Know Your History: What the Emancipation Proclamation Really Did

It freed the slaves.

Not really.

What’s the deal? Let’s break it down a little so we can understand exactly why Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a master stroke of genius – even if it didn’t free one slave!

It was late summer in 1962 and the war between the Union and Confederacy was not going particularly well for the North. Lincoln was desperate for a victory and even more desperate to build some momentum which might help this terrible conflict to come to a close.

The idea of issuing an emancipation for the slaves was something he greatly wanted to do, but it couldn’t be seen as a desperate plea. He needed a victory to back it up.

The Battle of Antietam ultimately gave him that chance, not because it was a huge route for the Union – far from it. It was, at best, a draw, a very bloody one, which cost a lot of lives. It did, however, drive Lee’s forces back further south. If the Union had been led by a general slightly more interested in progress than indecisive General McClellan, Antietam might have been the huge victory that Lincoln wanted. But McClellan, even though he had 7000 more troops than General Lee, allowed Lee’s army to retreat into Virginia without being pursued.

In Washington, the Union chief was desperate, and the news of Lee heading south was enough of a victory to make Lincoln want to exploit it to maximum effect. On September 22, just days after Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. The proclamation would come into effect on January 1, 1863.

So it did free the slaves?

Not exactly. It freed the slaves in all the territories currently held by the Confederacy. Therefore, no slave was technically free. However, it did serve as a huge boost to the Union side. It put, in unequivocal terms, that the war was indeed about slavery and that if the Union won, slavery would be finished. It boosted the morale of many fighting units, and it gave un-told hope to the many southern  fragmented communities of slaves who heard about the emancipation through the grape-vine. If the Union captured territory in the south, slaves from those regions would be forever free.

By the time the war ended, the 13th Amendment  was quickly passed, officially outlawing slavery and ending a horrible period of time for citizens of African descent. It also ushered in another 100 years of struggle for true equality, but that is for another day.

On Confederate Flags and Democracy

It’s hard to miss the current flap about whether Confederate flags should be used in conjunction with … well, anything.

This debate, of course, stems out of the horrific recent shooting at a South Carolina church where a young, self-avowed white supremacist killed nine African Americans.

In response to this, many voices on each side are either defending the use of the Confederate flag or espousing the view that it should be banned. Retailers like Walmart and Amazon have banned the sale of items which depict the flag (though as some commentators pointed out, Amazon hasn’t yet banned the swastika or Nazi paraphernalia.)

Even General Lee, the iconic car of the Dukes of Hazard has been driven into the culture war. The licensee of the model cars says that future models won’t have the flag. One of the actors connected to the original show came out in full support of the flag.

Whatever becomes of this fascinating public dialogue, it sure has stirred up interesting and necessary debate about race, symbolism, American history, free speech, and pop culture. I find the whole debate interesting and beneficial. This is the process of democracy. People expressing opinions; different points of views being espoused, and both sides of the issue passionately defending what they think is right.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, I have always been completely indifferent to the flag. To me, it was the flag of the losing army of the Civil War. A historical symbol of how life has changed, slavery was put to rest, and America began the long hard process of overcoming the black codes, Jim Crow, segregation, and a host of other injustices.

I can’t exactly say what part the Confederate flag played in that process, but I do know I was surprised when my family first moved to Virginia in 2003. In some ways, if felt like a different world. Confederate flags were prominently displayed on the backs of pick-up trucks. I heard the first negative words spoken about Abraham Lincoln. Really? I couldn’t believe anyone would talk bad about the legend. I mean, he saved America, right? But there it was, deep resentment still occasionally surfaced in casual conversation. The Civil War was a 140 years in the past, but it still lived on in many ways. That shocked this northerner.

The Confederate flag obviously is a powerful symbol still for many southerners. One friend passionately defended it on Facebook as a part of US History. In his view, it is not at all a racist symbol (or at least not any longer.)  Perhaps, but it is impossible to look at the Confederate flag and completely separate it from its history and slavery connection.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of this debate, but I think its a good one. I like the way our democracy allows this debate – without government interference or mandates. The last thing we need is for Congress to get involved and start passing unneeded legislation. Let the people work this out. Let the businesses work this out. If a business doesn’t want to sell Confederate flag merchandise, then good for them. If a person doesn’t want to patronize a store which does, then good for them.

The morality of our democracy stands and falls on the people moving and shaping it through the free speech, public discourse which is so much needed in a democracy.


What is History: An Essay, Part I

History is an educated guess on a wing and a prayer.  Mere shadows of the past come to life in history but can shadows be trusted?  Our views of history can be revised, mis-understood or completely wrong.  History can be pigeon-holed and molded to fit an ideology, point of view, or interpretation.  History can drive a nation forward in a singular goal or it can be stripped of all semblance of reality by censors trying to hold back the unfettered truth.  History nearly seems unattainable because of the minefield of bias and ulterior motives it must constantly escape.  Using sound methodology and shrewd judgment, modern historians valiantly attempt to piece together the past in a reliable way only to realize again that history is not static. History remains a half written sheet of paper constantly in the state of revision teetering on a ledge waiting for the latest research, interpretation or trend to whisk it in a new direction.

The elusiveness of history can be the result of many factors.  Often time facts become distorted by individuals wanting to espouse something other than historical preservation.  This makes the truth difficult to pin down.  For example, Robert Williams explains how a photograph taken of a dead civil war soldier at the battle of Gettysburg may not be as it appears. Historians have argued that the soldier died elsewhere and was dragged to this dramatic setting between the famous outcroppings of rocks called ‘Devil’s Den’ on the Gettysburg battlefield (68).   In a possible attempt to make a more interesting picture, the photographer puts in doubt the soldier’s role in the battle, and it possibly compromises the veracity of certain aspects of the battle.  Others have written history riddled with speculation which may help strengthen our understanding of an event’s background but may not bring us closer to understanding the truth (Williams 126).  Others still have written purely fictitious accounts of events which have no basis in reality.  It can be a dizzying prospect for an amateur to wade through the historical claims espoused by various individuals.

Ideological fervor can also lead to a history that supports one point of view or overarching objective at the risk of compromising the truth.  The movement of historical interpretation called metahistory sought to define history in terms of one “all-encompassing meaning” (Williams 20).  In the 20th century, this led to much ideologically driven fervor using history to support one point of view which furthered a particular goal or political agenda such as the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Third Reich or the Marxist view of class struggle (Williams 23).   When history is driven by ideology, it typically judges harshly the opposing point of view while lauding its own.  This can make the truth of history difficult to discover.  Trinh Cong Son was a famous revolutionary song writer of the Vietnamese communists.  He wrote anti-war songs that were popular in both North and South Vietnam.  However, he eventually was arrested and sent to a reeducation camp because he incorrectly spoke of the war with America as a “civil war” (Lamb 109). North Vietnam communist ideology viewed the Vietnam War as the Vietnamese struggle to be free against the American imperialists.  It was a continuation of the colonial struggle to expel the foreigner – something the Vietnamese did many times in their history when attacked by the Chinese, the Mongols, the French and now the Americans.   They would not accept a history of war that described as Vietnamese brother against brother.  That is why when Saigon fell to the communists on that fateful April day in 1975, Colonel Bui Tin, speaking to the south Vietnamese general he assumed power from said, “Between Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten” (Karnow 684).  All Vietnamese who sided with the Americans were merely puppets in the view of the Viet Cong.  History driven by ideology can have a short selective memory which can distort facts and make the truth more elusive.