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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Workshop 4 - Concerning Emancipation: Who Freed the Slaves?homesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 4:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript Two:
The Forces for Emancipation

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General Butler is the one who says, "I'm in the utmost doubt what to do with this species of property." And he coins the phrase "contrabands." He is going to call these runaway slaves, these escaped slaves, contrabands of war—confiscate them as such and set them free. So when Freemont issues his order, and David Hunter issues his order, they did so because the actions of the runaways forced them to confront the issue of what the war was about.

It was significant from another point of view as well, because it put a human face on this institution of slavery that for most Northerners and most Northern soldiers was an abstraction. They had met few black people in their lives, no less any enslaved. And it helped turn soldiers themselves into, if not abolitionists, more strongly antislavery in their feelings of what the war was about. There is a story of a lieutenant from the 10th Massachusetts who says, "I never will be instrumental in returning a slave to his master in any way, shape, or manner. I'll die first." This suggests another way in which the actions of the slaves perhaps transformed the war. By delivering themselves to Union lines, they made the abstract question of slavery a personal, human one. They helped transform the war into one of abolition.

This happened with images as well. There is this famous photo of a slave posing for the camera, his lacerated, scarred back on display, stripped to the waist. That escaped slave has a name; his name was Gordon. We know he ran away from a Louisiana plantation. He delivered himself to Union lines. And what was done? Well, they took a picture of Gordon's back, and it circulated. It circulated as evidence. Here—here's something that we're fighting for: the back of Gordon—"the map of slavery," some called it.

Well, not only through images, but ultimately through fighting as well, the enslaved played a critical role as agents of their own liberation. The first black troops are created, and over time some 190,000 or so African American soldiers distinguished themselves in the war. "There is not a Negro in the army that is not a better man than a rebel and for whom I have not 1,000 times more respect than I have for a traitor," proclaimed the one soldier. And so we come back to this issue: Did the slaves free themselves? To what extent were they really the leaders in this momentum?

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