War As Teacher

Nov 11 2012 @ 11:43am

Emancipation

In a searching analysis of the history and politics behind the Emancipation Proclamation, Louis P. Masur describes one of the underappreciated consequences of Lincoln's decree – the impact it had on whites:

The Emancipation Proclamation and black military participation transformed the thinking of many white soldiers. Charles Wills, who enlisted as a private with the 8th Illinois and rose to be a lieutenant colonel with the 103rd Illinois, marveled at his own transformation. In summer 1863, Wills confessed, “I never thought I would, but I am getting strongly in favor of arming them [blacks], and am becoming so blind that I can’t see why they will not make soldiers. How queer. A year ago last January I didn’t like to hear anything of emancipation. Last fall accepted confiscation of rebel’s negroes quietly. In January took to emancipation readily, and now believe in arming the negroes.” Another soldier, Silas Shearer of the 23rd Iowa, had a similar experience. “My principles have changed since I last saw you,” he informed his wife. “When I was at home I was opposed to the medling of Slavery where it then Existed but since the Rebls got to such a pitch and it became us as a Military needsisity … to abolish Slavery and I say Amen to it and I believe the Best thing that has been done Since the War broke out is the Emancipation Proclimation.”

Wills’s letters illustrate what Lincoln and all Americans experienced: the war was a teacher. No one articulated this truth more than Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Concord philosopher. The outbreak of the war changed Emerson, who had disdained political parties, mistrusted philanthropic efforts, and once called himself “a seeing eye, not a helping hand.” He labeled the war “a new glass to see all our old things through.” It was “instructor,” “searcher,” “magnetizer,” and “reconciler.” Emerson the individualist and idealist may have bristled at the churning power of the machinery of war, but Emerson the patriot and realist welcomed the struggle for the birth of a new social order.

(Image: "First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln" by Francis Bicknell Carpenter from Wikimedia Commons)