One hundred and fifty years ago this week on September 17, 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers fought one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War near Antietam Creek in northwest Maryland.
The battle--Antietam--with its outcome as a Union victory provided President Abraham Lincoln with the necessary confidence to promulgate the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which ultimately freed blacks enslaved in the Confederacy.
Before this first step of Emancipation, though, was contemplation of the carnage of Antietam. James McPherson points out in “Battle Cry of Freedom” (Oxford University Press, 1988) the 6,000 dead and 17,000 wounded in one day of combat at Antietam was four times the number of casualties suffered by American forces on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. Bruce Catton in “The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln's Army” (Doubleday & Company, 1962) quotes a member of the 9th New York regiment describing the Antietam battlefield: “The mental strain was so great that I saw at that moment the singular effect mentioned, I think, in the life of Goethe on a similar occasion--the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.” The nation's great divide between Constitution and Confederacy; emancipation and slavery; and north against south had reached a crescendo of combat.
Into this maw near Sharpsburg, Maryland, stepped the First Minnesota Volunteers. Their story begins with Minnesota's second governor, Alexander Ramsey, who happened to be in Washington, D.C. when news came of the surrender of Fort Sumter after its bombardment by South Carolina militia. Ramsey tendered an offer of 1,000 Minnesota soldiers to the Secretary of War. Thus, Minnesota became the first state, as noted by Richard Moe, to offer troops to defend the Union and the First Minnesota was the first Minnesota regiment raised (“The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers,” Minnesota Historical Press. 1993).
Following battles with the South at Bull Run, Edwards' Ferry and the Peninsula, the First Minnesota found itself in the West Woods section of Antietam. A fierce Confederate attack had routed much of the Union line in the vicinity of positioning of the First Minnesota. The Minnesota regiment, though, retreated in good order and demonstrated “steadiness and reliability under heavy fire” according to Moe. The First Minnesota suffered a casualty rate of 28%. (A year later, the First Minnesota would suffer an 82% casualty rate at Gettysburg attacking a Confederate force five times larger in an effort to buy a few minutes of time to stabilize the Union position on Cemetery Ridge.) Stories of bravery abound from the First Minnesota. Governor Al Quie recalls hearing stories about his grandfather from his aunts and uncles of Halvor Quie fighting for the First Minnesota through 13 battles until he was wounded at Antietam. Governor Quie has wondered ever since the reason one risks his life for people he never met as his grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, did for African American slaves.
For the Minnesotans and the rest of the Union Army under the command of George McClellan, Antietam was considered a “qualified” victory. The Union had badly mauled Robert E. Lee's army but had missed an opportunity to destroy it.
As Britain and France weighed recognition of the Confederacy, Lincoln acted upon this battlefield success after a succession of battlefield defeats in the first two years of the Civil War. As related by McPherson, Lincoln convened his cabinet on September 22, 1862,--five days after Antietam. He told the cabinet he had a made a covenant with God. If the Union Army drove the Confederate Army from Maryland he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln's attitude towards emancipation of the slaves was an evolutionary process which fluctuated with the conduct of the war within in his overarching goal of preservation of the Union and continued supremacy of the Constitution. “The Reader's Companion to American History" (Houghton Mifflin, 1991) notes that by the summer of 1862, Lincoln was favoring a proclamation issued as commander in chief freeing slaves in stares waging war against the Union. Yet, in a letter to journalist Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, Lincoln wrote: “the paramount objective is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery.” Earlier in 1862, Lincoln had advised black residents of Washington, D.C. to consider emigration to save themselves from discrimination and/or mitigate the circumstances of emancipation if there were fewer blacks in the United States receiving their freedom.
Nonetheless, Antietam--as he told his cabinet--had cinched the issue of emancipation in Lincoln's mind. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation warning the Confederacy that on January 1, 1863, a final proclamation would be promulgated “committing the government and armed forces of the United States to liberate the slaves in rebel states as an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity.”
Some blacks treated the Emancipation Proclamation as their “Independence Day” as Merrill Peterson wrote, although this “thinn[ed] with passage of time” yet many Americans saw Lincoln as a "Moses...deliverer...savior...” (“Lincoln in American Memory,” Oxford University Press, 1994).
The reality and the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation are more complicated than any monochromatic rendering of Lincoln and the consequences of his executive order. This is one reasons the JCRC and Tolerance Minnesota have joined with the Minnesota African American Museum, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie representing the Civil War Commemoration task force; Minnesota Historical Society; Honorary Consul for South Africa, Judge LaJune Lange; Penumbra Theatre; University of St. Thomas Law School; Macalester College; Augsburg College; Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs; and the Givens Collection to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation starting this September 22, 2012, in the Twin Cities.
All are welcome to participate in the following events: In Commemoration of the promulgation of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, St. James AME Church will celebrate with gospel music and the screening of Don McGlynn’s 2011 documentary, Rejoice and Shout. This event will be held at the Riverview Theater, 3800 42nd Ave. South, Minneapolis at 9:30 a.m. on September 22.
The Calvary Cemetery, 753 Front Ave., St. Paul, will be the site of a grave marking ceremony at 11:00 a.m. on September 22.
“Preliminary Issuing” Salon Discussion with Panelist Dr. Bill Green, Dr. John S. Wright, and Professor Peter Rachleff on September 22, 2012, (2-4PM) at the Sabathani Community Center.
Benjamin T. Jealous, the President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), will be featured at the Anniversary Celebration Reception Dinner at the University of Minnesota on October 12. He will be addressing remedies to Racial and Ethnic Economic Inequality.
As a point of departure for learning about the Emancipation Proclamation and its aftermath, Peter Rachleff--Professor of History, Hamline University--has distilled these themes:
“If we could imagine the Emancipation Proclamation to be a pebble and U.S. history to be a pool of water, tossing that pebble into the water would generate expanding waves and circles which would include:
1. The centrality of slavery to the conflicts which led to the Civil War.
2. The important role(s) played by African American soldiers in the critical battles of the War.
3. The important role(s) played by the slaves themselves in the struggle for their own emancipation -- by striking on the plantations, by running away, by aiding and abetting Union forces, by demanding the right to take up arms in their own behalf, by demanding to be paid wages for labor performed for the Union Army.
4. The efforts by former slaves and former free blacks to shape and improve their lives during Reconstruction -- by resisting Black Codes; by seeking land; by participating in the writing of new constitutions for the Southern states; by demanding full citizenship rights, including the right to vote and serve on juries; by running for public office; by building community institutions, such as churches and mutual benefit societies; by organizing unions and demanding access to skilled jobs, higher wages, and a voice in negotiating work rules.
5. The efforts by the descendants of slaves and former free blacks to create, maintain, and protect a quality life for themselves and their families during the disturbing decades of Ku Klux Klan terror, lynching, de factor and de jure segregation, disfranchisement, restricted access to public education, sharecropping, debt peonage, and convict labor.
6. The migration north, between 1915 and 1970, of more than a million African Americans, seeking access to jobs for themselves, education for their children, and inclusion in citizenship.
7. The participation of African Americans, North and South, in efforts to unionize and to expand workers' political voice, during the Great Depression.
8. The participation of African Americans in the U.S. military in World Wars I and II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
9. The efforts or African Americans, North as well as South, to build a civil rights movement in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, which radically transformed American society, not only expanding political and economic rights for African Americans, but also inspiring Chicanos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans to organize on their own behalf, and creating a rights discourse which has been employed effectively by women, gays and lesbians, disabled people, and more. The Civil Rights Movement changed how we all think about American society and our roles and responsibilities within it.
10. The creation of a rich and complex culture which has long challenged the negative representations, images, and stereotypes of black people, and has offered rich ways to understand, engage, and transform the world. From the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro movement of the 1920s to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, to hip hop and black science fiction today, African Americans from their vantage point and experience have offered cultural expressions to our entire society, indeed, to the entire world
All of this because the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation has yet to be fulfilled.”