I might be a few more days recovering. In the meantime thank you, Gentle Readers, for making yesterday the blog’s highest-traffic day yet. A lot of this writing is a labor of obsession and general exercise in history geekery, but it is very gratifying to know that others find some value in it too.
Enough about me and my ego. Time has faded the Emancipation Proclamation so the National Archives doesn’t haul it out and expose it to the light very often. But it did so for the 150th anniversary, displaying the document for three days. This happened. The men are reenactors for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
You can read and write a great deal about the history of the Civil War and not find a black face. I am just as guilty there as anyone. White America did a very good job of casting the war as the struggle between two groups of white men, with four million slaves reduced to passive recipients of white action. Lincoln freed the slaves. The subject Lincoln, acts upon the object slaves.
Lincoln did free the slaves. So did the Union armies. But disruption caused by the war also gave huge numbers of slaves the chance to free themselves. That part of the story forms a lacuna in my knowledge that I hope to fill eventually.
Just as I wrote this, I wondered how many of those men enlisted hoping to literally march home, find, and free loved ones left behind. The 54th might be a bad example there. I understand its recruits came from among free blacks in the North and I don’t know how many of them would have had family they knew of still in the South. Other units had rosters full of men who lived as slaves until shortly before enlistment.