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  • Unwriting the Freedom Narrative:A Review Essay
  • Carole Emberton (bio)

In the fifty years spanning the centennial and sesquicentennial anniversaries of the Civil War, much has changed in the way historians think about that cataclysmic event. Indeed, many no longer think of the Civil War as a single event but rather as a series of wars fought on a number of fronts. Not only does the western theater now compete with the eastern theater for historians’ attention, but scholars of the war in the West also assert that the nature of warfare in the lower Mississippi Valley, not to mention in Texas and New Mexico, differed considerably from warfare in Virginia, so much so as to perhaps qualify as a different war altogether. Historians today recognize the importance of the home front—both Union and Confederate—where, some argue, what happened in kitchens and bedrooms was just as important as what transpired on battlefields. As a result, the definition of combatants has expanded to include not only partisans and guerrillas but also women, children, and slaves. Perhaps most important, professional historians today generally agree that the political divide over slavery caused the war, even as segments of the larger public still cling to a myth that the institution was a tangential issue at most.

Despite these sweeping changes in historians’ understanding of why the war was fought, where it was fought, and who fought it, the master narrative of the Civil War in the last fifty years has been remarkably static. The standard syntheses of the period repeat more or less the same refrain: by late 1862, what initially began as a war to preserve the Union with slavery intact became a war for freedom. Although historians continue to disagree about the extent to which emancipation reflected a calculated military necessity or a principled commitment to liberal ideals, if not to flesh-and-blood people who were enslaved, freedom has become the sine qua non of Civil War history. Whether it came gradually and begrudgingly or, as James Oakes has recently [End Page 377] argued, perpetually and willfully, freedom was both the Civil War’s battle cry and its “unfinished revolution.”1

Recent events, however, suggest that the freedom narrative may be ready for a twenty-first-century reboot. In the wake of the June 2015 murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, debates about the Confederate flag converged with the larger #blacklivesmatter movement to push national conversations about race in new directions. By exposing how the legacy of chattel slavery continues to infuse the American political economy and culture, activists marked the end of the Civil War sesquicentennial not by celebrating the emergence of a nebulous condition that succeeded legal bondage but by indicting the very notion that such a succession was either clear or complete. Their focus was not on the incremental accrual of civil or political rights but rather on the accrual of dead bodies. The continuum of violence against black people, stretching from the antebellum plantation to twenty-first-century cities and suburbs, and carried out by law enforcement and private citizens alike, raises troubling questions about how historians narrate the Civil War and its aftermath. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children.”2

This recent grassroots revision of the nation’s historical consciousness coincides with a scholarly movement to reframe our understanding of the Civil War and emancipation. For nearly two decades, historians have been grappling with the inadequacies of the freedom narrative for analyzing American history, but their efforts so far have not produced a new, synthetic alternative to the Whiggish march toward greater and more perfect freedom. Nevertheless, significant revisions to the way we interpret the multifaceted changes wrought by the destruction of chattel bondage and the institution of new regimes of labor and political organization suggest that we will not wait much longer for a more comprehensive unwriting of the freedom narrative. For if anything is clear...