When Booker T. Washington recalled the outbreak of the Civil War, he claimed that “every slave on our plantation felt and knew that, though other issues were discussed, the primal one was that of slavery.” Washington’s memory of life as young slave on a tobacco plantation in southwestern Virginia was surely “enhanced” by the passage of time –he had just turned five at the time of the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861– but it is true that Abraham Lincoln agreed with his assessment. In his famous Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, the president claimed that “All knew that this interest [in slaves] was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Of course, not everybody saw it the way Lincoln and Washington did —either then or now— but there can be little doubt that the destruction of slavery was one of the most profound consequences of the American Civil War. However, for modern day students, it’s just as important to remember that even after the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), the fate of the enslaved millions in the United States was still not secured. Freedom proved elusive, and often challenging. That is what made Washington’s memoir of his life “up from slavery,” so powerful when it was published in 1901 and so relevant –and controversial– even today. Freedom is one of those key word that always needs defining. Americans in the 1860s argued fiercely over the implications of is promise. Freedom for whom? To do what? Those arguments, by the way, were not simple matters of North versus South. Northerners argued bitterly among themselves over the meaning of freedom. So did southerners. These debates roiled the country during the election of 1860, the war itself and throughout its aftermath in the era that became known as Reconstruction. No understanding of the 1860s can be complete without a recognition that the bloodiest war in American history was fought over how people in this nation should define their essential freedoms.
Online Textbook Resources
The Civil War from Digital History (Mintz and McNeil)
Reconstruction from Digital History (Mintz and McNeil)
Civil War (Smithsonian)
Emancipation Chronology (Freedmen & Southern Society Project)
These videos include a short analysis of a compelling image from 1865 by Matthew Pinsker, a fascinating documentary short film by Dickinson student Colin MacFarlane (’12) on a former escaped slave who came to live in Carlisle, and a House Divided Project film (By John Osborne and Don Sailer) that relates the story of a military unit from Carlisle whose members were taken prisoner near the end of the Civil War.