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Examine slaves’ exodus to freedom

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A freed family poses in Richmond, after Confederate soldiers set fire to tobacco warehouses once the capital was evacuated on April 2, 1865. (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

This Saturday, in ‘Years of Anguish III,’  leading American scholars to discuss slavery and emancipation

“A most memorable night it was, when the Soldiers assured me that I was a free man  Before morning I had begun to feel like I had truly escaped from the hands of the Slave Master and with the help of God, I never would be a slave no more.”

—John Washington of Fredericksburg, April 1862



Lee. Jackson. Pelham. Burnside. Hooker. Grant.  Those figures from the Civil War battles in and around Fredericksburg have gotten plenty of ink over the decades.

Others have received much less, particularly if their skin was dark. This Saturday, two leading scholars are coming to Fredericksburg to help rectify that. Dr. David Blight of Yale University and Dr. Thavolia Glymph of Duke University will  cast  light on the thousands of African–Americans who played a major role here in the conflict.

Blight and Glymph are the keynote speakers for  “Years of Anguish: Slavery and Emancipation,” one of the area’s  Civil War sesquicentennial programs. They will share the stage at Fredericksburg Baptist Church with National Park Service historian John Hennessy.   Jeffrey McClurken, chairman of the history and American studies department at  the University of Mary Washington, will moderate.

The free, highly popular “Anguish” series  has drawn world-class scholars to the region since 2009, starting with historians William Freehling and George S. Rable, who  spoke at the same venue.

On Saturday, Blight, who has written several widely acclaimed books, will examine what freedom meant to the nation and slaves in 1862, and how it changed the course of the war.

Glymph, author of an incisive historical analysis, “Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household,” will talk about women, slavery and freedom.

That work, a finalist for the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, reveals  plantations’ domestic relations as a political sphere and challenges popular depictions of plantation mistresses as slaves’ friends and allies.

Glymph, an associate professor of African and African American studies and history at Duke, has also co-edited two histories of emancipation and a book on free labor in the South after the war.

“There are few who have done more to shape modern America’s understanding of slavery and freedom than David and Thavolia,” Hennessy said of the  speakers. “They have helped pierce the veil of silence that for so long cloaked the world of slavery in America  and behind that veil is a compelling story of life striving toward freedom.”

Blight’s seminal work, “Race and Reunion:  The Civil War in American Memory,” probes how Civil War veterans and North and South reconciled in the decades after the war—at the expense of racial progress and honoring African–Americans’ contributions to the Union cause. It received eight book awards, including the Bancroft Prize, the Abraham Lincoln Prize  and the Frederick Douglass Prize.

His 2007 book, “A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including their Narratives of Emancipation,” chronicles the dramatic stories of Fredericksburg’s John Washington and North Carolina’s Wallace Turnage. Washington’s rare and poignant memoir, which includes his hand-drawn map of the area, is considered one of the greatest of  slave narratives.

Washington, who grew up as a slave in Fredericksburg,  escaped across the Rappahannock River to the Union army in Falmouth on April 18, 1862—150 years ago this week.

“His case is a stunning example of how slaves  freed themselves but were also freed by the presence of Union troops,” Blight said in an email.

And it happened  many months before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he noted.

Blight’s Yale course “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845–1877” is  offered on YouTube and Apple’s iTunes U, with both  audio and video versions.

His newest work, “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era,” follows four American writers—Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson and James Baldwin—who plumb  the disparities between remembrance and reality.

Blight takes readers to the Lincoln Memorial’s steps   on Aug. 28, 1963, a century after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. There,  Martin Luther King  Jr.  told thousands of onlookers, “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.”

King spoke  three years after the Virginia Civil War Commission published a guide telling teachers that “the Centennial is no time for finding fault or placing blame or fighting the issues all over again,” Blight notes.

As for his part of Saturday’s  program, Hennessy said he intends “to take these big ideas of freedom and liberty and to put them into a local context—to look at how slavery came to its functional end here in Fredericksburg, and what that meant to those on all sides of the equation:  slaves, owners,  and members of the Union army.

His talk, “Freedom’s Tide:  The Army, Emancipation, and the Fredericksburg Region, 1862,” will share the voices of those who experienced and shaped events firsthand.

“One of the things that makes this history so rich is that in fact it was seen and experienced and valued differently by different people,” Hennessy said. “The power of differing perspectives gives relief and volume to a story of critical importance to our nation.”

This week’s “Anguish” forum will take place from 1 to 5 p.m., at Fredericksburg Baptist Church, with a book-signing and reception  to follow at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, 1001 Princess Anne St. Books may be purchased during the event, or beforehand, at The Museum Store at 215 William St.

Saturday’s speakers’ forum  is being sponsored by the museum, UMW and the National Park Service.





Yale course:

Clint Schemmer:   540/368-5029