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Imagining Emancipation


September 22 marks the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation went into effect three months later on January 1, 1863, and although it applied only to the areas then in rebellion, it paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment, adopted on December 6, 1865, which officially abolished slavery in the United States.

To commemorate the event, the VHS and The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar are participating in the National Endowment for the Humanities, Emancipation Nation: Celebrating Freedom on Constitution Day, by hosting a watch party. This event—modeled on gatherings of slaves and abolitionists held on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation becoming law on January 1, 1863—features a live-streamed panel of five Civil War scholars simulcast from the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Without drawing on their knowledge of what would unfold over the next months and years,  the historians will recreate the national scene and the dilemmas facing Americans in September 1862. Following the program, VHS historians will discuss Virginia’s connections to Emancipation. FREE and open to the public, this event begins at 1:15 p.m. on Monday, September 17, at the VHS.

As you might suspect, the Virginia Historical Society isn’t flush with objects and manuscripts directly related to Abraham Lincoln or the Emancipation Proclamation. That said, one memorable re-imagining of Lincoln signing the proclamation is part of our collection, and it’s worth a closer look 150 years later.

Abraham Lincoln Signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Adalbert Volck, c. 1863 (Rare Books O.S., E647.V92)

In his pro-southern interpretation of the event, the artist Adalbert Johann Volck (1828 – 1912)  filled his image with powerful symbols. Some, such as the devil holding Lincoln’s inkwell, are unmistakable, but the meanings of others, which may have been obvious to nineteenth-century audiences, are less so  today.

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Volck was born in Bavaria and left Europe following the unsuccessful 1848 revolutions. He settled in Baltimore, Maryland, where he made a living as both a dentist and an artist. He was an ardent Confederate sympathizer and is best known for political illustrations like Abraham Lincoln Signing the Emancipation Proclamation. He drew, etched, and printed a small number of images for subscribers during the war.

Here are a few other contemporary reactions to the Emancipation Proclamation:

“ [I] was prepared to sustain any measure [that] would help put an end to this cursed rebellion. . . . There is no fear however that slaves will be freed any faster than our troops get possession of Rebel territory, and this was the case before the proclamation. . . . I don’t think matters are much changed by the document.” (Union major general Alpheus Williams)

“Lincoln’s proclamation . . . meets with denouncement among the men of the Army. They do not wish to think that they are fighting for Negroes, but to put down a Rebelion. We must first conquer & then its time enough to talk about the dam’d niggers.” (Alfred Davenport, 5th New York Infantry, September 26, 1862)

“This [proclamation] will only intensify the war, and add largely to our numbers in the field.” (John Beauchamp Jones, Confederate War Department clerk, September 27, 1862)

“It seems sometimes as if these fellows, having now got the power in their own hands, meant to force all their vile notions upon the country as war measures.” (Union brigadier general Charles S. Wainright, October 5, 1862)

“. . . a gigantic stride in the paths of Christian and civilized progress . . . the great fact of the war-the turning point in the history of the American Commonwealth-an act only second in courage and probable results in the Declaration of Independence.” (London Morning Star. October 6, 1862)

“Our own detestation of those who have attempted the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses.” (Confederate president Jefferson Davis, January 12, 1863)

“I have never been in favor of the abolition of slavery until since this war has detirmend [sic] me in the conviction that it is a greater sin than our Government is able to stand—and now I go in for a war of emancipation and I am ready and willing to do my share of the work.” (Sgt. Eli R. Pickett, 10th Minnesota Infantry, March 27, 1863)

“For my part, I can’t see what practical good it can do now. Wherever our army has been there remain no slaves, and the Proclamation will not free them where we don’t go. . . . Jeff Davis will soon issue a proclamation threatening to hang every prisoner they take, and will make this a war of extermination.” (Lt. Robert G. Shaw, 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, 1862)

Although Lincoln’s proclamation exempted the loyal slave states, areas then occupied by Union forces, and the forty-eight counties of Virginia in the process of forming West Virginia, it did transform the Union war aims to include ending slavery. This elicited contempt among Confederates as well as some resistance within the Union army. On the other hand, the proclamation turned foreign opinion against the Confederacy and encouraged more slaves to escape to Union lines and enlist in a Union army poorly in need of manpower.

As we approach the presidential election of 2012, there has been much discussion about the “moral courage” of the candidates. How do you think you would react given the opportunity to do something you believe to be necessary in the face of such opposition?

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