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. []

Should we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th anniversary?

Posted September 22nd, 2012 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , ,

First page of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (National Archives and Records Administration)Exactly 150 years ago today, on September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued his first Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863:

… all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.

Should we celebrate this declaration without reservation? Or should we, instead, see this as the anniversary of a tentative, morally ambiguous step, one which historian Richard Hofstadter declared to have “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading“?1

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  1. Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948). []

Myth-busting and the Civil War: The South turns to federal authority to preserve slavery

Posted September 21st, 2012 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , , ,
Lincoln, Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell divide the country in 1860.

1860 political cartoon, showing presidential candidates Lincoln, Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell dividing the country.

This is the second part of Katrina Browne’s reflections on the 150th anniversary commemoration at Antietam this past weekend. The first part, focused on northern myths about the civil war, was entitled “The Emancipation Proclamation: ‘… all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.’

Irony.  It’s the word that came fast to mind as I sat listening this past weekend to former National Park Service Chief Historian Dwight Pitcaithley as he revealed the following: that in the heated days of late 1860 and early 1861, from just after Lincoln’s election to several weeks after his inauguration, pro-slavery Southern political leaders, while seceding, simultaneously turned to the power of the federal government to try to protect slavery!  I was at the 150th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg, and Prof. Pitcaithley was speaking on “Secession as a Constitutional Crisis.”

He explained that in the span of five months, no fewer than 66 constitutional amendments were proposed in Congress to shore up the institution of slavery.  To turn to the Constitution was the ultimate turn to federal power in an attempt to enshrine slavery.  The case was made primarily based on the 5th amendment’s protection of the right to property.  (Interestingly, pro-abolition crusaders were turning to the same clause in the 5th amendment: that no person “shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and focusing on liberty rather than property.  Ironies abounding.)

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The Emancipation Proclamation: “… all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading”

Posted September 17th, 2012 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , ,

Battle of Antietam (Alexander Gardner)A week ago I was still pronouncing “Antietam” as if it rhymed with “Vietnam.”  Now I know it’s pronounced “Anteetum” … and so much more.  My husband John and I had heard about the 150th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Antietam/Battle of Sharpsburg, and since we’d been meaning to have a camping get-away, we decided that this was a great excuse to get outdoors and pursue my work goal of seeing how the 150th of the Civil War, and the role of slavery in the war’s causes and consequences, is being acknowledged at battlefields.

Wow.

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