They Chose Freedom

Next to preservation of the United States as one nation, the emancipation of four million slaves and the abolition of slavery were the most important results of the Civil War. Our understanding of emancipation usually concentrates on its key documents: President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, congressional laws, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. These documents were certainly crucial: the Emancipation Proclamation promised that those who achieved freedom under its provisions would remain “forever free”; the Thirteenth Amendment fulfilled this promise with an ironclad mandate that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States.”

As David Blight makes clear in A Slave No More, however, these pronouncements were the culmination of a series of events on the ground in the South over four years of war. “For most slaves,” he explains, “freedom did not come on a particular day; it evolved by a process.” The real story is not what happened in the White House or the halls of Congress, but what happened at thousands of places from Maryland to Texas when slaves ran away from their masters and entered the lines of Union armies, or when those armies occupied Southern cities and plantation districts.

David Blight is director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, and the author or editor of several books on slavery, its abolition, and the historical memory of these momentous events, including his prize-winning Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001).1 In A Slave No More, he enters a debate among historians about who deserved primary credit for freeing the slaves and ending slavery: Abraham Lincoln (and his white Republican allies in Congress) or the slaves themselves.

The traditional answer to the question “Who freed the slaves?” was Abraham Lincoln. But many black and other historians have placed greater emphasis on the initiative of the slaves. These slaves saw the Civil War as a potential war for abolition well before Lincoln did. By coming into Union military lines in the South, they forced the issue of emancipation on the Lincoln administration. “While Lincoln continued to hesitate about the legal, constitutional, moral, and military aspects of the matter,” wrote the black historian and theologian Vincent Harding in 1981, “the relentless movement of the self-liberated fugitives into the Union lines” soon “approached and surpassed every level of force previously known.” Making themselves “an unavoidable military and political issue…this overwhelming human movement…of self-freed men and women…took their freedom into their own hands.” The Emancipation Proclamation, when it finally and belatedly came, merely “confirmed and gave ambiguous legal standing to the freedom which black people had already claimed through their own surging, living proclamations.”2

During the 1980s this self-emancipation thesis became dominant. It won the imprimatur of the foremost scholarly enterprise on the history of emancipation, the Freedmen and Southern Society project at the University of Maryland. By acting “resolutely to place their freedom—and that of their posterity—on the wartime agenda,” wrote the…

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