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Pictures really do speak louder than words. In response to those who persistently maintain that the Emancipation Proclamation freed no actual slaves, here is irrefutable pictorial evidence to the contrary. This deceptively ordinary-looking on-the-spot sketch by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper artist Frederick B. Schell bears a modest title: “Arrival at Chickasaw Bayou of Jeff. Davis [sic] Negroes, from his plantation on the Mississippi below Vicksburg.”

Now in the collection of the New-York Historical Society, the drawing in fact shows no mere “arrival.” Rather, it dramatically demonstrates the actual impact of Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation—in this extraordinary case, on his Confederate counterpart’s own property, at his own plantation.

Like the Declaration of Independence, to which it is often compared, the Emancipation Proclamation required the force of arms to make good on its liberating promise. It freed no slaves by words alone, but its words authorized action. After January 1, 1863, wherever they marched into Confederate territory, Union troops alerted enslaved people that they were legally free under the terms of the president’s order. Many already understood. Quite often, slaves took the initiative, freeing themselves as Union forces approached.

One such incident involved human property owned by no less a symbol of the slaveholding aristocracy than Jefferson Davis. Davis remained an unrepentant advocate of slavery as a humane condition designed to protect inferior races (and of course put them to use for “superior” ones). As he put it, “we recognize the negro as God and God’s Book…our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.”

Davis was prepared to defend slavery to the last. When he learned Lincoln had endorsed African-American recruitment under the terms of his proclamation, the Confederate president issued this chilling decree: “That all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the respective authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States”— in other words, to be sold back into slavery.

As early as 1862, Davis had begun receiving news in Richmond about the slaves he had left behind to work his Mississippi plantation, Brierfield, after he assumed leadership of the Confederacy. When General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces began menacing Vicksburg, only a few miles from Davis’ property, some of the Brierfield slaves were emboldened to rob the main house and flee. Now, as Vicksburg reeled under Grant’s relentless siege in midsummer 1863, Union troops attacked the Davis plantation directly. They spared the Davis mansion, but 137 slaves escaped, and more soon followed. When Davis’ “people” found their way to the safety of Union lines, sketch artist Schell was on hand to record the scene. On August 8, 1863, Leslie’s published a woodcut adaptation of his sketch along with a brief account of what had occurred, under the headline “The Slaves of Jefferson Davis coming on to the Camp at Vicksburg.” The article noted the “curious and instructive” incident “seemed in itself the doom of slavery.”

By the time the engraving appeared, Vicksburg had fallen, and most readers overlooked the seemingly minor incidents that had preceded its surrender. The published woodcut, retitled Arrival at Chickasaw bayou of the Negro slaves of Jefferson Davis, from his plantation on the Mississippi, offered a scene of breathtaking historic meaning: freedom cast wide, even to the doorstep of the slave republic’s own chief executive. But in the aftermath of the twin Northern triumphs at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, no one took much notice of this extraordinary pictorial confirmation of slavery’s impending doom and emancipation’s growing power.

True to his beliefs to the end, Jefferson Davis clung to his faith in slavery. When he ran perilously short of funds in the early weeks of 1865, his final year in office, he responded in character. He disposed of “property” to raise much-needed cash, selling three horses for $7,330—and two slaves for $1,612. Only when Union troops closed in on Richmond a few weeks later did the beleaguered president finally decide to abandon a lifetime of racist convictions and propose enlisting black troops to fight for Confederate survival in return for their freedom.

But by then such gestures held little meaning, and may have contributed to another enduring big lie: that African Americans in fact served in uniform in the Confederate armed forces. Davis’ own slaves at Brierfield had signaled two years earlier that their liberty was already fairly won—and permanent. If African Americans volunteered at all after 1863, it was to fight in the U.S. Colored Troops or its spinoff units—not for the Confederacy, but against it.

As Frederick Douglass put it, “the musket—the United States musket, with its bayonet of steel—is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty.” Jefferson Davis discovered that for himself.

So much attention has been focused lately on the long-neglected 13th Amendment to the Constitution—thanks largely, of course, to Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln—that modern Americans are suddenly in danger of losing appreciation for the revolutionary document that preceded it. Inadvertently, the belated acknowledgment of the crucial importance of constitutional change has sadly reignited the old canard that the proclamation was insufficient, illegal and ineffective. Jeff Davis would have argued otherwise.

The state of Mississippi, home to Brierfield and its scores of slaves, may have contributed to these stubborn myths by waiting to ratify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery—until 1995. This past winter the state further admitted with understandable embarrassment that it had neglected thereafter to file the required paperwork to make ratification official. Thus, technically speaking, Davis’ slaves were not truly recognized as legally free in the state where they once resided until 2013.

Jefferson Davis learned 150 years earlier that the Emancipation Proclamation made such details irrelevant. It did all the work necessary to end slavery for the president of the Confederacy. This column traditionally makes its point in a thousand words. But Frederick Schell’s picture is worth many more.


Harold Holzer based this column on his forthcoming book, The Civil War in 50 Objects (Viking).

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.