Wrestling with Emancipation: How should we observe it?

How should we observe and recall emancipation?   What does it really mean to us today?

I’ve participated in some good discussions within sesquicentennial and preservation circles.  It’s a question that you’d think would be simple to address.  But I submit the answer is elusive and complicated.  Yet the answer is one of the core underpinnings to the entire sesquicentennial.  If we cannot explain the “what” to emancipation, how can we hope to relate “why” 1861-65 is of any importance?

Those of us “immersed-in-all-that-is-Civil-War” types just don’t understand why the rest of the audience doesn’t just pick up the “Civil War to Civil Rights” narrative with open ears and eyes.  We say it over and over, yet still wonder why more people attend some SciFi convention than one of our symposiums.  It’s our sales technique.  Our pitch stinks.  We graft “emancipation” on top of the Civil War with some disjointed associations, then expect everyone to recall high school history classes.  Seems to me there are some fine points we should incorporate in order to make “Civil War to Civil Rights” a flush fitting.

First off, we need to stop tap-dancing around slavery with respect to the combatants.  The Confederacy existed because of slavery and fought to retain slavery.  We can argue over the underlying causes of the war (I’ve said my take on this and don’t need to repeat it here), but in the end we must acknowledge that the Confederacy stood in opposition to emancipation.  That fact should not be whispered at the back of the room out, fearing an offense to some tender ears.  And before you start clicking the “comment” button, to say MY ancestors were wrong about one or two things, or saw incorrectly, shouldn’t be seen as a condemnation on regional lines or some extra-generational insult.  It should be recorded as a lesson the nation learned the hard way!

Second, we should recognize that emancipation took place over time, and not with the simple stroke of a pen.  We should not hang our celebration of emancipation on the date Lincoln issued the document, the date the proclamation took effect, or other such administratively convenient date.  Different localities witnessed emancipation events throughout the war.  Don’t take my word for it, consult the Visualizing Emancipation map.  We should look at those “fourth dimensional” junctures (such as at the Rappahannock Crossing) where our real world serves to bring out the past.

And along those lines, we should not step back from the means by which emancipation was implemented.  Yes we “military historians” should take a knee and listen as the “social historians” discuss how American society was affected by the war.  But at the same time, we need to keep those battlefields at the fore in the course of our studies.  After all, it was on those battlefields that the mechanisms of emancipation were employed.  We can easily link those in time and place, making that real connection.  Just the other day, Dale Cox wrote about the Battle of Marianna in September 1864, after which “600 slaves followed the Union troops back to Pensacola, the largest single emancipation of slaves in Florida during the war.”   So when should the folks in Marianna celebrate emancipation?  Again, let’s not whisper about this in the dark – emancipation was achieved by force of arms.  One side in that war refused to let go of slavery short of bayonet point.  Such makes those battles far more significant than just military history.

Lastly, we should not relegate emancipation as strictly an issue involving bondage.  Nor should it be ceded to one racial or ethnic group.  Emancipation is everyone’s freedom and liberty.  And this is one point that I, myself, need to firm up my research to better draw out the point.  Emancipation was that stone which caused the ripple in the pond.  Regardless race, creed, or ethnicity, the full freedoms we enjoy today were affirmed by emancipation.  It was not “their” emancipation, but “our” emancipation.  We should shout about that a little more.

At any rate, that’s where I think we are failing in regards to highlighting emancipation as the central theme in the Civil War.  Others, far smarter than I, have pointed out the war wasn’t just limited along some geographic or social lines.  It’s an American war, with American causes, effects, and implications.  We should consider the subject of emancipation with broad appeal and equally broad understanding.


One thought on “Wrestling with Emancipation: How should we observe it?

  1. Excellent post! I think some people confuse why an individual chose to fight with why political powers chose to fight. Many individuals chose sides based on loyalty to their state (or country) even if their view of slavery was different from the politicians’ view.

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