by Shuan Butcher, JTHG Director of CommunicationsSteven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” movie (written by Tony Kushner and based on Doris Kearns Goodwin book “Team of Rivals) focuses primarily on the 16th President’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment. The roots of that endeavor can be traced to people and actions taken within the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area. Lincoln himself visited the region on at least two separate occasions, which was the impetus behind Huffington Post writer Kate Kelly’s recent excursion to our region a little over a month ago. Kelly visited many of the same spots Lincoln did back in 1862 and 1863 (check out her work at www.americacomesalive.com), including:
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Two weeks after the Battle of Antietam and nine days after issuing the initial Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln arrived in Harpers Ferry. The first site Lincoln came to after crossing the Potomac River was John Brown’s fort. Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Park, stated that Lincoln’s reflections at that time very much could have been about his desire to finish what John Brown had started a few years earlier. Lincoln had become hardened in his actions toward the South by that point. Two months earlier the Second Confiscation Act was passed and a few days later on July 22nd, the President issued a warning to the South. And then of course, the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued. A much different viewpoint than when he took office.
However, Lincoln’s trip to Harpers Ferry is just part of the story of the town’s prominent role in the civil rights movement. John Brown’s uprising there in 1859 was a catalytic moment. On May 30, 1881, abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave an address on John Brown on the campus of Storer College, stating “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men, for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia- not Fort Sumpter, but Harper’s Ferry and the arsenal- not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared.”
Harpers Ferry continued to be at the center of the African American experience in the early Twentieth Century. The Niagara Movement convened there in August 1906 with leaders such as WEB Dubois and others. Visitors to the area can get a full glimpse from slavery to civil rights in this historic quaint town.
After visiting Harpers Ferry, Lincoln visited General George B. McClellan at his headquarters at Antietam about the general’s strategies and tactics following the battle that took place there. The Battle of Antietam (Maryland) on September 17, 1862, was not the conclusive Union victory President Lincoln had wanted, but it was enough for him to issue his preliminary emancipation proclamation five days later, which stated that on January 1, 1863, all slaves in states still in rebellion would be free. In the proclamation’s wake, the war not only gained a higher moral purpose, but also record numbers of now-emancipated slaves joined the Union Army, thereby increasing its military strength. Indeed, the outcome of the American Civil War was decided on the fields on Antietam, not by the marching armies.
Before returning to the Nation’s Capital, President Lincoln made one final stop in Frederick. He stopped by to visit the Ramsey house to visit General George Hartsuff who was recovering from injuries sustained at Antietam. The President then headed to the B&O train station, where a crowd had begun to gather. He stopped to make a few remarks, stating:
“Fellow Citizens, I see myself surrounded by soldiers and by the citizens of this good city of Frederick, all anxious to hear something from me. Nevertheless, I can only say—as I did elsewhere five minutes ago—that it is not proper for me to make speeches in my present position. I return thanks to our gallant soldiers for the good service they have rendered, the energies they have shown, the hardships they have endured, and the blood they have so nobly shed for this dear Union of ours. And I also return thanks, not only, to the soldiers, but to the good citizens of Frederick, and to all the good men, women, and children throughout this land for their devotion to our glorious cause. And I say this without any malice in my heart toward those who have done otherwise. May our children, and our children’s children, for a thousand generations, continue to enjoy the benefits conferred upon us by a united country, and have cause yet to rejoice under those glorious institutions bequeathed us by Washington and his compeers! Now, my friends—soldiers and citizens—I can only say once more—Farewell!”
Over a year later, the President made a second visit to the area. In November 1863, Lincoln came to Gettysburg for the dedication of the new national cemetery. Gettysburg was at a crossroads, figuratively and physically, during the American Civil War. The town, just 10 miles north of a slave state and the Mason-Dixon line, had one of the largest African-American populations in the North (per capita).
His remarks, now known as the famous Gettysburg Address, lasted for approximately 2 ½ minutes. His speech was rooted in thought and previous remarks dating back months prior, to at least the summertime. Another interesting piece of information about Gettysburg to note is that Thaddeus Stevens (a prominent figure in Spielberg’s “Lincoln” movie, played by Tommy Lee Jones) had a law practice near the town square for over twenty years.
(Sources: Dr. Allen Guelzo, Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, Dennis Frye, Chief Historian at the Harpers Ferry National Park, Antietam National Battlefield, Harper’s Weekly)
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