If you teach an American History 1 course , the Civil War Unit falls towards the end of the year when uninterrupted class time can be at a premium. Events such as field days, field trips and state standardized testing can reduce the amount of time available for covering such a vast and broad topic like the Civil War. The emancipation of slaves and subsequent abolishment of slavery is certainly a key part of the that unit. This post will provide some ideas and links to resources for teachers to use to help teach this important story, even if faced with the time constraints that teachers may face.
Emancipation Prior to 1863
The story of emancipation can be a complicated one. Students may be under the impression that no one , certainly not slaves, were thinking about the freedom of enslaved persons until President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. A story from 1861 could help change that impression. Fort Monroe was a United States occupied fortress at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Hampton, Virginia. (It recently became a part of the National Park System) Here on May 23, 1861, 3 enslaved men who had were being used by the Confederates to build fortifications nearby will row across the James River to the fort and present themselves to the Union commander of the fort. Benjamin Butler, the new fort commander, will take them in as “contraband” of war, despite the efforts of their owner, Confederate colonel, to have the men returned. Students can read this article from the New York Times describing the debate and discussion this lead to about the meaning of slaves and their freedom. As United States armies pushed into the slave holding states, slaves began emancipating themselves in some cases. Generals like Butler and others will face the decision of whether or not to allow slaves to come into United States lines , putting President Lincoln in a difficult position. These stories can allow for discussion and debate in class.
Here are some interesting questions to have students discuss:
- Were these enslaved people free by their action of coming into United States lines?
- The war , in 1861, as Lincoln and others saw it was a war for Union, not freedom, so should the slaves be returned?
- What does it mean for slaves in border states – like Maryland? What would make them free?
- Butler will say he is in a foreign country allowing him to do what he wants with the slaves, but if secession is seen as illegal, then are they really? (as proposed by the Confederate officer who come to Fortress Monroe to get the slaves back)
- Was it the actions of slaves themselves that encourages Lincoln to emancipate slaves?
Many individual United States soldiers will come into contact with enslaved people for the first time. This leads one soldier at the fort to write “There is a universal desire among the slaves to be free. . . . Even old men and women, with crooked backs, who could hardly walk or see, shared the same feeling.” What do observations like this one mean for many United Sates soldiers’ view of enslaved people?
Asking open ended questions ,with at times no clear yes or no answer, can help students grasp the complexities of this issue that President Lincoln and other leaders dealt with when it came to emancipation. This discussion could be done in a class period or ask students to read the article outside of class and then discuss these questions together in a class forum such as a Socratic Seminar.
Emancipation Proclamation: Exploring the Document
If you are looking for an activity about the Emancipation Proclamation that reach the main ideas of the document and help students develop an understanding of its meaning, look to the activities provided in the Civil War Trust’s free lessons and activities. The Civil War Trust provides curriculum materials for teachers that can be used to cover most topics related to the war. Their curriculum has an elementary, middle and high school level. Individual lesson topics with material can be down loaded. If you only have a few days to cover the Emancipation Proclamation and its context, this is a great resource. Included in the downloadable resources for the Emancipation Proclamation is an excerpt from the actual document that will allow students to understand two main points of the document:
- Only slaves in rebelling states are freed, not in territory occupied by the United States or in the border states.
- African American men can join the United States military.
Click here for the middle school level lesson on the Emancipation Proclamation. Page 4 of the downloadable document has the excerpts from the Proclamation itself. It has a variety of activities to select from.
How was the The Emancipation Proclamation viewed in 1863?
The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebelling states as we all know. Taken at face value it can be seen as a war measure as it did not abolish slavery at all. Certainly it sets the stage for the 13th Amendment in the future, but what did it mean in those areas in the Confederacy that were under United States control in 1863?
The illustration above first appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on January 24, 1863. The picture is entitled “Emancipation Day in South Carolina”. It shows the men from the 1st South Carolina Infantry regiment receiving their regiment’s American flag on January 1, 1863 at a ceremony near Port Royal , South Carolina. Formed in 1862, the 1st South Carolina was the first federally authorized African American regiment and would become the 33rd United States Colored regiment in 1864. Sergeant Prince Rivers is shown receiving the flag officially for the first time. Slavery had not been abolished at that point, but what message is being sent to both those in 1863 and to us today about how enslaved people saw the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation? They were in territory that was occupied by the United States, on paper soldiers like Sergeant Rivers were not free. To find out more about this interesting and insightful event , read Dickinson College Professor Matthew Pinkster’s post on the Emancipation Blog about the event with several first hand accounts about the ceremony that day ,the men in the regiment , and those that helped to form the regiment.
This picture can lead to some interesting discussion questions:
- What can be inferred if the regiment was formed in 1862, and the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863?
- What does the United States flag represent to the members of the 1st South Carolina and those in the crowd?
- Why would the enslaved persons both in the audience that day and the regiment feel free when the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually free them?
This is a great opportunity to have a class discussion in the form of a Socratic Seminar or Paideia Seminar . These discussion strategies are similar in that they both ask students to look at deeper meanings using open ended and thought provoking questions. Click on the links for descriptions of how to use them in an instructional setting .
Any one of these activities can be modified for time constraints, student ability level, and curriculum goals. Having students discuss thoughtfully the meaning of this document and the questions surrounding the emancipation and eventual abolishment of slavery can allow students to come to conclusions, but many continue to ask questions and want to explore and learn more. Comment here with your or thoughts on teaching emancipation.
A comprehensive digital resource about emancipation. Primary sources, information, videos and more. From Matthew Pinkster and the House Divided project from Dickinson College.
Here is the link to the post about the illustration from South Carolina referenced above.
An interactive site for students to learn in an interactive way about the events, people, and decision process leading to emancipation. An incredible site from
President Lincoln’s Cottage outside Washington, D.C.
This resource is a timeline of the history of emancipation during the Civil War