On Saturday, September 22, at the Visitor’s Center in Gettysburg’s National Military park, Professor Scott Hancock delivered his lecture “Rebelling for the Promise of Revolution: Black Emancipation and the Civil War”. Engaging the audience in critical thought, Hancock provided an alternative view of Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and rebellion during the Civil War. The challenging nature of his lecture was not limited in scope; rather it blew open the doors for a whole new take on the events that encompassed the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln is traditionally interpreted as a hero: he was the morally elevated president who could see the wrongs of slavery before his contemporaries could. But what Hancock emphasized is the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was more of a military necessity to Lincoln than a moral one. Lincoln needed to consider the politics of the war, the dichotomy of the North and South, and keeping the constitution intact. While he believed slavery was wrong, his primary goal was to preserve the Union and end the war. Hancock termed the false grandeur enshrouding the Emancipation Proclamation a “translucent sheen of glory”. While the content of the proclamation declares emancipation for the slaves, this is a superficial view; it was no gift to the African Americans. The Emancipation Proclamation was essential for the military success of the Union and ultimately created for the protection of a white man’s world.
In the next portion of the lecture, Hancock delved into the concept of rebellion. During the Civil War, the Confederates were called rebels, or Rebel Johnnies. However, the word rebel poorly described their involvement in the war because their primary goal was to preserve an old institution. Fear of change and attempting to maintain an old way of life is far from rebellious. Hancock emphasized that the true rebels of the war were the African Americans; they were the ones who fought to end an institution. Nat Turner, who led a Virginian Rebellion that killed between 50 and 60 white Southerners, was a rebel who shaped the nation. His act was seen as heroic to many slaves and he became a symbol of freedom. Regardless of how Turner was perceived, it was the public outburst resulting from his rebellion that made him one of the sparks of the Civil War. The nearly 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who would fight during the Civil War were the largest organized black armed force in modern history.
What the lecture emphasized was that we can’t forget nor can we elevate the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s role in creating it. As we move further into the 21st century, we can see that the issue of racial tension did not perish on those Civil War battlefields. Yet, despite this, we must give credit to the African Americans who sought to gain what they knew was their property: their own freedom. Hancock asserted that African Americans knew all along that freedom was rightfully theirs, and no Proclamation or Amendment could ratify this. The Proclamation, then, demonstrated that inherent freedom to all Americans. Knowing one’s own history is important in understanding one’s role in the world, and as Professor Hancock’s professed, “This is why the individual must matter.”