When Heather Chaput entered the Tennessee State Museum’s Freedom’s Call Emancipation Proclamation essay contest, she never dreamed she would win.
Daniel-McKee Alternative School junior Heather Chaput (left) and Christiana Middle student Caitlin Davis meet Speaker of the House Beth Harwell on Feb. 11, 2013, at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tenn. (TMP Photo/M. Cochrane)
“Things like this don’t happen to people you know, especially not me,” said Chaput, a junior at Daniel-McKee Alternative School.
Chaput explained she transferred to the alternative school after being expelled from Riverdale High School for violating the school’s zero tolerance policy, but she’s making better choices now.
“My life is heading in a better direction now,” she said.
That direction took the 16-year-old to the Tennessee State Museum to be one of the first people to see the Emancipation Proclamation in the state when it was unveiled Monday.
The fragile document that freed slaves in the Confederate states during the Civil War is on display now through Monday, Feb. 18, at the state museum as part of the exhibit, “Discovering the Civil War.” After that, a facsimile of the document will be on display, which will continue through Sept. 2.
The state museum is sold out of reservations for viewings, but overflow and walk-in times are scheduled. Call 615-782-4040 for times.
While viewing time is limited, Chaput and Caitlin Davis from Christiana Middle School were two of six very lucky – and talented – students selected to be the first Tennesseans to see and welcome the historic document to the Volunteer State.
Chaput was selected for writing a letter from the future to President Abraham Lincoln about the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I wanted to explain to President Lincoln how important it was and what it meant to the people,” Chaput said about her essay.
In it, Chaput described the proclamation as “one of the most hopeful documents in history. It means hope, justice, freedom, liberty, equality and humanity.”
Davis also had some explaining to do in her essay, which spelled out who was freed and who wasn’t to a slave from Maryland named Anne Davis.
“I felt bad for her,” Davis said about what inspired her work. “I really wanted to have a heart-to-heart with her about how she wasn’t free but other slaves were.”
Davis broke the news gently that Lincoln’s proclamation did not free slaves in Union states, but those states in rebellion only.
“This may occur as a shock to you and send tears to your eyes,” Davis wrote. “You thought that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves, but sadly it did not.”
While that fact could have been a tough blow to slaves in northern states, it gave the Union Army a new since of purpose.
“It changed the whole equation. ... It turned it into an army of liberation,” explained Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University.
And that transformation happened right here in Rutherford County at the Battle of Stones River.
Tactically, the Battle of Stones River was a draw, but morally, the battle had great political importance because of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The battle as the first fought after Lincoln’s proclamation went into effect and followed a disaster for the Union in December 1862 at Fredericksburg, Va. At the time, northern morale was horrible, resulting in Lincoln pressing Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans into action in Tennessee, specifically in Murfreesboro. The result was a hard-fought victory for the Union in the first days of 1863.
“This was the first battle after the Emancipation Proclamation, and it wasn’t a defeat,” West said. “And as (Confederate Gen. Braxton) Bragg retreated the Emancipation Proclamation became the law of the land. The Battle of Stones River was at a pivotal point in the war.”
Suddenly, Union troops became liberators and slaves began to flee in larger numbers seeking safety in the shelter of Federal armies.
The result of the proclamation outstripped what Lincoln could have ever imagined. Southern agricultural production was disrupted, giving the Union an advantage it needed to win the war.
But most importantly, the United States took the first step to fulfilling the term “justice and freedom for all.”
Or, as Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell said at its unveiling Monday, “this document speaks to what America is all about: freedom.”