At first, blacks’ determination to seize the opportunity presented by the war proved a burden to the army and an embarrassment to the administration. But the failure of traditional strategies to produce victory strengthened the hand of antislavery northerners. Since slavery stood at the foundation of the southern economy, they insisted, emancipation was necessary to weaken the South’s ability to sustain the war.

The most uncompromising opponents of slavery before the war, abolitionists and Radical Republicans, quickly concluded that the institution must become a target of the Union war effort. “It is plain,” declared Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, “that nothing approaching the present policy will subdue the rebels.” Outside of Congress, few pressed the case for emancipation more eloquently than Frederick Douglass. From the outset, he insisted that it was futile to “separate the freedom of the slave from the victory of the government.” “Fire must be met with water,” Douglass declared, “darkness with light, and war for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery.”

These appeals won increasing support in a Congress frustrated by lack of military success. In March 1862, Congress prohibited the army from returning fugitive slaves. Then came abolition in the District of Columbia (with monetary compensation for slaveholders) and the territories, followed in July by the Second Confiscation Act, which liberated slaves of disloyal owners in Union-occupied territory, as well as slaves who escaped to Union lines.

Throughout these months, Lincoln struggled to retain control of the emancipation issue. In August 1861, John C. Fremont, commanding Union forces in Missouri, a state racked by a bitter guerrilla war between pronorthern and pro-southern bands, decreed the freedom of its slaves. Fearful of the order’s impact on the border states, Lincoln swiftly rescinded it. In November, the president proposed that the border states embark on a program of gradual emancipation with the federal government paying owners for their loss of property. He also revived the idea of colonization. In August 1862, Lincoln met at the White House with a delegation of black leaders and urged them to promote emigration from the United States. “You and we are different races,” he declared. “It is better for us both to be separated.” As late as December, the president signed an agreement with a shady entrepreneur to settle former slaves on an island off the coast of Haiti.

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