With Lincoln’s finalization of the Emancipation Proclamation, Union forces in effect became an army of liberation. Where federal soldiers went in the Confederate South after New Year’s Day of 1863, freedom for the slaves generally followed. Civil War Emancipation previously has covered a moment when slaves gained their freedom, with images of Virginia slaves crossing the Rappahannock River to reach Union lines. These slaves acted proactively to achieve their liberation, but other slaves either lacked the opportunity or gumption to flee to Union lines. Their moment of freedom came when the Union Army came to them, arriving in force at their plantation.
The great political cartoonist and illustrator of the Civil War era, Thomas Nast, effectively captured such a moment of liberation in the April 4, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly (see below).
Source: Harper’s Weekly, 4 April 1863.
The periodical does not give the place or time the illustration was based on, but intimated, as follows, it was based on a real event.
ON page 220 we publish a picture, by Mr. Thomas Nast, representing the arrival of one of our regiments on a Southern plantation, and their reception by the ladies and negroes of the plantation. The picture explains itself. We append, however, a newspaper extract from an officer’s letter in Dixie:
Heavy planters live all along the road, whose broad acres extend for miles, and whose aristocratic mansions show them to be the nabobs of the soil. Long rows of negro cabins are seen at short distances from the residence, indicating that the “institution” still flourishes here. These negroes, in huge numbers, men, women, and children, come and evince the most comical and unsophisticated manifestations of delight at our appearance. The older ones bow, and grin, and scrape, and throw themselves into all sorts of the most ludicrous attitudes. The younger ones dance and frisk about in high glee. “Gora-mighty bless you, gemmen — may you live allers!” exclaimed a delighted old darkey as we passed yesterday. At the same time he bowed himself almost to the ground. These poor creatures are about all the friends we have in this region. They most willingly give all the information they have.
While the illustration above no doubt emerged from Nast’s imagination as he labored in Harper’s Weekly‘s office, it nonetheless plausibly captures in a dramatic fashion something that must have occurred countless times in the months and years that followed the advent of the Emancipation Proclamation. The slaveholders’ (in this case only women because the men were at war) sullen worry matched by their slaves’ jubilation at finally being free. The Union troops’ curiosity with the slaves and amusement at their enemy’s anguish. In short, the illustration imagined well a moment of saturnalia when in an instant the antebellum world of the plantation South was turned upside down.