Two Views of Emancipation – Which is Right?

Which of these two monuments offers the best depiction of the relationship between African Americans and Abraham Lincoln, and the role each played in ending slavery? This one…

The Emancipation Memorial, AKA the Freedman’s Memorial, in Washington, DC
Source: Wikipedia

…or this one?

Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
Image © Dave Wiegers Photography, see here and here. Wiegers has done a number of photos of monuments to Abraham Lincoln. 

My thoughts are below the fold.

The Emancipation Memorial

The first of these monuments is the Emancipation Memorial, also known as the Freedman’s Memorial, which is located in Washington, DC. As noted in Wiki,

Designed and sculpted by Thomas Ball and erected in 1876, the monument depicts Abraham Lincoln in his role of the “Great Emancipator” freeing a male African American slave modeled on Archer Alexander. The ex-slave is depicted on one knee, with one fist clenched, shirtless and shackled at the president’s feet.​n

Lincoln (is shown holding) a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand. The document rests on a plinth bearing patriotic symbols including George Washington’s profile, the fasces of the American republic, and a shield emblazoned with the stars and stripes… Behind the two figures is a whipping post draped with cloth. A vine grows around the pillory and around the ring where the chain was secured.​

The monument has been criticized for its depiction of the slave figure. As noted here,

Half-clad, kneeling at the Great Emancipator’s feet, the figure of the slave in Thomas Ball’s Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln may have offered a realistic portrait of a black man (based on a photograph of a former slave named Archer Alexander) but his appearance and position offered posterity a message of subservience. In Frederick Douglass’s words, overheard at the unveiling ceremony, “it showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”​

This monument suggests that blacks had no agency in affecting change during the War. It could be easily interpreted as meaning that freedom is something that “happened” to the slaves solely as a result of Lincoln’s actions, and that enslaved black were passive objects in the destruction of American bondage.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument

The second monument is the Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, which is located in Cleveland, OH. As noted in Wiki,

The Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument is a monument to Civil War soldiers and sailors from Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Located in the southeast quadrant of Public Square in downtown Cleveland, it was designed by architect Levi Scofield (1842–1917), who also created the monument’s sculptures and opened July 4, 1894. The monument is regularly open to the public free of charge.

…Also inside the base are four bronze relief sculptures depicting the Soldiers’ Aid Society, Emancipation of the Slaves, Beginning of the War in Ohio and the End of the War, as well as busts of Col. James Barnett, Scofield, and several Ohio officers who were killed in action during the war.​

In this sculpture, the slave freedman is in a semi-kneeling position, and is shown being freed from his shackles by Lincoln. But in this case, the freedman is kneeling on one knee with his right hand up: he is taking an oath on bended knee, a gesture that signifies his loyalty and service to his new country. Most important, he is being given a gun, a weapon and empowerment. The message is unmistakeable: this man is no longer a slave, but a soldier who will fight for his nation, and for freedom.

Emancipation as viewed by a Black Soldier and Abraham Lincoln

As I view these monuments, I recall the words of Samuel Cabble, a private in the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry regiment. Cabble was a slave before he enlisted with the US army during the Civil War. In a letter to his wife he wrote:

Dear Wife i have enlisted in the army i am now in the state of Massachusetts but before this letter reaches you i will be in North Carlinia and though great is the present national dificulties yet i look forward to a brighter day When i shall have the opertunity of seeing you in the full enjoyment of fredom

i would like to no if you are still in slavery if you are it will not be long before we shall have crushed the system that now opreses you for in the course of three months you shall have your liberty. great is the outpouring of the colered peopl that is now rallying with the hearts of lions against that very curse that has seperated you an me yet we shall meet again and oh what a happy time that will be when this ungodly rebellion shall be put down and the curses of our land is trampled under our feet

i am a soldier now and i shall use my utmost endeavor to strike at the rebellion and the heart of this system that so long has kept us in chains . . . remain your own afectionate husband until death-Samuel Cabble

Of note is that Cabble does not speak about having been freed by Lincoln, or anyone. Instead he speaks of the “outpouring” of African Americans who are “rallying with the hearts of lions” against “this system that so long has kept us in chains.” Cabble’s view is clear: he and others have enlisted to destroy slavery themselves.

And I also recall the words of president Abraham Lincoln in an 1863 letter that was meant to be shared with audiences in his home state of Illinois: “But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”

In his letter, Lincoln does not say that he has freed the slaves. He says that he has promised them freedom, to incentivize them to “stake their lives for us.” Thus, Lincoln speaks not of an emancipation proclamation, but of an emancipation transaction: freedom is not a gift or part of a one-way exchange, but rather, it is one of the terms of a grand bargain between people of African descent and the Union. And on the negroes’ side of the deal, the price could be as high as death itself.

To free themselves, then, African Americans were prepared to pay the ultimate price as soldiers and sailors for the Union. Abraham Lincoln believed that black men would willingly pay that price; his hopes of black support for the Union depended on that belief. Which brings us back to the original question: which of these two monuments offers the best depiction of the roles played by African Americans and Abraham Lincoln in ending slavery during the Civil War? By now, the choice should be easy.

The Right View

For African Americans during the Civil War, freedom was not free. Some 200,000 men of African descent served as soldiers and sailors in the Union army, including tens of thousands of free blacks who were “unchained” by slavery when they enlisted. By their service and sacrifice, they were agents of their own liberation. These men were aided and abetted by thousands of black civilians, men, women, and children, who served as scouts, guides, spies, laborers, and otherwise directly aided the Union in its victory over the Confederacy. It was that victory which made it possible for freedom to be the supreme law of the land of the United States of America.

The Emancipation Memorial in a Washington, DC, was no doubt well intentioned when it was constructed many years ago. But it fails to acknowledge the role that African Americans played in achieving their own liberty. The black soldiers, sailors, and civilians who engaged in what they saw as a war for freedom were as much Great Emancipators as Lincoln himself. The monument in Cleveland does a much better job in telling this story.

Although, even the Cleveland monument is not entirely accurate in its message. The African American men from Cuyahoga County who served in the Union army were were for the most part free blacks, so they did not need shackles removed to serve in the Union army. But this memorial might lead some to think that all black enlistees in the Union army were slaves; that is not correct.

These two memorials, with their sharply contrasting images, give us pause to consider how accurate emancipation, African American agency, and even the role of Lincoln in ending slavery, are represented in our public spaces. And there is no better time to do that than now, as we wind down the current Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the American Civil War.


One thought on “Two Views of Emancipation – Which is Right?

  1. Pingback: Frederick Douglass on the late Abraham Lincoln | Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

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