More than freedom

Professor examines Civil War’s black soldiers in award-winning essay

On February 10, 2013

  • Carole Emberton, assistant professor of history, received the George and Ann Richards Prize – an award given to the best article of the year published in The Journal of the Civil War Era. Courtesy of University at Buffalo

Thousands of African-American men lined up for battle to claim their rights as United States citizens during the Civil War. Carole Emberton tells their story.

Emberton, an assistant professor of history, received the George and Ann Richards Prize, presented by the Civil War Era Center of Pennsylvania State University. It is given to the best article of the year published in The Journal of the Civil War Era. The board voted unanimously to award the honor to Emberton.

"[Experts] are all convinced it is going to make a big impact in the field," said Erik Seeman, director of the UB Humanities Institute.

A kind woman with a soft southern accent, the grisly depictions Emberton portrays are a shock to even the most studied historians.

"Her piece is powerful, beautiful, mind-expanding, almost philosophical, and it is a model not merely of Civil War scholarship but of what historians can do when they are working at the top of their game," said Stephen Berry, the Amanda and Greg Gregory chair in the Civil War Era in the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, in an email.

Emberton's essay, "Only Murder Makes Men: Reconsidering the Black Military Experience," elaborately explores the trajectory of black masculinity for men who served in the Civil War, as they went from slaves to freemen.

The essay is part of a book set to come out in June titled Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War.

Emberton said her book and essay sought to "challenge some of the most basic assumptions of American historiography and complicate the story of freedom that we like to tell about this period."

She argues what the nearly 200,000 black Union soldiers experienced in the Civil War created a hyper-masculine culture that would later have deadly affects on the freed slaves in the Reconstruction South.

"[The essay] explores how definitions of black manhood took root in the abolitionist response to slavery as an emasculating institution that made black men too weak and passive to be 'real' men," Emberton said.

Glorification of war is an unfortunate result of the monumental nature of the slave emancipation, according to Emberton. She said the United States has a tendency to "overlook the pain and suffering [war] caused the very people it was supposed to liberate."

The liberation dealt not only with the desire for equality among races but also with what Emberton called gender dynamics.

"I'm interested in how ideas of masculinity - what it meant to be a man - intersected with ideas of race," Emberton said.

Berry agrees Emberton's work highlights how individuals in the 19th century assigned a synonymy between citizenship and masculinity, as well as masculinity and violence.

"[Emberton] has given more careful thought than anyone to the violence and threats of violence that form the bedrock of our unconscious and reflexive understanding of citizenship," Berry said.

Emberton was shocked to win the award. She said she is deeply honored to receive the recognition and she intended her essay to demonstrate the various erroneous conclusions many individuals have come to regarding the Civil War and its African-American participants.

Seeman, who is also a history professor and Emberton's colleague for six years, believes her work speaks to an important era, but its themes are still prevalent in today's society.

"It is important for our era today and how we think about manhood, how we think about race, how we think about gun culture of the United States," Seeman explained. "It is rare for a historical article to speak both to the past and have an important resonance about the present."

Seeman finds the essay impressive. He said he is not surprised by her success. He said Emberton is hardworking, intelligent and dedicated to her students and research.

"I hope to inspire in my students a sense of wonder and creativity when they think about and study the past," Emberton said. "Writing history requires curiosity and imagination as much as it does memorization of names, dates and other facts."

Emberton encourages her students to read to become more proficient in other areas of their lives. As a child, Emberton was constantly reading, which instilled her with a natural curiosity and connection to the past - she can even recite most of Emily Dickenson's works by heart.

Emberton worked on her essay for 10 years; she began the project as her dissertation at Northwestern University. The letters and testimonies from freed slaves who sought freedom from violence inspired her.

She contemplated how tribulations suffered by former slaves led to their conceptions of what exactly "freedom" meant and what their government owed them. Emberton's interests began to transition. 

She studied the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s and how women's roles were often marginalized within Civil Rights organizations. As an undergraduate student, Emberton's studies moved backward in time to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

The works of freed slaves, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, began to transform the professor's focus. She has authored several essays and books about the Civil War and Reconstruction.

She is currently focusing on the relationship between southern reconstruction and western expansion. The focus of this piece will be on the Indian Wars of the 1860s and 1870s, which will be covered in her upcoming course, Reconstructing America, 1865-1900.

Emberton's passion for history and the people who lived it fuels her work.

"I find it so moving and often humbling to read their words and realize their aspirations and dreams for a better, safer life," Emberton said.



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