The Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C. – aka the Freedman’s Memorial – aka the Lincoln Statue has had its share of supporters and detractors since its dedication back in 1876. Designed by Thomas Ball, and depicting Abraham Lincoln as the great emancipator as well as a shirtless shackled slave rising from is knees, the statue is indeed a spot-on target for controversy.
At the dedication, none other than Fredrick Douglass advised the crowd (which included Ulysses S. Grant) that it “showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.” And if you really want to push the issue. Historian Kirk Savage has condemned it as “a monument entrenched in and perpetuating racist ideology.”
Well…..I suppose that is open for debate. But one thing is for sure. Memorials like this one are sure to get a conversation going about who really freed the slaves. There are a lot of people out there who think of Lincoln as the great emancipator to be sure. But on the other hand….what about self emancipation? It is without question that when slaves had the chance, they made for the Union lines…in essence – freeing themselves. There is an enormous literature on this. For starters I would check out Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, edited by Ira Berlin, Barbara Fields, and other prominent historians.
But I ask this…what about the Union army? Didn’t they have something to do with it? I mean….really. Without the Union army in the field no proclamations would have amounted to anything – and there would have been no place to escape to. So we can talk about Lincoln the emancipator and self emancipation all day. Both are profoundly significant in terms of the history of freedom on the broader scale. But we must remember that there was a war gong on – and that the army played a crucial role in making emancipation a reality. This is a fact that seems sadly forgotten these days.
I think Robert Gould Shaw said it best in a letter to his mother shortly after he heard of Lincoln’s announcement: “So the Proclamation has come at last, or rather its forerunner. I suppose you are all very much excited about it. For my part, I can’t see what practical good it can do now. Wherever our army has been there remain no slaves, and the Proclamation will not free them where we don’t go.”