Congress finally votes to abolish slavery, 150 years ago today

Posted January 31st, 2015 by
Category: History Tags: , , , , ,

Passage of the Thirteenth AmendmentToday, January 31, 2015, marks the 150th anniversary of the narrow but momentous decision, by a bitterly divided U.S. Congress at the end of the Civil War, to abolish slavery throughout the United States.

Why the Union began to take emancipation seriously

In January 1865, the Civil War was in its final days. Yet many in the Union were still opposed to emancipation.

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Why did emancipation in Maryland, 150 years ago today, hardly matter?

Posted November 1st, 2014 by
Category: History Tags: , , ,
Letter from Annie Davis to President Lincoln, 1864

Letter from Annie Davis to President Lincoln, 1864

Today is the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Maryland.

This occasion mattered greatly, of course, to the 87,000 residents of Maryland who were still enslaved on November 1, 1864. This anniversary date also matters because the narrow passage of emancipation in Maryland furthered the gradual spread of emancipation elsewhere in the United States, including in the South, where the issue of emancipation had not yet been decided by Congress.

Nevertheless, in important ways, the reluctant abolition of slavery in Maryland scarcely mattered.

Pro-slavery attitudes and laws in Maryland

In 1864, when Maryland finally abolished slavery, the state had been on the Union side of the Civil War for three long years. Nevertheless, Maryland was a border state: slavery was common in the state, and the culture of slave-owning was widespread. Among the white population, therefore, loyalties had been deeply divided over the slavery question and secession all along.

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What does the Gettysburg Address tell us about the North and slavery?

Posted November 20th, 2013 by
Category: History Tags: , , , , , ,

Gettysburg Address (detail from Hay's draft, in Lincoln's handwriting)Now that much of the hullabaloo surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address has died down, perhaps we can finally ask ourselves: what really was the enduring significance of Lincoln’s famous oration?

Lincoln’s remarks at Gettysburg were, of course, masterful. In just a few short sentences, the wartime president managed to eulogize the dead and to craft a narrative within which the nation could commemorate their sacrifice, and remember the war, in the context of broad themes from nation’s history and its future aspirations. His address even redefined the nature of public speeches in the United States, breaking ranks with generations of orations based on classical history, learned language, and the passage of hours.

Yet the historical significance of the Gettysburg Address lies primarily in Lincoln’s effort to shift the North’s motivation for fighting the conflict from the preservation of the Union to the radical, and largely detested, goal of emancipation for the nation’s 4 million remaining enslaved persons.

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What, to the slave, was the Battle of Gettysburg?

Posted July 1st, 2013 by
Category: History Tags: , , , , , , , ,

'Harvest of Death,' Battle of Gettysburg, by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, between July 4 and 7, 1863What, to the slave and to free blacks, was the Battle of Gettysburg?1

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, which ran from July 1 to 3, 1863.

The Battle of Gettysburg is one of the most well-known events of the Civil War, and its sesquicentennial has been widely anticipated for years. Elsewhere, there are expert military historians to offer the most modern understanding of the battle’s tactical and strategic significance, as well as renowned civil war scholars to interpret the battle’s political and social significance in 1863, and to analyze the public’s memory of the battle in the last century and a half.

At the Tracing Center, we focus on the role of slavery and race in the causes, conduct, and consequences of the Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg was certainly of strategic importance in determining the outcome of the war, namely, that the Confederacy would be re-incorporated back into the Union, and that emancipation would eventually become a reality throughout the nation.2

Beyond the battle’s military significance, though, what does the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg tell us about the role of slavery and race in the war, and about the battle’s importance at the time for free and enslaved blacks?

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  1. The title and first line of this essay are a paraphrasing of Frederick Douglass’ famous line, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”, in his 1852 July 4th address, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,”  in Rochester, N.Y. []
  2. Even so, the Battle of Antietam was arguably more significant for the course of the war, and for its role in determining that emancipation would result at the end of the war. []

What I hope Obama’s second inaugural will address

Posted January 21st, 2013 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , , ,

Today marks only the second time that Inauguration Day has coincided with our national holiday commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and on this occasion, our first black president will be taking the oath of office for the second time.

Here is what I hope the president will include in his second Inaugural Address:

This year marks the coming together of two powerful anniversaries, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Today, 50 years after the civil rights movement and 150 years after the end of slavery, we have come a long way towards realizing the visions of Lincoln and King for a more just and inclusive society. Yet the legacies of slavery and race—the unfinished business of Civil War and civil rights—remain a crisis in our nation.

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The Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th anniversary in context

Posted January 1st, 2013 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , ,

Emancipation ProclamationToday is the first day of 2013. This is an anniversary year that we’ve been talking about, and anticipating, for a long time here at the Tracing Center.

In 2013, we will celebrate the 50th anniversaries of major civil rights era milestones, including the March on Washington and Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

Over the coming year, the nation will also mark the 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as well as the New York City Draft Riots (the violence of which was aimed mostly at the city’s free black population) and a host of other Civil War battles and dates.

The anniversaries of the Civil War and the civil rights movement are directly connected, as they represent two different, but closely related, stages in our society’s slow process of reckoning with its centuries-long embrace of slavery and racism. Exploring these anniversary dates, their connections, and their broader significance for racial healing and justice will constitute much of the Tracing Center’s work in the years 2013-2015.

Today, however, marks the 150th anniversary of perhaps the greatest of all of these events: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

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