is still enslaved. Boson lets her know that he is safe, but also begs his former master to be kind to his family. In another letter from Hannah Johnson to A. Lincoln she informs the president that her son is serving in the 54th Massachusetts and encourages him to continue the policy of the recruitment of black Americans and to ensure that “he [Jefferson Davis] will never let them sell our colored soldiers for slaves.” Johnson is writing to remind Lincoln what freedom means and his responsibility in protecting the lives of black men in the ranks. The letters demonstrate how blacks interpreted the Emancipation Proclamation. One of the things that black Americans interpreted the EP as heralding is a claim to citizenship and respect as men for those who served in the army. [All too often we interpret the document’s importance w/o looking at how black Americans viewed the situation.] Finally, Corporal James H. Gooding wrote from Morris Island, S.C. pleading with the president to allow them to fight as soldiers rather than digging ditches: We “have shared the perils, and Labour, of Reducing the first stronghold, that flaunted a Traitor Flag.”
Finally, freed slaves fought to ensure that they would not be reenslaved. The fact that Lincoln did not revoke the EP is, perhaps, the most significant reason to single this decision/event as a turning point in the Civil War and American history.