Publication Date

February 5, 2013

January 1, 2013, marked the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the general historical consensus is that slavery was at the root of the conflict, questions about the role of the proclamation in defining the Civil War and 19th century race relations continue to dominate the field. In the past few weeks, Washington, D.C., has hosted two events on the topic: A panel discussion at the National Archives (NARA), chaired by Annette Gordon-Reed and featuring James Oakes, Eric Foner, James McPherson, and Ed Ayers, and a more intimate lecture led by Foner at the Wilson Center and sponsored by the National History Center. The well-attended events were an opportunity to promote this history to the public, and a window into the current state of the debate over how we should understand the document and its centrality to the Civil War.

A Fractured Narrative
Historian Stephen Ash once playfully wrote, “Historians continue to confound those who insist that everything that can possibly be said about the Civil War has already been said.” And yet, as the NARA panel pointed out, the lack of a common, comprehensive narrative of the conflict is inhibiting our understanding of the war. According to Oakes, new political, social, and cultural schools of thought rose to dominate the field by the 1960s, thereby fracturing the earlier one-dimensional narratives. This splintering has continued in the last decade as micro-histories have grown in popularity, and in the consensus of most of the panel, Oakes argued that the greatest challenge in his field is for historians to unite these subfields to form a more complete history of the conflict.

The Teleological Approach to the Civil War
From the idea of a fractured narrative, Ayers, Oakes, and Foner then pointed out the dangers of a teleological narrative of the Civil War, one in which events lead clearly to an inevitable culmination. According to Ayers, “history is a series of punctuations that can alter a person’s world view.” Anti-slavery legislation did not happen naturally, he argues, but was forced by a series of unexpected events. Foner seconded Ayers’s point by arguing that historians tend to see the Civil War unfolding in one direction (toward a Union victory), but the war had no predetermined goal. Instead, a deeply divided North and bitter political opposition made the war an unpredictable journey.

How Should We Understand the Emancipation Proclamation’s Role?
Over the past few years, the Emancipation Proclamation has received renewed attention by historians, including Gary Gallagher, who disputes the document’s role in tolling the death knell for the South in the Civil War. During the NARA panel, the historians apparently agreed on their disagreement with Gallagher’s opinion. Foner argued, both at the NARA panel and later NHC-Wilson lecture, that the proclamation should be viewed as a turning point because it opened the way for anti-slavery legislation to be discussed openly. Prior to the proclamation, most politicians “talked in the periphery of slavery” and never directly attacked the institution. “When they [Union officers] saw slaves were the backbone of the South in the war,” McPherson pointed out, the North decided it was “time to take off the kid gloves” and free the slaves in order to end the war.  Ayers agreed with Foner and McPherson and pointed out that the proclamation redefined “both the purpose and the way the war would be fought.”

Lincoln, the Movie
It appeared impossible for the historians to avoid discussing Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (which helped inform the movie). Foner strongly criticized the adaption, including the lack of black actors in the film. According to Foner, anti-slavery policy was not formed in a vacuum, and certainly not from any deeply held beliefs on Lincoln’s part, as the film implies. Instead, Lincoln’s position evolved because slaves forced anti-slavery policy by running to the Union lines shortly after the war began. But this aspect of the story, Foner argues, does not fit into Goodwin’s story of Lincoln as “a great emancipator” and was therefore purposefully left out.

Final Thoughts
Overall the historians bring up some great questions about the future of Civil War historiography, but what were particularly striking was their comments about the dangers of a fractured narrative. Historians often joke of the congestion of Civil War studies, but if this congestion is inhibiting us from understanding the conflict in a meaningful way, it may require an ambitious few to jump into the lion’s den and experiment with a synthesis. What do you think about the problem of the fractured narrative? We are eager for our readers to weigh in on the state of current Civil War historiography below, or on any of our social media spaces.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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