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A ‘chat’ about war and freedom

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Thomas Nast's celebration of the emancipation of Southern slaves with the end of the Civil War. Nast envisions a somewhat optimistic picture of the future of free blacks in the United States. The central scene shows the interior of a freedman's home with the family gathered around a "Union" wood stove. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)


Almost any hour, from the hill where I sit writing, one can count a half-dozen of them rafting their way across the Rappahannock, ‘comin,’ as they say, ‘to be free.’ The camps are flooded with them. —a soldier of the 24th New York Infantry Regiment, April 1862, near Falmouth



War isn’t a happy story.

Nowhere is that more true than in the American Civil War, which killed upward of 750,000 combatants—the equivalent of 7.5 million people given today’s population, according to the latest scholarship.

If any solace is to be drawn from the war’s legacy, surely it is in the stories of the 4 million people that it freed.

This autumn, Virginia will commemorate that part of the saga with a special “fireside chat” with three of the nation’s finest scholars on emancipation, slavery and Abraham Lincoln.

Historians Edna Greene Medford, Harold Holzer and Frank Williams will bring to life their book, “Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views” with an informal discussion at the University of Mary Washington. Jeffrey McClurken, chairman of the department of history and American studies, will moderate the 7 p.m. forum in Dodd Auditorium.

“The goal is to create, through their conversation, a deeper understanding of the nuances and effects of one of the nation’s enduring documents of freedom,” Cheryl Jackson, executive director of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, said Monday afternoon.

By virtuous coincidence, the announcement came on D.C. Emancipation Day, as Washington celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of freedom for its African–American residents. (President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in the District of Columbia eight months before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.)

On Monday, the commission launched a site——where people can register for and learn more about the Sept. 21 event at UMW.

Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which essentially gave rebelling states 100 days to surrender or have slavery abolished. Lincoln signed the final proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

Last year, Bill Howell, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, asked commission members James I. Robertson Jr. and Del. Algie T. Howell Jr. to plan a program to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Robertson, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech and author of “The Untold Civil War,” is famed for his biography of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Algie Howell, an Air Force veteran and a Democrat, represents Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

Speaker Howell “recognized, early on, that the Civil War and emancipation are inseparable, and that any understanding of the war is incomplete without similarly understanding its causes and legacies—particularly freedom for 4 million enslaved people,” Jackson said. “We are glad to host this important program at the University of Mary Washington,” she added.

The UMW event is one of many sesquicentennial programs that take a broad view of the Civil War, encompassing emancipation and the experiences of slaves and civilians. The Richmond area, for instance, just held its annual “Civil War and Emancipation Day” this weekend.

“The program at UMW should add another dimension to the four-year commemoration,” said Howell, a Republican who represents Stafford in the House. “Emancipation was certainly a central part of the war, both from a moral and political point,” he said.

“We have made every effort in the commemoration to focus not just on the battles and battlefields, but also on the homefront, slavery and emancipation.”



Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

And, coming up soon:  ‘TO FREEDOM’


10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. “River Jordan: Crossing the Rappahannock to Freedom.” Drama at Ferry Farm. $15/person. Reservations required:; 540/370-0732

11 a.m.–3 p.m. “A Slave’s World and Beyond, Fredericksburg: A Walking Tour.” Leaves Market Square every hour. 75 minutes. Free. NPS program.

6:30 p.m. “Bearing of the Stones.” Community procession from Riverfront Park, beside Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site), to City Dock.

7:30 p.m.: Culminating event: “Ten Thousand Lights to Freedom.” Music, singer Anthony Campbell, witnesses’ words, illumination of 10,000 lights on far bank of river, symbolic of those who passed to freedom 150 years ago.


10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. “River Jordan.” Historical drama at Ferry Farm. Ticketed.

1:30 p.m. “Traveling the Trail to Freedom.” Market Square. Bus tour, sites from city to Aquia, with NPS historian John Hennessy. $20/person. Reservations: 540/372-3034