Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union by Louis P. Masur. Harvard University Press, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 0674066901. $29.95.
“The Halls of Congress are like a dirty privy,” William Porcher Miles noted in 1858—“a man will carry off some of the stink even in his clothes.”1 As depicted in Louis Masur’s terrific new volume, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for Union, the Halls of Congress didn’t smell much better in 1862.
The sesquicentennial has released a flood-tide of books on emancipation. In the “big book” category, we have Jim Oakes’ Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States and Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South. In the “new looks” category, we have Glenn David Brasher’s The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom and Jim Downs’ Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction. All are terrific.
But Masur can claim his own originality in his intense focus on Lincoln’s “hundred days”—the period between the President’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, and his formal Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
Masur begins his volume with the now de rigueur observation that “emancipation was a process, not a moment” (8), but he goes on to give that observation analytical teeth in a book that, to coin a term, is essentially a “political procedural.” Perhaps it is because I have just seen (and liked) Spielberg’s treatment of the spirited House debates over the Thirteenth Amendment. Or perhaps it is just the zeitgeist—our daily diet of play-by-play and color commentary about minute maneuverings over the debt-ceiling, the filibuster, and the sequester. Regardless, in examining how emancipation was made, Masur has captured the spirit of our time, as well as Lincoln’s own. Indeed, he does what the NYT’s original Disunion blog set out to do—return the sense of political contingency to the Civil War by focusing on the in-the-moment cut-and-thrust, horse-trading, log-rolling, and brinksmanship of American politics.
Masur’s point is not mere political naval-gazing. The point is to create a space in which we can see as historical actors saw. On March 6, 1862, for instance, Lincoln sent a message to Congress, the first ever emancipation proposal submitted by a sitting president. In it, he recommended “pecuniary aid” for states that voluntarily manumitted. Effectively he was buying slaves, and George Cheever, among others, was incensed. “How pitiable the attitude of President Lincoln, beseeching rebel states to do what God, justice, [and] humanity…requires him to do” (40). Frederick Douglass saw it differently: “That I should live to see the President of the United States deliberately advocating Emancipation was more than I ever ventured to hope,” he said. “I read the spaces as well as the lines of that message” (41).
And this is what Masur does particularly well: help us read the spaces as well as the lines. If he quotes a Lincoln speech, he then spends time unpacking its staggeringly varied reception as editors, polls, and the public work to decipher what exactly he meant, and what exactly was next. This method not only returns (much vaunted) contingency to the era but makes things explicable that might not otherwise be. How, honestly, did any of the Border Staters not see the writing on the wall in 1864? And yet, they didn’t. The problem, as Masur rightly points out, is that we reflexively agree with Douglass: “One of the strangest and most humiliating triumphs of human selfishness and prejudice over human reason, is that it leads men to look upon emancipation as an experiment, instead of being, as it is, the natural order of human relations.” But a vast majority of Americans were morally obtuse enough to look upon it as an experiment. And when we see the Proclamation through their eyes, we appreciate it anew as nothing less than astounding. “There never was such a revolution since the world began,” Henry Ward Beecher intuited, “upon such a scale, involving such interests, and taking place within so short a time” (42).
Though Masur does an excellent job narrating and analyzing “emancipation [as] a process, not a moment” (8), he is ironically at his best in capturing moments: the interim elections, January 1, the carriage ride in which Lincoln determined on his “new departure”—focusing on emancipation in the Rebel rather than the Border States. Even where Masur treads old ground, his quotations are fresh, and there is some real interpretive meat in the book, particularly his claim that the Republican drubbing in the fall of 1862 was, a) not as bad as we think, and b) more complicated than we think. A dominant interpretation has always been that voters looked at the results of the Preliminary Proclamation, the Peninsula Campaign, and the return to Bull Run, and concluded that their government was now fighting a war for black rights and losing. (Fredericksburg and the Mud March underlined the point.) Masur argues rather that emancipation remained broadly, though not universally, popular, and that the real aggravation among voters was not emancipation but incompetence. The interims were McClellan’s defeat, not Lincoln’s; voters were angry not because they were fighting a war for black rights and losing but because they were losing a war they knew they should be winning.
There is an interesting blind side in Masur’s volume. Though a Lincoln-centered, Washington-centered “procedural” is baked into the very conception of his book, it is curious that he does not pay more attention to politics within the military. I do not mean that he is inattentive or appears resistant to the notion that battles mattered; he handles those details with a properly deft touch. Rather I mean that part of the story of emancipation, it has always seemed to me, is the question of how a deeply conservative (and, therefore, in that day, Democratic) instrument like the U.S. Army became a Republican instrument by the end of the war. Chandra Manning is undoubtedly partly right that the army was abolitionized from within, and Masur follows that line of logic. But Jonathan W. White is undoubtedly right too that the Lincoln Administration and the Republican Party succeeded in something of a political purge of the army as they bent it to their ends.
And what ends those were. If Masur can somehow make the rank cluelessness of the Border State slaveholders seem somehow understandable, he allows more far-sighted Americans to shine in juxtaposition. This is particularly true in his handling of Emerson, who called the war “a new glass to see all our old things through” (175). “The War is serving many good purposes,” he said. “War is a realist, shatters everything flimsy & shifty, sets aside all false issues, & breaks through all that is not real as itself” (175). Emerson hoped that all Americans, including and especially the soldiers in the field, would live to see January 1, 1863. “Do not let the dying die,” he said, “hold them back to this world, until you have charged their ear and heart with this message to other spiritual societies, announcing the melioration of our planet” (177).
In Louis Masur’s excellent new book, the Emancipation Proclamation may have been grittily won in a dirty privy, but it accomplished nothing less than the “melioration of our planet.”
Stephen Berry is the Amanda and Greg Gregory Chair of Civil War History at the University of Georgia. He is the author of House of Abraham (2007) and most recently the editor of Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (2011).
1 Benjamin Evans to William Porcher Miles, March 4, 1858, in William Porcher Miles Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.