Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Who Freed the Slaves During the Civil War?

In this activity students analyze visual and textual evidence about "contraband" enslaved African Americans during the Civil War era. They compare the roles of African Americans, the Union military, and the policies of the Republican party in emancipating enslaved people. They determine the extent to which African Americans freed themselves versus the extent to which Abraham Lincoln ended slavery.


  • Students will analyze visual and text evidence to understand the role of African Americans in emancipation 

  • Students will compare new information about the role of "contrabands" with previous knowledge about the Emancipation Proclamation 

  • Students will evaluate historical arguments, and weigh evidence to develop their own interpretations of emancipation.


Step 1: Introduce the activity by explaining that the class will be examining the role that African Americans played in shaping the aims and outcomes of the Civil War. Use one, or both, of the following introductions. (The “A” introduction is suggested for students who have completed the Lessons in Looking: Contraband in Painting teaching activity). 

A. Have students respond to the following quote by a historian from 1928: “the American negroes are the only people in the history of the world…that ever became free without any effort of their own” 

This quote is from a historian writing in 1928. 

  • What evidence do you think he based his interpretation on?

  • What other reactions do you have to this quote? 

In this activity, you are going to be historians writing in 2011 and will formulate your own interpretation by weighing additional evidence. 

B. Ask students: 

  • Did Lincoln free the slaves? 

  • Did the slaves free themselves? 

The answer to both questions is yes. But historians disagree on who played the key role in emancipation. What do you think? Who really freed the slaves? Ask student to vote on which hypothesis they think is most accurate: 

1. Abraham Lincoln, as president of the United States and commander-in-chief of the Union army, played the decisive role by enacting the Emancipation Proclamation. 

2. Slaves seized the opportunities provided by the Civil War to secure their own freedom – as fugitives from slavery, laborers for the Union army, and soldiers in battle against the Confederacy. 

Step 2: Divide the class into groups of 2-3, and explain that each group will examine one piece of evidence that relates to the question/hypothesis, “Who Freed the Slaves?”. Each group will analyze the evidence by doing a close reading of the document and by completing an analysis worksheet. 

Pass out pieces of evidence and analysis worksheets to each group. Allow time for students to read document and complete worksheet. 

Step 3: Now tell each group that they must present their piece of evidence to the class by explaining: 

  • WHO created this document? 

  • WHY was this document created? 

  • WHAT information about emancipation does this evidence provide? 

When students have completed their analysis worksheets, they should prepare a short share out of the questions above to present to the class. 

Step 4: After groups have examined their assigned documents and prepared their presentation, hand out the “Who Freed the Slaves?” Weighing the Evidence worksheet. 

Review the worksheet. Explain that the scale will help them weigh the evidence and decide whether Lincoln or the slaves played the key role in emancipation. Each side of the scale has spaces for up to 6 pieces of evidence. After each piece of evidence is presented, groups should decide whether that the evidence belongs on the Lincoln or slaves side, or both. 


(Before each group presents, hand out copies of the piece evidence being presented so the whole class can follow along.)  

After each group, pause and remind pairs to place the evidence on one or both sides of the scale. 

*If there is more than one group presenting a piece of evidence, choose one group to begin and ask the other group(s) to make any additional comments. 

After all the evidence has been placed one the scale, ask pairs to circle the piece(s) of evidence that they believe is the most important for understanding emancipation. 

Step 5: After analyzing the documents and weighing the evidence, discuss as a class: 

  • Look at your scales. Who had scales clearly weighted towards Lincoln? Toward slaves? Who had balanced scales? 

  • Where did people place the evidence (Project copy of the Weighing the Evidence worksheet on smartboard or a screen, and have volunteers fill in the boxes with evidence. Check to see if other groups placed any evidence on the opposite side.) 

  • With a quick show of hands, survey students to see which piece of evidence they circled as most significant for interpreting emancipation.

  • So….Who Freed the Slaves? 

Optional wrap-up: If the group has studied the Emancipation Proclamation, ask them to consider where they would place it on the scale. 

Step 6: As a final assessment, students should write individual essay based on the prompt: Reread the following statement by a historian writing in 1928 “the American negroes are the only people in the history of the world so far as I know that ever became free without any effort of their own.” 

Write a 1-2 paragraph response in which you use at least 2 pieces of evidence to support your argument.

Historical Context

In the summer of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln drafted a proclamation emancipating all slaves. Three factors influenced his decision. He was worried that Britain might recognize the Confederacy as a nation, and he hoped to galvanize anti-slavery British public opinion against such an act by the British government. He also was coping with mounting military losses by the Union and unrelenting pressure from "contrabands," slaves who were making their way to freedom behind Union lines. He withheld its announcement, however, until a Union victory made the proclamation a sign of strength rather than one of weakness. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, proclaiming that slaves in areas still in rebellion were "forever free" and inviting them to enlist in the Union Army. Nonetheless, the proclamation was actually a conservative document, applying only to those slaves far beyond the present reach of federal power. Its provisions exempted 450,000 slaves in the loyal border states, 275,000 slaves in Union-occupied Tennessee, and tens of thousands more in areas controlled by the Union Army in Louisiana and Virginia. It also justified the abolition of slavery on military, not moral grounds.

Despite its limitations, the Emancipation Proclamation prompted celebration among African Americans and abolitionists. African Americans, slave and free alike, understood, in ways that white Americans only partially did, that the aims of the war had now been dramatically changed. The Emancipation Proclamation augured a total transformation of southern society, rather than the mere reintegration of the slave states into the nation when the Union proved victorious. Although Lincoln had admonished Congress in 1861 that the war should not become "a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle," that is precisely what it had become by 1863. 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Who Freed the Slaves During the Civil War? ,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 25, 2023,

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