Antietam, Emancipation, and Civil War Memory

John Hoptak’s recent post on his experience discussing emancipation as a Park Ranger at the Antietam National Battlefield Park is well worth reading.  This is an issue that I’ve discussed repeatedly on this site having to do with our inability and/or unwillingness to come to terms with the role that emancipation and race played in the It seems that a sizable number of visitors to Antietam have little patience when the political and racial consequences of the battle are discussed.  Here is how John frames the issue:

However, I cannot help but wonder why some in America–people who love
and celebrate freedom–can have such a problem and be so angry with my
discussing the Emancipation Proclamation. The issuance of this all
important document was a pivotal moment not just in the history of the
Civil War, but in all of American history as well, and it certainly
needs to be discussed as part of the September 1862 Maryland Campaign,
since the preliminary draft of the Proclamation was signed on Monday
September 22, 1862, just five days after the guns fell silent at
Antietam. I would believe that this is something we as Americans can
celebrate universally since it was the first step in the long road
leading to the freedom of more than 4 million enslaved Americans.

I agree that from a certain perspective and given the starting point from which John proceeds it is strange that there is  any issue at all.  As John notes such responses are not specific to any one region of the country, nor I suspect generation.  The responses are all too typical from the overly simplistic observation that Lincoln held what we would describe today as racist views of black Americans to the claim that the Emancipation Proclamation was a military document that only freed slaves where they could not be reached at the time that it was put into effect.  None of these points, as well as others, are really worth spending time debating as there are plenty of recent studies which clearly demonstrate that Lincoln’s views concerning slavery and race were much more complex as well as his intentions surrounding the Proclamation.  The point, as John rightly notes, is that the evolution of military affairs, specifically battles such as the one at Antietam, did lead to the eventual end of slavery and that is worth taking seriously and even celebrating as Americans whose patriotism is constructed around freedom and independence.  What I find so disturbing is the apparent number of Civil War enthusiasts who are unable to view emancipation from the perspective of the thousands of slaves who helped force the issue on the Union high command and eventually Lincoln himself by running away from their owners and aiding the efforts of the U.S. army in myriad ways.  It’s as if emancipation began and ended with Lincoln.

Our narrow views of Lincoln, however, are not sufficient to explain the inability of some visitors to understand the war in terms of race and emancipation.  Any explanation must begin with the National Park Service itself.  Only in recent years has there been a concerted effort to address these broader themes and even in some parks there is continued resistance to address issues that go beyond strictly military themes.  I’ve interviewed a number of Park Service personnel on this issue.  For some it is simply enough to assume a perspective that has soldiers on both sides falling from the sky to butcher one another with little or no attention as to why.  All that is left to do is explain how they did it.  Even a cursory glance at our national memory of the war reveals a continued concentration on values that white Americans initially latched onto at the turn of the twentieth century as part of a movement towards reunion and reconciliation.  So, to a certain extent our view today has been shaped by a need to vindicate soldiers on both sides by praising their characters while ignoring the initial reasons for the war as well as its consequences.  We also cannot ignore the fact that there are plenty of people who continue to view slavery as benign or who characterize the relationship between master and slave as “friendly” or in strict paternalist terms, while others are convinced that thousands of black southerners fought willingly in Confederate ranks.  Add it up and you have a natural aversion to better understanding how the Union war effort eventually led to the end of slavery.

I suspect that part of the reason has to do with a deep-seated awareness that while the end of the war brought an end to slavery it did not lead to equality of any kind.  In fact, one could argue that that would take another hundred years to address through the darkest years of Jim Crow.  To a certain extent viewing the war as a war that ended slavery falls flat when viewed in the broader context of Jim Crow.  Better to maintain a view of the war that more easily fits our whiggish assumptions about the American past.  And then there are the heritage folks who will never be able to honestly consider such issues lest it cause them to question there own emotional hold on a rather narrow view of the antebellum and wartime South.  I think in John’s case there is an argument to be made for keeping quiet, though it is important to challenge visitors whenever possible and in a way that leads to reflection rather than conflict.

It’s always nice to be reminded that the National Park Service has such thoughtful historians on staff such as John Hoptak.

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6 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2008 @ 11:05

    Why do you assume that being “liberal” or being from “up north” has anything at all to do with giving the south a break? I don’t even know what that means in strictly historical terms. I have to admit to not knowing any professional historians who are driven by a conscious need to indict or vindicate any specific group. In fact, there are a number of Civil War historians who are regularly attacked as “liberal” or “revisionist” who were born and raised in the South.

  • border Jul 9, 2008 @ 10:34



    Are we to assume the ‘liberal historian from up north’ is going to give the traditionally conservative south an even break?

  • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2008 @ 10:16

    We seem to be in complete agreement. It would be interesting to know how representative the reenacting community is in terms of the broader Civil War community. It comes down to the fact that regardless of how many popular histories of the Civil War and Reconstruction are published most people don’t read. My guess is that most Americans perceive the Civil War through a fairly narrow set of stories that have become ingrained in our collective memory over time. It boils down to a story of brave soldiers and fearless generals.

    That said, I continue to receive a steady stream of emails from people who admit to this type of interest, but who seem to appreciate what I am trying to do with this blog. More to the point, last year I took part in a 3-day conference at Shepherd University that attracted roughly 150 people. The topic was the Civil War memory and I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of the participants. They appreciated the opportunity to think beyond the traditional lines of thought and a number of them have become regular readers of this blog and have taken the initiative to read further. The point is that it is possible to introduce more complex/non-traditional issues to the general public, but much of it hinges on how it is done. Unfortunately, the study of history has become overly politicized and as a result it is misunderstood by many. How many times do I have to read from certain quarters that historians like James McPherson, David Blight, and Eric Foner are “revisionist”, “liberal”, historians from up north – as if that has any relevance at all.

  • CGDH Jul 9, 2008 @ 10:03

    You’re right, and I don’t mean to imply that all professors are totally out of the loop (and anyone who is working in a museum/park setting where they work with visitors certainly isn’t). But I do find many profs/grad students to be overly optimistic about the penetrating power of the new histories of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Certainly, their work is reaching some people, but every time I talk about this with people from the other side of my life, I am reminded just how shallow that penetration has been. In my academic life, my colleagues think that the people in Horowitz’ “Confederates in the Attic” are a rare and dying breed, but in my reenacting life, they’re everywhere and not budging.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2008 @ 7:12

    Your points are well taken, though I wonder to what extent Civil War historians are in the clouds regarding popular awareness of emancipation in the broader context of the war. Most of the historians and NPS employees that I interact with are well aware of the gap. I haven’t read Budiansky’s book, but his and other popular histories of Reconstruction serve an important purpose given that more scholarly studies are unlikely to impact the broader public discourse. As Gary Gallagher is fond of point out most Americans who know anything about Reconstruction learned it from Gone With the Wind.

  • CGDH Jul 8, 2008 @ 21:43

    Right on.

    I think that one of the troubling developments in the “Civil War community” is that many academics (and others) are losing sight of the state of popular memory. For a long time, most historians’ accounts of the war and Reconstruction were closely aligned with the popular memory, but that has become less and less true. As a former Civil War reenactor who spends a lot of time around professors, I know that many academics just assume that the general public accepts a narrative that puts slavery and freedom at the center, and consider anyone who doesn’t to be on the radical fringe. I just finished reading Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt, which the New York Times Reviewer criticized as fighting a “straw man who surely expired a generation ago.”

    Teachers, reenactors, park rangers, museum docents, and other people who spend a lot of time wading in the waters of popular Civil War memory know that a slavery-centered understanding of the war does not dominate the national memory.

    I also applaud Mr. Hoptak — it doesn’t sound like he has an easy job.

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