Harriet Beecher Stowe, ca. 1880
The Civil War was the largest slave revolt in world history—and a war for freedom that hurled American history off its rails. It would end with the destruction of American slavery and the passage of the 13th Amendment. But it was the result of years of struggle and sacrifice by men and women who devoted their lives to advancing the freedom struggle.
In the ten years before Lincoln was elected president, African American activists and their White allies had been building a national movement to focus Northern attention on the plight of Southern slaves. They used every tool at their disposal—polite persuasion, the call of Christian conscience, direct action to free the enslaved, and the threat of all-out race war—to advance their cause. When the Civil War began, many African Americans wasted no time fleeing their enslavers and rushing to the Union lines.
Historian Richard Bell explores the antislavery fight, focusing on the people whose courage and personal struggle led to the final victory.
10 to 11 a.m. Two Harriets
Harriet Beecher Stowe, the White author of the popular antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, edged this country closer to Civil War. Powerful activist Harriet Tubman, the courageous conductor of the Underground Railroad, reflects the decisive steps taken by enslaved people and their Black and White allies to build an antislavery escape network.
11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. The Black Heart of John Brown
By almost any reasonable standard, John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry was an act of terrorism committed by a messianic fanatic and an ideological extremist. However history remembers Brown, his provocation struck a debilitating blow to the heart of slaveholders’ power.
12:15 to 1:15 p.m. Break
1:15 to 2:15 p.m. The Slaves’ War
Lincoln had been elected on a platform of stopping the spread of slavery into free territories in the west, not attacking slavery where it already existed. But the courage of enslaved people slowly and surely pushed the president and his commanders in the field to embrace emancipation as a war aim.
2:30 to 3:30 p.m. Black and Blue
Tens of thousands of Black men—from the free North, the border states, and the slave-owning South—fought against slavery while wearing Union blue. Despite harassment and racism in the ranks, they flocked to the Union lines, casting themselves as liberators and turning the world upside down.
Bell is professor of history at the University of Maryland.
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