This summer, I read Bruce Catton’s classic three-volume series
on the Civil War, The Army of the Potomac: "Mr. Lincoln’s
Army," "Glory Road," and "A Stillness at Appomattox." In his
first volume, he discussed the Battle of Antietam: “Yet it was
finally, and irrevocably, the decisive battle of the war, affecting the
whole course of American history ever since.”
One of the major ways the battle affected American history was
that it led to the Emancipation Proclamation just one week later.
Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as an executive
order on January 1, 1863.
At first, Lincoln had sent troops into the South to preserve the
Union. But later, recognizing the evil and injustice of slavery as an
institution, he gave new impetus to the war as a struggle for
freedom. Even so, Catton tells us, “They were not even bold,
straightforward words. . . . They ordained freedom in precisely
those places where the Union armies could not make freedom a
fact and left slavery untouched elsewhere.”
Still the proclamation had its effect. On its long trek south, the
Army of the Potomac, plagued by bad weather and poor
leadership and harried by Confederate snipers, encountered
groups of happy, singing newly-freed slaves. Their joy lifted the
spirits of the army, giving them renewed strength and
determination to continue slogging south to make the promise of
emancipation a reality.
But if the Emancipation Proclamation encouraged the Army of the
Potomac, what did it do for the people who had toiled under the
dehumanizing conditions of slavery?
It freed 20,000-50,000 slaves in states where the rebellion had
already been put down, and provided for the freedom of millions
more as the Army marched south. It also allowed those qualified
to join the Army and fight for the freedom of their fellow slaves.
African American fighters were some of the best in the war. They
led the charge against Richmond, the capital of the South, fighting
as hard for their freedom as the revolutionary soldiers had for
When I was growing up, every Southerner had a story about the
dear slave who, when offered freedom, refused to leave. They
never mentioned the hundreds of thousands who threw down
their hoes or scrub brushes and eagerly embraced freedom.
The November issue of Smithsonian magazine described 101
objects from among their collections "that made America." Many
of those objects, from Lewis and Clark's compass to the polio
vaccine to Neil Armstrong's spacesuit, made me proud.
But others--including a ration ticket issued in the 1880s to a
native American named Woman's Dress to allow her to draw
weekly rations for her nine dependents to substitute for the bison,
the basis of her diet and culture, that had been slaughtered by
whites for the delicacy of its tongue or for sport, and the 1863
photograph of the pattern of scarred welts on the back of a
runaway slave named Gordon--were appalling. They made me
sick. And they made me grateful for emancipation--even late-
Freed slaves, having been property, began to own it. They
sought for family members who had been sold off. And, with the
15th Amendment of 1867, they began to vote and influence
Why would a country built on the premise of liberty and justice
for all refuse that liberty and justice for some of its own people
--including its original citizens?
Living in freedom in a multicultural nation like ours requires that
we respect each others' rights, cultures and dignity as fellow
human beings. And that we do all we can to promote them.
Print by cartoonist Thomas Nast contrasting treatment of slaves before (left) and after Civil War
was distributed through Philadelphia printer King and Baird in 1865. The original is at Ohio State.