Who Freed the Slaves?
So – on to the matter at hand. Who freed the slaves? Why that’s simple right? It was Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator…..right? I mean….right?
Not so fast amigos. As usual, thing can get a little more complicated when you look a little closer at the historical record. Oh sure, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation all right, which technically freed all slaves who were (as of January 1, 1863) living in states currently in rebellion. (NOTE: The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slaves in the border states – not to mention…the Rebs were not exactly willing to comply with the proclamation, either). As historians like James McPherson note, the Proclamation was a crucial step in a series of actions taken against the institution. But is there more to the story?
Historians like Barbara Fields and Ira Berlin think so. They talk a lot about what they refer to as “self emancipation.” Yep – it’s exactly what it sounds like. Slaves, not just sitting around waiting to be freed by northern politicians, simply left. That’s it. They saw an opportunity and took it. Seeking freedom for themselves, these men and women walked away from the farms and plantations were they had been held in bondage and fled to Union lines. Many of them ended up in contraband camps (more on these later) and thousands would eventually join Union army USCT Units – all black (led by white officers) regiments of fighting men (more on these guys later too).
Well, I am not really one for either/or questions. Of course there is validity to both bottom up and top down analyses of emancipation. Slaves (now former slaves) took action, and, while the Emancipation Proclamation did not really free anyone on day one, it certainly changed the meaning and direction of the war.
But here’s some food for thought for a Saturday morning. What about the United States Army? Don’t they get any credit? Robert Gould Shaw, immortalized by the film Glory, said it best when he noted in 1863 (insert affected Boston accent here) after hearing of the Proclamation, that it was all well and good but it really made little difference. Writing his mother – “For my part I can’t see what practical good it can do now. Wherever our army has been, there remain no slaves, and the proclamation won’t free them where we don’t go.”
So, while presidential proclamations and self emancipation were significant aspects of the demise of slavery in the South, without the army…nada. Remember – the slaves held in places that saw no pronounced military presence (like Alabama and Texas) remained slaves until the end of the war.
So with that I will sign off until Monday – Please leave a comment whether you agree with me or not. I promise to be nice