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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Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River Raid

Posted June 2nd, 2013 by
Category: History Tags: , , , , , ,

"Raid of Second South Carolina Volunteers among the Rice Plantations of the Combahee, from a Sketch by Surgeon Robinson," Harper's Weekly, July 4, 1863One hundred and fifty years ago today, Union forces led by Harriet Tubman and Colonel James Montgomery engaged in a daring and wildly successful raid up the Combahee River in South Carolina.

The Combahee River Raid crippled local Confederate infrastructure, liberated 756 enslaved blacks, and earned Tubman well-deserved accolades as the first woman in U.S. history to plan and lead a military raid.

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Confederate flag hung in old N.C. State Capitol

Posted March 29th, 2013 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , ,

Confederate flag at old N.C. State Capitol

Update: The A.P. is reporting, several hours after its story was first published, that the Confederate flag will be taken down this weekend.

The Associated Press is reporting this afternoon that a Confederate battle flag has been hanging in the House chamber in the old North Carolina State Capitol since last week.

The flag is hanging as part of an historical display, according to State Historic Sites Director Keith Hardison, and should be viewed in that context. Hardison, who is also a Civil War re-enactor, has close ties to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which has led efforts throughout the South to rehabilitate the image of the Confederate flag as a symbol of southern heritage.

The Confederate flag is controversial because it invokes the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow for some, while others believe it symbolizes their southern heritage. Historian David Goldfield, author of Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (2002), acknowledges both perspectives but argues that the flag cannot be divorced from its racist past:

The history of the Confederate battle flag, how it was designed and formulated, how it has been used through the years, clearly states that it is a flag of white supremacy.

I know current Sons of Confederate Veterans would dispute that, saying ‘Hey, I’m not a racist.’ But the fact remains that the battle flag was used by a country that had as its foundation the protection and extension of human bondage.

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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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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.


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Lessons from the British commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade

Posted September 11th, 2012 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , ,

Freedom! Sculpture; image copyright Christian Aid/Leah Gordon Recently I was reading an essay by Geoffrey Cubitt, senior lecturer in history at the University of York (UK) and co-investigator of the “1807 Commemorated” project, which analyzed visitor responses to the Bicentenary of the 1807 Act of Abolition in British museums.1 First of all, I want to acknowledge how amazing it was that the University of York spent two years studying how Britain commemorated, through exhibits, memorials, etc, the abolition of the slave trade. The team not only wanted to find out how the country remembered this history, but how visitors to these museums and memorials reacted to learning about this difficult time in the country’s past. The results of this study, chronicled in a separate volume titled Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums, shows an awesome feat of visitor studies and conclusions on how a country tries to remember what it spent so long trying to forget.

The lessons draw by Cubitt in his essay “Museums and Slavery in Britain” can serve as guide posts for the upcoming U.S. sesquicentennial commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation.

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  1. The essay, along with others on international museums/commemorations of slavery and the slave trade, can be found in Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space edited by Ana Lucia Araujo. []

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