In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the department of history hosted “The Glorious March to Liberty.”
The Emancipation Proclamation, resulting in the freeing of those of African descent from the bonds of slavery, is viewed by many people as the turning point in American history. “The Glorious March to Liberty” was a presentation on the role of African Americans in the Civil War and the true historical contexts surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation.
Hari Jones, assistant director and curator of the African American Civil War Freedom Foundation and Museum in Washington D.C., directed the presentation and began his talk by describing the extensive involvement African Americans had in the Civil War, especially in the North.
During the course of the War, 10 percent of the Union Army and nearly 25 percent of the Union Navy was composed of African Americans. This is especially startling since Jones pointed out African Americans only composed one percent of the Union population at the time. The audience seemed relatively shocked by these statistics, as it is very seldom the majority of Americans think about African Americans fighting in the Civil War.
“The story of these American heroes is, indeed, the most kept American secret,” Jones said.
This statement outlined the rest of the presentation focusing on the in-depth and crucial involvement of those of African descent in the Civil War.
Stepping back from the war itself, Jones discussed the nation’s situation three years before the start of the war when it was starting to become obvious the tensions between the North and South would soon culminate in a bloody civil war. “African Americans, three years before the war, viewed a civil war as the possibility to make a strike for liberty under the Constitution,” Jones said.
Jones stressed that in the years before the war, African Americans were looking for a way in which they could gain their liberty while still abiding by the laws of the land, primarily the Constitution. Because of this pre-existing desire to follow legal processes and the premonition that war would soon be upon the nation, many African Americans began educating themselves in law and politics, especially in regard to war. When the war did come three years later, and the Confederates forced their slaves to participate in all aspects of their military effort, thinking them too uneducated to pose a threat, what they really ended up doing was developing an intelligence network for the Union.
This network of educated African Americans became known as the Loyal Legal League as they sought their liberty by legal means and the Constitution.
According to Jones, General Robert E. Lee’s biggest problem was the Confederate’s “negroes” were leaking information.
“[Lee] did not know that those manservants sitting in on those planning meetings [with their masters] were in fact Union spies,” Jones said.
Not only did the African Americans prove to be an invaluable source of information for the Union, but they also proved an asset on the battlefield. According to Jones, not only did the incorporation of former slaves into the Union Army provide a bolstering effect to their numbers but it also served as a great psychological weapon against the South.
To prove the effectiveness of African Americans on the battlefield, Jones cited many examples of their victories, however, the two most notable is first, the fact that an African American regiment captured the city of Charleston, the origin of the rebellion, and second, the fact that the only all-black regiment of Grant’s army was the first regiment within the city of Richmond and would be the regiment that would win the Confederate capital for the Union.
Jones highlighted it was not the Union fighting for the black man but the black man fighting for the Union, and without the help of African Americans, a Union victory would not have been possible.
While emphasizing the importance of African Americans to the Civil War, Jones also pointed out many historical inaccuracies about the War and the Emancipation Proclamation itself. The first main misconception Jones addressed was the true mission of the Civil War.
“The reason for the War was clear,” Jones said. “It was to preserve the Union — not to end the tyranny of slavery.”
The second misconception relates to the Emancipation Proclamation. Many think the speech is the pinnacle of moral integrity, which freed all the slaves in America. This is wrong.
First, the Proclamation clearly states that freeing the slaves in a “necessary war measure” meaning that Lincoln only freed the slaves because it would help the Union cause. Also, it only freed the slaves in the 10 states in rebellion. As for the five slave states remaining in the Union, these were freely and legally allowed to keep their slaves.
To wrap up the discussion, Jones spoke in the question- and-answer session about why history ignores the achievements of the African Americans while at the same time glorifying the Emancipation Proclamation into something it is not.
“The South was ashamed for having attempted to perpetuate the institution of slavery and the North was ashamed for having to rely on African Americans to win the war,” Jones said.
Even though history has tried to erase these African American heroes, Jones is now working to make their work known.
“Their story is a glorious story of their march to liberty in league with the Constitution,” Jones said.
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