Emancipation in the United States: Civil War

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Editors: Paul Finkelman and Joseph Calder Miller
Date: 1998
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,853 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1140L

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The South's attack on Fort Sumter began the process that freed the slaves. When Edmund Ruffin, "white haired and mad" in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, fired the first shot and thereby began a war that culminated in emancipation, neither he nor his northern opponents intended this result. The North, responding to the southern attack, intended to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. President Abraham Lincoln clearly stated his position in his inaugural address: "I have no purpose to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists." Lincoln went further; he pledged his support for an amendment that Congress had just accepted and sent to the states for ratification. This amendment (which would have been the thirteenth, and unamendable) would have forever protected slavery from federal interference.

Lincoln and the Congress eventually changed their war aims and enacted emancipation. Equally significant, however, is the story of how slaves emancipated themselves. The slaves recognized that the war offered an opportunity for freedom and from the beginning of hostilities they sought safety and liberation within the Union lines. Thus, a year before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation a fugitive slave from Maryland proudly wrote his wife from a Union army camp in Virginia, "this day i can Address you thank god as a freeman." He was now, he told her, "in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn." Like thousands of other African-Americans, John Boston had seized the opportunity brought by war to free himself.

Large numbers of refugees from slavery came to Union Army camps. At first commanders not only refused to aid escaped slaves but even returned them to their Confederate owners. When it became clear that the Confederacy was using slave labor to build fortifications, however, northern generals began to treat fugitives as "contraband of war" and used them as laborers. In many cases these fugitives brought valuable military intelligence, and they were willing to do much of the camps' work, relieving soldiers of these duties. Anxious to placate the loyal slave states and the border states, Lincoln countermanded the orders of northern generals who went further and declared fugitive slaves to be free. But the irony of Union soldiers acting as slave catchers for their enemies soon became intolerable. In August 1861 Congress passed a Confiscation Act, which declared that slaveowners lost their ownership rights when they allowed their slaves to be used for military service. In March 1862 Congress formally prohibited the use of Union troops to return fugitive slaves.

In some areas emancipation came relatively easily. When Union troops landed on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina in 1861, they found that most of the resident planters had fled, leaving their slaves behind. Some of these slaves were used as laborers by Union forces, but many were left free to cultivate individual patches of land on their former owners' plantations. While they were not legally emancipated, they lived the lives of freeman.

As in the Sea Islands, the circumstances of war forced the Union to move toward emancipation. Less than a year after the war began, Lincoln urged Congress to aid any state that sought to gradually abolish slavery by providing funds to compensate slaveowners and to pay for the colonization of freedmen outside of the United States. Congress, increasingly recognizing that slavery was the basis for the rebellion, became more radical. In March of 1862 it emancipated the slaves of the District of Columbia. At Lincoln's insistence, Congress provided funds to compensate slaveowners and also to provide for the colonization of freedmen. A few months later, Congress abolished slavery in the territories. This time, however, it did not provide for compensation. In the summer of 1862 progress toward emancipation accelerated. As the Union armies under General George McClellan proved unable to make any progress against the Confederacy, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, which declared the fugitive slaves of any person aiding the rebellion to be "forever free of their servitude." The act permitted the voluntary colonization of freedmen; it also allowed the president to use African-Americans as soldiers. Although he had grave reservations about its constitutionality, Lincoln signed the bill.

After a year of fighting, more and more people in the North realized that the destruction of slavery was a way of striking at the heart of the Confederacy. By July Lincoln had joined them and announced to his cabinet his intention to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. On 22 September 1862, after the victory of the United States Army at the Battle of Antietam, he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which warned the South that all slaves in any states still in rebellion on 1 January 1863 would be freed. On New Year's Day, when Lincoln issued the Final Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass, the great African-American abolitionist, publicly congratulated Lincoln "upon what may be called the greatest event of our nation's history."

One of the most radical provisions of the proclamation was the call for the enrollment of African-American troops. Lincoln sent General Lorenzo Thomas to the Mississippi Valley to recruit thousands of former slaves. In the border states, the recruitment of African-American soldiers, with a promise of freedom for them and their families, destroyed the institution even before legal emancipation had been enacted. By the end of the war over 200,000 African-Americans had served in the United States Army and Navy, forcing most white Americans to recognize the role of the slaves in their own liberation. As Lincoln pointed out to critics of his emancipation policy: "You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you. ... If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive--even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept."

Since it was a military measure, the proclamation applied only to those areas that were still in rebellion and did not apply to areas under Union control. Yet it meant that as United States troops advanced, so did the cause of freedom. Federal troops now welcomed fugitive slaves, and more and more of them came to the "contraband" camps set up within Union lines. The Civil War had become what neither Edmund Ruffin nor Abraham Lincoln had intended: a war for emancipation.

Although there was strong opposition to Lincoln's radical shift, for the most part northern public opinion supported emancipation. In reply to those who urged him to reverse direction, Lincoln clearly insisted that as long as he was president he would not "retract or modify the emancipation proclamation nor return to slavery any person" who had been emancipated by it.

There was still the question of what to do about those slaves who were owned by masters who were exempted from the proclamation. Lincoln's appeal to the border states to begin a process of gradual, compensated abolition had been of no avail. At the same time, however, slavery was rapidly being undermined as more and more slaves became fugitives, and more and more former slaves were recruited as Union soldiers. Slavery had collapsed in Maryland by 1864, a fact that was recognized in that state's new constitution. By the end of 1864, the new Unionist governments of Arkansas and Louisiana had ended slavery, as had the new state of West Virginia. Missouri slaveholders tried to avoid immediate abolition by enacting a gradual abolition law in July 1863, but here, too, slaves liberated themselves and Missouri's immediate emancipation act of January 1865 only gave legal recognition to an accomplished fact. In Kentucky and Delaware, unlike the other loyal slave states, slaveholders resisted emancipation to the very end. It was the Thirteenth Amendment that finally ended slavery in those states.

Although, in the words of its vice president, Alexander Stephens, slavery was the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy, the war undermined the institution even in the South. In late 1864 and early 1865 the Confederacy seriously debated the use of African-American soldiers, even if this meant that they and their families would earn their freedom. Robert E. Lee endorsed the idea of arming African-Americans, and a bill authorizing the president to requisition black troops failed by only a single vote in the Confederate Congress. At the same time, President Jefferson Davis sent an envoy to Europe to explore the possibility of securing foreign recognition for the Confederacy if it were to adopt emancipation.

But even without formal action by the Confederate government, slavery was collapsing. As United States troops came closer, slaveowners found themselves bargaining with their slaves in an effort to persuade them not to leave. In the sugar country of Louisiana, for example, slaves were now demanding salaries for their work.

In the North, Abolitionists enjoyed a new popularity. Pleased by the Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation, they worried about the fate of an emancipation policy based on "military necessity" once peace was restored. They therefore launched a massive petition campaign to procure a constitutional amendment ending slavery. In April 1864, a vote for the amendment failed to get the required two-thirds majority in Congress. After Lincoln's reelection on a platform that had endorsed the amendment, several Democrats succumbed to heavy pressure from the Administration. Accordingly, the lame duck session of Congress approved the abolition amendment and sent it to the states. On 18 December 1865 Secretary of State William H. Seward announced that the required three-quarters of the states had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment and slavery was formally abolished.

With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment the process of legal emancipation was completed; it was not clear, however, how freedom for the former slaves would be defined. Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction would have allowed the southern states to adopt temporary measures for the freedmen, "consistent ... with their present condition as a laboring, landless, and homeless class." For a number of years, the freedmen could have been placed in an intermediate category between slavery and full citizenship, but Lincoln was flexible on this. Shortly before his assassination, Lincoln suggested that the reconstructed government of Louisiana give at least some of the freedmen the right to vote. However, under the new state governments established with the approval of President Andrew Johnson, African-Americans were subject to "Black Codes," which to varying degrees denied them the benefits of full citizenship. For a brief period, after Congress took over the process of Reconstruction, the freedmen began to exercise political and civil rights, but they were never given permanent possession of the land, which would have allowed them true independence. Within a few decades, they lost their political and civil rights and were subject to a rigid system of segregation, sharecropping, and racial violence. In light of the decades of oppression that succeeded slavery, the celebrations that heralded emancipation were premature.

Contrary to legend, emancipation, like the war itself, was not the product of a hero's vision. In telling the story of how he came to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln acknowledged: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly the events have controlled me." Individual African-Americans played a crucial role in those "events."

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2350051135