Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Emancipation’s Price

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

“The Sanctuary,” by wartime artist Edwin Forbes, from his “Life Studies of the Great Army” series, published circa 1876. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Am a day late in noting a fine post from The New York Times’ Disunion blog that’s extremely relevant to tonight’s “fireside chat” on President Lincoln, slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as Saturday’s commemoration of some ex-slaves’ famed August 1862 crossing of the Rappahannock River, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tony Horwitz’s talk Sunday at the Culpeper County Library.

(My apologies. It’s a very busy few days, or rather a couple of weeks.)

Robert Emmett Curran, a professor emeritus of history at Georgetown University, tells of how the Civil war changed from “a very limited war of restoration” to a war to both save the Union and free slaves.

Professor Curran alludes to the phenomenon that began in Central Virginia as soon as Union armies moved into Falmouth and Fredericksburg and on up Virginia’s Peninsula from Fort Monroe, as historians Adam Goodheart and Glenn David Brasher have recently described.

Tens of thousands of slaves ignored their masters’ dire warnings about the Yankees invaders, fled their workplaces and headed toward a hazy vision of liberty behind Union lines. They acted months before there was any whisper from Washington of the Emancipation Proclamation, creating an enormous public stir (North and South), and helped begin to change Northern attitudes about slavery and the war.

One snippet from Curran’s Disunion post:

‘M]ilitary lines could not prevent the news of emancipation from reaching many of those millions of blacks in bondage in the Confederacy.

‘That irrepressible grapevine was the catalyst for blacks to markedly step up the self-emancipation that they had been exercising since the first months of the war. Union forces in the East and West, after turning back at Antietam and Perryville the Confederate invasions of 1862, marched back into Virginia and Tennessee, this time as armies of liberation proclaiming a rolling “year of jubilee.” It was not without horrendous cost: terrible battles — Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor — marked their paths, battles whose cumulative casualties came to dwarf the horrific losses at Antietam. As Brown had predicted, freedom from slavery could come only through a mind-numbing purging with blood, on a scale commensurate with the enormity of the national sin that was the “peculiar institution.” That reckoning commenced on the banks of Antietam Creek.’