In December 1861, the African American newspaper correspondent George E. Stephens was circulating among Union troops on duty in the slave South. As he did so, images of revolutions past filled his mind.
The units around him had been raised in New England. That reminded him of the Puritans—and of the Puritan army that Oliver Cromwell had led against the English king and nobility during the civil war of the 1640s. Cromwell’s soldiers, the journalist reflected, had fought “for equal rights and … civil and religious liberty,” while their foes had fought “for the prerogative, for titles, and for the dignities” of aristocratic privilege.
To Stephens, that earlier historical era seemed in many ways to parallel his own. Some 220 years later, in North America, the forces of liberty, equality, and progress were once again arrayed against those of “barbarism, ignorance, and moral imbecility.” But one key element prominent in that past seemed completely missing in the present. The modern-day revolution, alas, seemed to have no resolute revolutionary leader. “We have,” Stephens lamented, “no Cromwell!”1
Abraham Lincoln’s party did not incline toward revolution. Yes, it was committed to altering American (or, specifically, southern) society. But very few of its leaders relished the prospect of imposing change through radical measures. Most instead preferred the kind of transformation that was measured and gradual. And if such slow and careful change required an assisting push, the methods of normal peacetime politics could apply it.
The Republicans had accepted war in early 1861 because the alternative—watching both their cause and their cherished republic disintegrate—was unacceptable. But they did not view the war as an instrument of progress, much less of radical revolution. Most initially expected—or, at least, hoped—that the war needed to restore the Union would be brief in duration and limited in scope. Washington had no choice but to respond firmly to attacks. But it must also avoid doing anything that unnecessarily antagonized the South’s white population and therefore made reunification more difficult.
The Republican Party, the federal government, and the Union army and navy altered that policy only in response to the pressure of events—and even then they did so at first only hesitantly, incrementally, step by step. They turned their guns on slavery in a deliberate, determined manner only once they concluded that doing so offered the sole means of winning the war. Only, that is, when the foe eventually proved more determined, united, powerful, and able than anticipated and the war became more difficult, costly, and protracted than expected. And only after the slaves themselves had demonstrated in action that their emancipation could empower the Union war effort.
From the start of the secession crisis through the war’s first stages, Abraham Lincoln stated and reiterated his promise not to interfere with slavery within the southern states. More than two months before he took office, the president-elect sent a letter to his former political associate, Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, who in December 1860 was still committed to the Union. Lincoln promised Stephens and his constituents that the incoming administration would do nothing to endanger slavery in Georgia or any other state. Southerners had no cause to fear that the new president “would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves.” In fact, he added, “the South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of [George] Washington.”2
When the lower South announced its departure nonetheless, Lincoln continued to utter similar phrases, first in hopes of avoiding war and later in hopes of bringing the war to an early end. He stood by that commitment even after Fort Sumter’s bombardment. In calling for volunteers to put down the rebellion, Lincoln enjoined prospective Union soldiers to exercise “the utmost care” to avoid “any destruction of, or interference with, property” in the South.3
None of these promises and cautions signified any decrease in Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery. He was no abolitionist, he believed in the inherent inequality of blacks and whites, and he doubted that free blacks and free whites could live together in peace and harmony. He therefore held that those slaves who did obtain their freedom should be invited and assisted to leave the country. But Lincoln had also felt since boyhood that slavery was grounded in “injustice” and that (as he would later say) if slavery was not wrong, nothing was.4 Most important, he shared the view central to mainstream Republicanism that slavery was retarding the nation economically and corroding its democratic principles and spirit politically. It was a cancer that needed removing from the body of the republic.
But in 1861 Lincoln did not view the war that the slaveholders had forced upon him as the proper scalpel with which to perform the needed surgery. He would use whatever force was necessary to keep the South in (or bring it back into) the Union. There would be plenty of opportunity afterward to resume the political struggle to stop slavery’s expansion and encourage gradual, voluntary, and compensated emancipation accompanied by the voluntary emigration of freed blacks abroad.
Lincoln reaffirmed his commitment to that limited war program in December 1861, in his first annual message to Congress. “In considering the policy to be adopted in suppressing the insurrection,” he said, “I have been anxious and careful” that the “conflict … shall not descend into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.… The Union must be preserved.… [But] we should not be in haste to determine that radical and extreme measures … are indispensable” to preserving it.5
Lincoln’s attachment to this policy of limited war reflected his views on two subjects—the nature of the United States’ federal system of government and the practical demands of winning the war.
Lincoln and his party subscribed to an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution shared by nearly all of the country’s political establishment. In that view, the government in Washington had no right to act directly against slavery within already existing states. The power to do that rested solely with the states themselves.
At least as important for Lincoln as this legal doctrine were the practical requirements of military victory as he understood them. Lincoln presumed, as did other Republicans, that most residents of the seceded states, including many of the largest slave owners, were unionists at heart. They had, he believed, simply been outmaneuvered, stampeded, or bullied by southern political extremists into allowing their states to leave the Union. From this premise Lincoln deduced the need to defend the Union without giving any unnecessary offense to the implicitly loyal southern white majority. Only such a policy, he believed, would allow that Union-loving majority to regain the political initiative and bring the rebellion to a swift end. A grand strategy for winning the war that General Winfield Scott proposed in May 1861—the so-called Anaconda Plan—stood on the same premise and aimed at the same objective.6
In the meantime, Lincoln also felt sure, only the circumspect policy that he advocated could keep the people of the Union solidly behind him and his armies. Even in the country’s free states, nearly half of the voters in 1860 had supported one of his three more conservative opponents—northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, or John Bell of the newly formed compromise-above-all Constitutional Union Party. Fifty-four percent of the voters of the free states had proved enough to send Lincoln to the White House. But he would need the active support of a much larger proportion of the Union’s populace in order to prosecute and win the war.
Lincoln knew, too, that his party’s political support was almost nil in the four slave states that remained within the Union. And he considered the loyalty of those states absolutely crucial. “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game,” he confided to a fellow Illinois Republican in September 1861. “Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol.”7
That belief on Lincoln’s part gave the political representatives of Kentucky and the other border states outsized influence on the federal government’s policy. That leverage became apparent within a few days following the first battle of Bull Run. On July 25, 1861, more than three months into the war, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution flatly denying any intention “of overthrowing or interfering with the rights of established institutions of those States” then in rebellion. Federal forces would fight solely “to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired.”8
Both authors of this resolution came from slaveholding states—John J. Crittenden from Kentucky and Andrew Johnson from Tennessee. Both men had rejected secession, but they sharply distinguished between the issues of slavery and Union. They would strive to uphold the latter; they would not fight to dissolve the former.9
Republicans held a considerably more negative view of slavery than did these two upper South politicians. But they nonetheless voted overwhelmingly in support of the Crittenden-Johnson resolution. The Senate approved the resolution by a vote of thirty to five; the House voiced its agreement with even greater unity. One hundred nineteen of its members voted for it; only two voted no.10
Abolitionists, black and white, condemned the refusal to touch slavery as both morally and practically bankrupt. They brushed aside hopes that it would placate Confederate slaveholders or even seriously divide their ranks. Lincoln underestimated southern masters’ support for the Confederacy, Frederick Douglass warned. “The ties that bind slaveholders together are stronger than all other ties,” he insisted. Counting on any significant fraction of them to help save the Union was therefore hopeless. “The safety of the Government can be attained only in one way,” and that was “by rendering the slaveholders powerless.”
To do that, Douglass and others argued, the Union must strike directly and forcefully at the source of their power, both economic and military—slavery. “The Negro is the key of the situation—the pivot upon which the whole rebellion turns,” he said.11 Anyone who doubted that should simply listen to the rebels themselves. Listen to them boast of the way that slaves kept them fed, clothed, and sheltered while their soldiers went off to war. Listen to them boast of how slaves performed all variety of labor directly in support of their war machine—building and maintaining fortifications, emplacing cannons, hauling supplies, obstructing rivers, and so on. Black labor would continue to empower the Confederate cause, Douglass argued, so long as “the National Government refuses to turn this mighty element of strength into one of weakness.” The abolitionist Anti-Slavery Standard summed up this message: “Success in the War, without Emancipation, is a Military Impossibility.”12 It all seemed so obviously true to Douglass that he felt sure that the mainstream Republican leadership would eventually come to accept it. “The American people and the Government at Washington may refuse to recognize” this reality “for a time,” he wrote, but surely, in the end, “the ‘inexorable logic of events’ will force it upon them.”13
In the meantime, the era’s closest approximations to Oliver Cromwell would be found in the Republican Party’s more radical wing. The radicals shared much with the abolitionists, strongly condemning slavery on moral grounds and openly sympathizing with the plight of the slaves. One of them was the Illinois congressman Owen Lovejoy, whose abolitionist brother had died at the hands of a mob twenty-five years earlier. Slavery, Representative Lovejoy declared, was quite simply “the sum of all villainy.” “Put every crime perpetuated among men into a moral crucible,” he said in 1860, “and dissolve and combine them all, and the resulting amalgam is slaveholding.”14
One of the radical Republicans’ wartime leaders in the House of Representatives was the flinty Pennsylvania ironmaster Thaddeus Stevens. More than one observer would eventually compare him to both Cromwell and the eighteenth-century French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre. Stevens did not support the Crittenden-Johnson resolution promising not to interfere with slavery during the war. Like Frederick Douglass, he was sure that war and the requirements of victory would drive the Union to lay hands upon bondage. To balk on constitutional grounds at taking slaves away from armed insurrectionists he considered simply absurd. The treasonous masters had already declared themselves beyond that constitution and had, in effect, fired upon it. They therefore “had no right to the benefits” of it.
As 1861 wore on, congressional radicals including Stevens, Lovejoy, Michigan’s Zachariah Chandler, Ohio’s Benjamin Wade and Joshua Giddings, Indiana’s George Julian, and Massachusetts’s Charles Sumner advanced the same argument that abolitionists did—that military success required an assault upon bondage.15 These, they believed, were the firmest grounds on which to urge policies rooted in their fundamental convictions.
Emancipation, Sumner counseled his allies, should “be presented strictly as a measure of military necessity … rather than on grounds of philanthropy.”16 The wartime “logic of events” made such arguments steadily more compelling. Every Confederate victory pointed up the need to reinforce Union power and reduce the resources of the enemy—even as it stoked northern rage at the South’s planter leaders. Every Union advance carried northern troops deeper into slavery’s heartland and closer to Confederate-owned slaves—and thereby into an ever more direct confrontation with the value of slavery to the enemy’s war effort. Each Union advance also lengthened Union supply lines and consequently increased its need for rear-echelon labor—labor that slaves could provide if taken from their owners.
As the war drove home these facts, abolitionists and Republican radicals found themselves receiving an increasingly positive public reception. At the start of 1861, Frederick Douglass’s attempt to speak publicly in Syracuse, New York, had provoked a riot. By the end of the year, that same city was welcoming him warmly. Wendell Phillips addressed a huge friendly crowd in New York City, and he, William Lloyd Garrison, and other prominent abolitionists found the same kind of reception at the nation’s capital and nearly everywhere else in the North.17
Meanwhile, thousands in the free states began to call upon the government to take a harder line on slavery. The U.S. Senate received ten petitions to that effect on a single day in January 1862.18 By the summer, the New York Tribune found itself inundated with letters criticizing the administration for its timidity toward slavery and the slaveholders.19 In August 1862, Ohio’s moderate Republican senator John Sherman advised his more conservative brother, General William Tecumseh Sherman, that “the change of opinion here as to the Negro Question” was more dramatic than the latter could imagine. This groundswell of antislavery sentiment had probably helped nudge Senator Sherman toward “meet[ing] the broad issue of universal emancipation.”20
Others also began to see the logic of—and recognize the mounting support for—laying hands on slavery. One of those people was Benjamin Butler, a Massachusetts politician commissioned as a general in order to help raise troops and sustain support for the war in his state. By chance, it was Butler who commanded the Union-held Fort Monroe, on the Virginia peninsula, to which the three Virginia slaves had escaped from their owner on the night of Thursday, May 23, 1861 (as described in chapter 3).
Benjamin Butler was a political opportunist, a chameleon. Far from being an abolitionist before the war, he had built his career in Massachusetts as a pro-South Democrat. In mid-1860, in fact, he had urged his party to nominate Jefferson Davis for the U.S. presidency. But Butler firmly and sharply condemned secession, and troops that he led from his state had been among the first to reach Washington after the president’s call to arms in April 1861.
Butler’s transformation into a militant enemy of secession did not automatically make him a friend of the slave. While commanding Union troops in Maryland during the first week of the war, he had made a point of promising not only to respect slave property but also of ordering his men forcibly to put down any slave revolt that might break out. (Other Union officers, including Generals George B. McClellan, Fitz John Porter, and Robert Patterson, made the same promise.)21
But when a Confederate officer approached Fort Monroe under a flag of truce in May and demanded that Butler return the three fugitives to their owners, the general refused. He refused not because of any newfound antislavery principles, but because he recognized the pointlessness of fighting a foe while helping that foe to retrieve valuable war-making materials. More specifically, Butler realized the absurdity of returning slave laborers to masters who had taken up arms against the U.S. government, especially when those slaves had just been working on enemy fortifications and were about to be set to similar tasks elsewhere.
As for the legal issues involved, Butler judged that a nation at war could seize the property of its enemies, especially property used by those enemies against the nation. The general, a lawyer by profession, referred to such property as “contraband of war.” Human property, he held, was as subject to seizure as any other kind of property.
Butler was not, thus, declaring the three fugitives to be legally free. He simply transferred them from the control of their former owners to the control of the federal government. More specifically, he put them to work under the direction of his own quartermaster—and under his protection. When the indignant Confederate slave owner and colonel reminded Butler of the Fugitive Slave Act and its dictates, the general smoothly responded that the rights granted by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments did not govern the United States’ relations with “a foreign country, which Virginia claimed to be.”
General in Chief Winfield Scott, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and President Lincoln all endorsed Butler’s decision. Cameron directed Butler “to refrain from surrendering to alleged masters any persons who may come within your lines.” Cameron emphasized the makeshift, unfinished nature of this policy by adding that the “final disposition” of those persons “will be reserved for future determination.”22
News of what Butler was doing and the administration’s endorsement spread through the country. The public response in the North was overwhelmingly positive, and some other commanders hastened to follow Butler’s lead. They, too, saw the value of placing slaves’ labor at the disposal of their own forces. If nothing else, appropriating black laborers would free up white Union civilians and soldiers for frontline action.
At the urging of Congressman Owen Lovejoy, the House of Representatives also put its stamp of approval on providing refuge to escaped slaves. It resolved on July 9, 1861, that it was “no part of the duty of the soldiers of the United States to capture and return fugitive slaves.” (Congress put sharper teeth into that statement of opinion early the next year, passing a new article of war formally prohibiting Union soldiers from returning fugitive slaves who had entered their lines.)
In August, Congress took another, bigger, step toward interfering with slavery by passing the Confiscation Act of 1861. The new law provided that any master using slaves (or permitting slaves to be used) in aid of the Confederate war effort “shall forfeit all right” to those slaves. But it did not formally emancipate any of the slaves that it affected. Following Butler, it simply placed them in the hands of the Union army.
But a chasm soon opened between such legal niceties and the practical reality, a chasm obvious to Butler. At Fort Monroe he had originally taken in and granted sanctuary to male fugitives and employed them in the service of the Union army. But by the end of July the refugees’ numbers had far outgrown his needs, and they now included large numbers of women and children he deemed unsuited for military support work.
Exactly what was the status of these people, he wondered. If they were still property, it seemed to him, surely they were now his property, as the representative of the U.S. Army and government. But did the free states or the Union government wish to own that kind of property? If not, had, therefore, “all proprietary relation ceased?” Had they not become, in fact, simply “men, women, and children”? In other words, hadn’t they reverted to “the condition, which we hold to be the normal one, of those made in God’s image”? Butler confessed himself driven to that conclusion, to look upon and treat these people in practice as free—“if not free born, yet free, manumitted,” and “never to be reclaimed” as slaves.23
In the meantime, two Union commanders tried to accelerate further the evolution of Union policy. In late July 1861, John C. Frémont, a famous explorer and in 1856 the Republican Party’s first candidate for the presidency, took command of the Union’s Department of the West (which covered all states and territories between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains). In response to the particularly vicious pro-Confederate irregular warfare in Missouri, he proclaimed martial law throughout the state at the end of August and ordered the execution of all captured enemy guerrillas and the emancipation of all slaves of Confederate sympathizers there.
Seven months later, in March 1862, General David Hunter assumed command of the Union’s Department of the South, which nominally included all of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida but was effectively limited to the sea islands captured the previous year. Unusually for a West Point graduate, David Hunter was not politically conservative. He was, on the contrary, a confirmed abolitionist. In early May, he declared all slaves throughout his department to be free.
Free blacks and white abolitionists in the Union hailed the actions of Frémont and Hunter as gains for human freedom and brilliant strokes of military strategy. So did many of the Union’s substantial contingent of German-born troops. For them the American Civil War was an extension of a larger, international struggle against oppressive social and political institutions, a war that some of them had already fought (and lost) in Europe during the failed democratic revolutions of 1848. In their eyes, Frémont’s militant policy represented the right way to pursue the fight for freedom.24 Kindred sentiments were common among Union soldiers recruited in Kansas. Many of them were veterans of the already years-long guerrilla war there. Now serving in Tennessee, they continued to advise slaves to flee from their masters, and they welcomed into their camps those who did.25
But Abraham Lincoln was less pleased with what Frémont and Hunter had done. It was one thing for a commander such as Benjamin Butler to seize rebels’ property on a pragmatic and case-by-case basis. It was another thing for a commander to issue a sweeping manifesto of emancipation that covered all slaves in an entire region. That amounted to a major change in policy; Frémont and Hunter had overstepped their authority. If the power to make this kind of change belonged to anyone, Lincoln told Hunter, it belonged to the president, not to one of his subordinates.26
More important than Lincoln’s procedural objection was his substantive one. He feared the reaction in the border states. Kentucky politicians, including some of Lincoln’s personal friends, warned him in 1861 that Frémont’s policy would destroy unionism in their state. Robert Anderson, the southern-born hero of Fort Sumter, was now commander of the Union Department of Kentucky. He telegraphed Lincoln that a company of Union volunteers from the Bluegrass State, upon hearing of Frémont’s words, had thrown down its arms and disbanded.27 The president concluded that any sweeping declaration of emancipation would “alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us—perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky.”28 He countermanded the orders of both generals.29
Some conservative Union officers strove more energetically to protect the South’s “peculiar institution,” and Lincoln allowed them to do so. General Henry W. Halleck, replacing Frémont as commander in Missouri, decreed that no fugitive slaves would in the future be “permitted to enter the lines of any camp, or of any forces on the march; and that any now within such lines [would] be immediately excluded therefrom.” He repeated that order three months later, and he directed his subordinates to follow the policy not only in the loyal border states of Missouri and Kentucky but also as they moved into Confederate Tennessee. General John A. Dix followed suit in Virginia.30
This conduct, of course, confused and antagonized many slaves. In Maryland, reporter George E. Stephens discovered in November 1861 that with “so many fugitives having been returned” to Confederate masters by Union troops, “the slaves are almost their enemies.” They “look upon Union men as little better than secessionists.”31 And when neither the White House nor the War Department countermanded these exclusionary orders, the actual nature of federal policy toward slaves of Confederate masters became hopelessly ambiguous.32
In the war’s first phase, President Lincoln often seemed more firmly wedded than the Congress to a war policy that was both militarily and socially conservative. But, as Frederick Douglass and others argued, it was far easier to talk about winning the war while sparing slavery than to do that. Lincoln had begun implicitly to acknowledge as much when he accepted Benjamin Butler’s “contraband” decision and then signed the Confiscation Act of 1861.33 And although he refused to allow Frémont and Hunter to proclaim broad-based emancipation throughout their departments, the president was well aware that the more limited policies he had already approved (particularly the Confiscation Act) were inevitably taking their toll on bondage. He recognized that, as he would later put it, the war to restore the Union was already grinding slavery down, wearing it away “by mere friction and abrasion.”34 According to the Democratic historian George Bancroft, Lincoln confided in him at the end of 1861 that “slavery has received a mortal wound,” that “the harpoon has struck the whale to the heart.”35
But if so—if Union military policy and practice was even then starting to kill slavery in its heartland—how could Lincoln hope to retain the loyalty of the slaveholding border states? Lincoln seems never to have addressed this problem in words, but then he notoriously played his cards very close to his chest. It seems possible, however, that a policy initiative that he pursued zealously and tenaciously from the end of 1861 onward represented an attempt to resolve that problem practically. Between November 1861 and July 1862, he repeatedly urged border-state legislators to enact programs of gradual, compensated emancipation within their own borders. And he urged the U.S. Congress to appropriate sufficient moneys to fund those programs.
Lincoln urged this course in the name of military necessity. It would, he said, appreciably shorten the war. “Let the states which are in rebellion see, definitely and certainly, that in no event, will the states you represent ever join their proposed Confederacy,” he assured border-state congressmen in July 1862, and they will then understand that “they can not, much longer maintain the contest.” But to prove to the Confederates that they would never pull the border states toward them, those states would have to give up their own slaves. “You can not divest them of their hope to ultimately have you,” Lincoln insisted, “so long as you show a determination to perpetuate the institution within your own states.”36
Lincoln argued, in other words, that the Confederacy grounded its hopes for victory principally in the expectation of eventually attracting the loyal border states to its side. Deprive Davis and company of that hope and that confidence, he insisted, and they would give up the fight.
Lincoln made no attempt to substantiate this claim, and most border-state politicians found it unconvincing. It has perplexed many historians, too.37 Davis and his supporters were certainly disappointed when Maryland and Kentucky failed to rally to the Confederate armies that crossed onto their soil in 1862. But where was the proof, or even any serious suggestion, that this disappointment was remotely strong enough to bring the seceding states back into the Union?
Both the policy and Lincoln’s depiction of it as militarily urgent make much more sense if viewed from another angle. Perhaps Lincoln’s real purpose in urging voluntary, compensated emancipation on border-state masters was less to dishearten the secessionists than to smooth the political way within the Union for an attack on slavery in the Confederacy. Union troops, as he well knew, were already helping to undercut slavery in enemy territory. He acknowledged in a March 1862 conversation that that process necessarily (even if unintentionally) weakened slavery in the border states as well. By the very nature of the war, Union armies “must, of necessity, be brought into contact” with the slaves of border-state masters, who consequently “complained that their rights were interfered with, their slaves induced to abscond.” These complaints, Lincoln noted, “were numerous, loud, and deep; were a serious annoyance to him and embarrassing to the progress of the war.” They “kept alive a spirit hostile to the Government” in those states.38 Perhaps Lincoln hoped that if he could induce such border-state masters to cede their chattels voluntarily and with compensation, they might cease to feel any stake in what happened to that same kind of property in the Confederacy. Then Lincoln could cease worrying that the Union war effort might yet propel Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland into Confederate arms.
If this was Lincoln’s hope, he was soon disappointed. The political leaders of the border states rejected his appeal. Their objections included a fundamental one: Although standing by the Union politically and militarily, they firmly resisted the “radical change of our social system” that Lincoln was politely asking them to make. It would mean surrendering “the right to hold slaves.” But “our States are in the enjoyment of that right,” and “no one is authorized to question the right or limit the enjoyment” of it. They “did not see why” they “should now be expected to yield it.”39
In thus disappointing Lincoln, border-state slave owners resembled their once-unionist counterparts in the Confederacy. The latter, upon whom Lincoln had once so strongly counted, were in the middle of 1862 still proving very hard to find and—even when found—harder still to mobilize. After a full year of war, and despite Lincoln’s efforts to spare their property and sensibilities, precious few masters in the Confederacy were displaying any active sympathy with the Union or Union forces. Most southern whites whom federal troops encountered were obviously and aggressively hostile and apparently unappeased by the Lincoln government’s deference toward them and their property concerns.
The New York Times was the principal journalistic voice of mainstream Republicanism and often served as the unofficial voice of Lincoln’s White House. In May 1862 the paper took note—“with feelings of surprise and disappointment”—“of the nonappearance” in recently occupied parts of the South “of that Union sentiment, upon the existence of which the nation has counted with confidence.”40 The Ohio soldier John Beatty summed up the Union army’s experience in the Confederacy (or at least its low country, where most fighting had occurred) when he noted that the “negroes” were “the only friends we find” here.41
The lack of support from supposedly unionist masters was all the more worrisome in the light of bad news coming from Virginia battlefields in mid-1862. The ignominious end of McClellan’s peninsula campaign, followed by the Union’s second defeat at Manassas that summer, demonstrated that the Confederate military was not going to be defeated easily or soon.
The conciliationist war policy’s evident inadequacy was therefore compelling the Republican government and its commanders to revise it in practice. Both Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, for example, had initially been strong advocates of an accommodating stance toward southern whites. But by the summer of 1862, their bitter experiences in western Tennessee were driving them to adopt ever sterner measures toward white civilians there.42
As the implications of such experience sank in, more and more Republican leaders concluded that the abolitionists and radicals had been right after all, that attempting to fight the war without offending the enemy population was impossible—that, on the contrary, the Union’s armies must become more aggressive and ruthless toward the Confederate leadership and its supporters. It was time, moderate Republican leaders such as William Pitt Fessenden of Maine agreed, to abandon “kid-glove warfare.” Even the Virginia-born Winfield Scott, earlier hoping to win the war without such measures, now reluctantly reached the same conclusions.43 And a bolder policy, it was also becoming clear, must include a firmer and more resolute stance toward slavery. Union armies must free slaves more systematically and in larger numbers than in the past. They must also make more deliberate and extensive use of the people whom they freed.
A measure of changing congressional attitudes on this subject came as early as December 1861, when a Democratic congressman from Indiana tried to have the House of Representatives “solemnly reaffirm” the conciliationist Crittenden-Johnson resolution it had passed almost unanimously just five months before. Thaddeus Stevens immediately moved to table the Democratic motion and thereby kill it, and a majority of the House backed him up.44
More affirmative steps came in April 1862, which marked the end of the war’s first full year. First, the United States signed on to a multilateral treaty intended to more effectively suppress the international slave trade. Second, a bill to begin the immediate, minimally compensated abolition of bondage in the District of Columbia passed into law.45 And third, Congress authorized diplomatic recognition of the black governments of Liberia (born of the expatriation of manumitted American slaves) as well as Haiti (born of a fierce rebellion against slavery). Two months later, in mid-June, Congress enacted the central plank of the Republican Party’s 1860 electoral platform. It decreed that “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” in any of the federal territories “now existing, or which may at any time hereafter be formed or acquired.”46
Then, on July 17, 1862, Congress approved the Second Confiscation Act, which held that whenever Union armies encountered slaves of rebel owners, those slaves “shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.” The act both clarified and emphasized the free status of contrabands while also expanding dramatically the number of people to whom it applied. It freed not only slaves who had been used directly in support of the rebellion but all slaves belonging to any individual “engaged in rebellion against the government of the United States, or who shall in any way give aid or comfort thereto.”47 As one Union politician aptly noted, the new law marked “the transition from military suppression to revolutionarysuppression” of the rebellion.48
By now Lincoln himself was growing frustrated with conservative military officers such as George B. McClellan and the advocates of supposedly pro-Union slave owners in both the border states and the Confederacy. The president vented his impatience in correspondence with two southern unionists.
The first was Reverdy Johnson, a Maryland politician and lawyer who had represented the slave owner in the explosive Dred Scott case of 1857. Five years later, in mid-July 1862, Johnson wrote to President Lincoln to complain about the antislavery conduct of Union general John W. Phelps.
Phelps had participated in the conquest and seizure of New Orleans in April 1862. Afterward he obtained command of nearby Camp Parapet. A Vermonter who shared General David Hunter’s strong antislavery convictions, Phelps not only admitted black fugitives into Parapet but energetically sought to attract them to it. He also sent his troops on punitive raids against nearby masters notorious for being especially brutal toward their slaves. As word of Phelps’s actions spread, some laborers on surrounding plantations took heart and grew bolder in defying their owners’ orders.49
Supposedly unionist Louisiana masters were displeased. Phelps’s conduct, Reverdy Johnson warned Lincoln, was creating the “impression” that Washington meant “to force the Emancipation of the slaves.” If that impression persisted, previously loyal slave masters in the South would surely turn against the Union. “Depend upon it, my Dear Sir,” Johnson lectured Lincoln, “that unless this is at once corrected, this State cannot be, for years, if ever, reinstated in the Union.”50
Lincoln had in the past heard—and had himself employed—this reasoning. But he had now had his fill of it. He replied to Johnson with a bluntness and curtness unusual for him. “I distrust the wisdom if not the sincerity of friends,” he snapped, “who would hold my hands while my enemies stab me,” the more so because this type of “appeal of professed friends has paralyzed me more in this struggle than any other one thing.”
You warn me, Lincoln continued, that “the Union feeling in Louisiana is being crushed out by the course of General Phelps. Please pardon me for believing that is a false pretense.” The people of that state, he said, had displayed precious little Union feeling at any stage in the national crisis. If they were now “annoyed by the presence of General Phelps,” they knew quite well what the remedy was. They could rid themselves of Phelps simply by abandoning the rebellion and returning to their proper place within the Union. That remedy had been available to them for the past fifteen months. All their present difficulties sprang from their refusal to make use of it, Lincoln argued. Having remained in rebellion against the country’s lawful government all this time, why should they now be surprised to “receive harder blows rather than lighter ones?” As a matter of fact, Lincoln heatedly continued, “if they can conceive of anything worse than General Phelps” that is “within my power” to impose upon them, they should now “be looking out for it.”51
The president’s note must have stunned Reverdy Johnson. Perhaps that gentleman dismissed it as the product of a passing mood, as a merely momentary outburst of frustration. But if so, he was sorely mistaken. Lincoln sent a very similar letter to a Louisiana unionist named Cuthbert Bullitt two days later.52
These letters marked a critical turning point in Lincoln’s thinking about the war and what was necessary to win it. Still uncomfortable and unhappy with confiscation policies, Lincoln could no longer see an alternative to them.
The Union president had shared this conclusion with two cabinet members on July 13, 1862, three days before Reverdy Johnson penned his letter. Lincoln had come to realize, he explained, that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” The need to weaken the enemy and to add a crucial labor resource to the U.S. war effort had made a declaration of emancipation “a military necessity essential for the salvation of the Union.”53 On July 22, on the authority of Congress’s newly passed Second Confiscation Act, Lincoln ordered U.S. commanders in rebel territory to “seize and use any property, real or personal, which may be necessary or convenient for their several commands as supplies, or for other military purposes” and to “employ as laborers, within and from said states, so many persons of African descent as can be advantageously used for military and naval purposes, giving them reasonable wages for their labor.”54
On the same morning that he issued that order, Lincoln informed his cabinet that he intended to go considerably further. The way to encourage slave owners to rejoin the United States, he had decided, was not to appease them but to show them the grim alternative to obeying the law. If they did not return to the Union, they would forfeit all their slaves. Lincoln then read the cabinet a first draft of his proclamation.55
At the suggestion of some of those present, the president agreed to postpone public announcement until some signal Union victory could cast the measure as an expression of strength rather than weakness. That opportunity arose a couple of months later, with the September 17, 1862, battle of Antietam. Union commander George B. McClellan did not win an impressive victory there, but he did appear to stop Lee’s army in its tracks and put an end to its dangerous raid into unionist Maryland. That achievement also helped discourage the British government from attempting to interfere diplomatically in the war.
On September 22, 1862, Lincoln declared that on the first day of the coming year, all slaves found in any part of the United States still controlled by Confederate forces (not merely those slaves owned by open partisans of the rebellion) would become, in the eyes of the U.S. government, “then, thenceforward, and forever free,” a status that the U.S. government and its armies would “recognize and maintain.” Early in the war, as noted, a number of Union commanders had offered to help put down any possible revolt on the part of even disloyal masters. No longer. Now, Lincoln warned, federal forces would refuse “to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”56
On January 1, 1863—by which time no Confederate state had responded to the September warning—Lincoln finalized the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that “all persons held as slaves within said designated States are, and henceforward shall be, free.” That document more clearly and effectively encouraged slaves to assist and flee toward Union troops than had any previous measure of the Union government. Union regiments soon received thousands of copies of the proclamation to distribute as they penetrated farther into the Confederacy.
Much of the Union’s population responded to Lincoln’s change of policy with relief and enthusiasm. None, of course, expressed stronger approval than black men and women, those long free in the North as well as those in the South whose chains had fallen only since the war began. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day of 1863 saw monster crowds gather to celebrate in churches, in meeting halls, and in the streets in one place after another—including such Union-occupied parts of the Confederacy as Corinth, Mississippi. Norfolk, Virginia, saw two thousand black people march in joy through its streets and five times that number line those streets and shout their exultation.57
White abolitionists were nearly as thrilled. William Lloyd Garrison called it “a great historic event, sublime in its magnitude, momentous and beneficient in its far-reaching consequences.”58 Emphatic approval came from many northerners who would have considered emancipation a fantasy and even a crime before the war began. They had come to recognize and accept a change in policy as the only way to save the Union.
But others remained adamant in their opposition and furiously denounced this revolutionary turn in Lincoln’s policy. A Democratic editor in Illinois sneered that Republicans were preoccupied with “the grand object of hugging niggers to their bosoms. Hoop de-dooden-do! The niggers are free!”59 Democratic politicians and newspapers shrilly prophesied that freedom for southern slaves would bring ruin to northern plebeians. Emancipated southern blacks would stream northward to steal the jobs, the women, and the dignity of white men there. In New York, party leader Horatio Seymour claimed that “scenes bloodier than the world has yet witnessed” were about to “be enacted in the name of philanthropy.” The new proclamation would lead to “the butchery of women and children,” to “scenes of lust and rapine, of arson and murder unparalleled in the history of the world.”60 A northern newspaper warned, “Workingmen! Be Careful! Organize yourselves against this element which threatens your impoverishment and annihilation.”61
Many in the loyal border states were more furious still. A Kentucky newspaper branded the proclamation “a flagrant outrage of all constitutional law, all human justice, all Christian feeling.”62 Hundreds of Union soldiers mustered in Kentucky tried to resign from the army; their officers were particularly incensed. And in that state as well as in Missouri, the emancipation policy fueled the growth of pro-Confederate guerrilla bands.63 In North Carolina, it led the man whom Lincoln had appointed as war governor of Union-occupied districts to resign his office.64
Another, potentially even more dangerous, center of anti-emancipation backlash was the mostly conservative officer corps of the U. S. Army as a whole—but especially those officers in the headquarters of General McClellan. In early July 1862, McClellan had handed Lincoln a document pompously instructing the president on proper policy. The Union war effort, McClellan stressed, must not under any circumstances aim at “the subjugation of the people of any state.” The general was willing to confiscate particular slaves when federal armies found it necessary—so long as they honored “the right of the owner to compensation.” But as a rule, McClellan insisted, the “military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude.” As for the “forcible abolition of slavery” as a whole, that must not even “be contemplated,” not even “for a moment.” McClellan warned his commander in chief darkly that any “declaration of radical views, especially on slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.”65
When Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation a few months later, McClellan found it “almost impossible … to retain my commission & self respect at the same time.” He was soon sounding out wealthy Democratic merchants to gauge whether and to what degree they would second his outrage.66 Washington hummed with rumors that the general, whom admiring journalists had already dubbed “the young Napoleon,” was now flirting with the idea not only of opposing Lincoln’s policy publicly, but of flatly refusing to implement it—and perhaps even of threatening the government with his army.67 McClellan surrounded himself with officers who knew their commander’s contempt for Lincoln and the Republicans, and who felt free, and perhaps even encouraged, to express the same views more loudly still.
In fact, McClellan told his wife in July 1862 that he was even then hearing from northern Democrats “urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!!”68 That suggestion evidently appealed to him at some level; within a few weeks he was indeed muttering about “taking my rather large military family to Washn to seek an explanation of their [the government’s] course.” One of his aides later confided to a reporter “that a plan to countermarch to Washington and intimidate the President had been seriously discussed” shortly before Antietam “by the members of McClellan’s staff.”69 In fact, such talk began to float freely through McClellan’s circle, as Lincoln soon heard.70
A number of factors long limited Lincoln’s ability to deal with McClellan as he might have wished to. The man commanding the Union’s largest army was enormously popular with many northern voters as well as with his own troops, who followed the general in blaming others for his many military failings and blunders. Lincoln ruefully acknowledged his wariness about antagonizing those troops during a visit to McClellan’s camp. At one point Lincoln asked a traveling companion what they were looking at. “Why, Mr. Lincoln,” the man replied, “this is the Army of the Potomac.” “No,” Lincoln corrected him. “This is General McClellan’s body-guard.”71
As soon as the 1862 fall elections were past, however, Lincoln did relieve that inept, obstructionist, insubordinate general of his army. The president had by then already removed the like-minded Don Carlos Buell from command of the Army of the Ohio.72 “The Government seems determined to apply the guillotine to all unsuccessful generals,” General Halleck had earlier noted, adding with some historical insight that “perhaps with us now, as in the French Revolution, some harsh measures are required.”73
During the autumn 1862 elections across the Union for state and congressional offices, Democrats placed opposition to emancipation at the forefront of their campaigns. And when all the ballots were counted, they had picked up thirty-five seats in the House of Representatives, governors’ mansions in both New Jersey and New York, and legislative majorities in both Indiana and in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. Indiana and Illinois voters also strongly backed new restrictions on the right of blacks to vote and even live in those states. These results, Democrats insisted, proved that the Union population supported their party’s repudiation of Lincoln’s radicalizing war policy.74
But although many northerners did indeed balk at the prospect of so extensive and immediate an abolition of slavery, opposition to the Republicans was by no means as widespread as it first appeared in the fall of 1862. As Civil War historian James McPherson has pointed out, Lincoln’s party that season actually suffered the smallest net loss of congressional seats by a dominant party in an off-year election in a full generation. And despite those losses, the Republicans retained a majority in the House of Representatives and even netted six new seats in the Senate. Just as important, these election results failed to reflect the political opinions of the hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers whom state laws barred from voting while away from home. Those disfranchised troops included many of the administration’s most fervent supporters.75
Most sweeping statements about what “the soldiers” thought overlook the fact that the Union army’s rank and file was anything but uniform in its views. The soldiers were, after all, recruited from the same population that at home had grown sharply divided over war policy. Abolitionists made up only a tiny minority of the ranks, of course. But a far larger proportion identified with the Republican Party and shared its contempt for slavery. A New York private spoke for such soldiers when he exulted that, as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation, “the contest is now between Slavery & freedom, & every honest man knows what he is fighting for.” The day Lincoln issued his proclamation, judged a Minnesota corporal, would become “a day hallowed in the hearts of millions of the people of these United States and the world over.”76
About half of all Union soldiers, however, were probably Democrats or residents of border slave states, and in that group the emancipation decrees of the fall and winter of 1862–63 aroused strong hostility. “I came out to fight for the restoration of the Union and to keep slavery as it is without going into the territories,” one soldier wrote his family members, “& not to free the niggers.”77 An Indiana private announced that “if emancipation is to be the policy of this war … I do not care how quick the country goes to pot.”78But this sentiment was growing weaker.
Virginia’s Edmund Ruffin was sure that when northern soldiers got a closer look at “slavery & the slaves at home, & both in something like their true colors, instead of through the false medium of ignorant prejudice,” hostility to the slaves themselves would grow swiftly in the Union armies.79 In the event, however, Union soldiers’ firsthand contact with slavery usually had the opposite effect.
For those who already despised slavery, close encounters with it usually produced the kind of reaction that one private in a Pennsylvania regiment expressed: “I thought I hated slavery as much as possible before I came here, but here, where I can see some of its workings, I am more than ever convinced of the cruelty and inhumanity of the system.”80 And many northern soldiers who started the war unmoved by the slaves’ plight experienced a change of heart. One Ohio soldier, initially a firm anti-abolitionist, explained that while serving in the South he had “learned and seen more of what the horrors of Slavery was than I ever knew [of] before.”81 An Illinoisan later confessed to his brother that he had previously had no more regard for a black person than for a dog and that he had “respected slavery.” But now that he had “seen its practical workings” he had been “forced to change my opinion.”82 “There is a mighty revolution a going on in the minds of the men on the nigger question,” Illinois soldier John Russell informed his sister in July 1862.83
Some soldiers had begun to conceal fugitive slaves and frustrate the attempts of owners to recapture them months before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.84 That occurred even in the loyal border state of Maryland. “There is quite an audible murmur here about the return of fugitives,” George Stephens reported in February 1862. “One group of New York soldiers, observing the whipping of recently returned [black] fugitives, freed the slaves and flogged the masters,” he recorded. And “an officer of high rank” advised another master demanding the return of an escaped slave “that in a very short time he would not guarantee his life five minutes in the lines [while] on a slave hunt.”85 Similar scenes played out on other fronts.86
Far more influential in changing the minds of Union soldiers than empathy for the slaves was a growing recognition of the military role that slavery played in the war. In January 1863, Chauncey B. Welton of the 103rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry growled that “we did not enlist to fight for the negro and I can tell you that we never shall.” By June, however, he had reconsidered and was now admonishing his still-opposed father that emancipation had proved itself “a means of hastening the speedy restoration of the union and the termination of this war.”87 An Illinois soldier bluntly voiced a widespread view when he confessed to “lik[ing] the Negro no better now than” he did before the war, “but we hate his master worse and I tell you when Old Abe carries out his Proclamation he kills this Rebellion and not before. I am henceforth an Abolitionist and I intend to practice what I preach.”88 The need to attack slavery in order to save the Union—what Frederick Douglass had called “the inexorable logic of events”—pushed these and many other Union soldiers to embrace a revolutionary policy.
This dynamic became clear in elections for state office held across the Union in the spring and fall of 1863. Having lost ground in the fall of 1862, the Republicans (sometimes in a fusion with pro-war Democrats) now swept to victory everywhere.89 Republican confidence in Lincoln’s emancipation policy swelled. Ohio congressman James A. Garfield gave voice to that spirit in a speech on the House floor in January 1864. Democrats, he noted, complain “that this is an Abolition war.” Well, he told them, “if you please to say so, I grant it. The rapid current of events has made the army of the republic an Abolition army.”90
To abolitionists and radical Republicans, freeing slaves was the crucial first step in an appropriate military policy. It was also necessary, they believed, to arm those made free. “If this war is continued long, and is bloody,” Thaddeus Stevens predicted in the summer of 1861, “I do not believe that the free people of the North will stand by and see their sons and brothers and neighbors slaughtered by thousands and tens of thousands by rebels,” without asking those rebels’ “enemies to be our friends, and to help us in subduing” the common foe.91
Nothing would more radically subvert the Confederacy’s slave-based economy and society than sending black soldiers into slave country. “Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and forged into a liberating army,” Frederick Douglass urged in May 1861. Let them “march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves.… One black regiment alone would be, in such a war, the full equal to two white ones,” he explained, because from its mere appearance “the slaves would learn more as to the nature of the conflict” than they could from the lips “of a thousand preachers.”92 Their mere presence would recruit thousands more into their ranks.
Plenty of black residents of the Union eagerly sought to join in that work. Three hundred free African American residents of Washington offered to take up arms to defend their city from Confederate attack. A group in Pittsburgh named itself the Hannibal Guards, after the African general of old, and offered its services to the Union. Black men in Cleveland announced themselves ready “as in the times of ’76, and the days of 1812 … to go forth and do battle in the common cause of the country.” In Boston and New York City, more would-be soldiers began to drill in preparation for combat.93
News of the war and the change in Union policy reached Canada, where the fugitive slave Garland White, formerly the property of Georgia’s Robert Toombs, had settled after escaping in 1860. In Ontario, White had pursued his religious calling, becoming an ordained Methodist minister by October 1861. But he also followed the progress of the American Civil War in the newspapers and wrote to U.S. secretary of state William Seward offering to serve the Union cause “to the best of my humble ability.” In May 1862, White volunteered to form a Union regiment composed of “my people” in hopes that a Union victory would lead to the “eternal overthrow of the institution of slavery.”94
During the first phase of the war, however, the Union had categorically—often crudely and brutally—rebuffed such offers and initiatives. “This Department,” Lincoln’s first secretary of war, Simon Cameron, announced at the end of April 1861, “has no intention to call into the service of the Government any colored soldiers.” In various locales, political authorities went further, outlawing public meetings in support of black recruitment as “disorderly gatherings.” Racist mobs assaulted some who tried to organize such rallies. The Cincinnati police warned would-be black soldiers there that “we want you damned niggers to keep out of this; this is a white man’s war!”95
Washington’s refusal to accept black volunteers into the U.S. Army grew in part out of the common early belief (shared, as we have seen, with many Confederates) that this would be a brief, limited war. If the South was about to be subdued easily, why inflame the well-known racial hatreds of most northern whites by asking them to serve in uniform beside blacks? Especially if, as was widely assumed, black men had neither the courage nor the intelligence to make good soldiers?
But within six months of the war’s outbreak, stunning military setbacks in the East were prompting second thoughts even in the Union’s conservative secretary of war. On a number of occasions, Simon Cameron now proposed revising the government’s policy. In late December 1861, he did so formally. The national government has the right, he argued in a preliminary draft of his annual report, “to use the voluntary service of slaves liberated by war from their rebel masters, like any other property of the rebels, in whatever mode may be most efficient for the defence of the Government, the prosecution of the war, and the suppression of rebellion.” And it was “clearly” as much “a right of the Government to arm slaves when it may become necessary as it is to take gunpowder from the enemy.”
Lincoln objected to those words, however, and forced Cameron to delete them from the report’s final version.96 Even after his own short-war illusions evaporated, the president continued to fear that enlisting blacks would prove to northern Democrats and the border states that Republicans aimed to overturn white supremacy. And that, he remained convinced, would doom the Union war effort.
But congressional Republicans had by now come to disagree with Lincoln’s policy here, too. The Confiscation Act of 1862 authorized the president to “employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion, and … in such manner as he may judge best.” So did the Militia Act, passed the same day, adding a promise of freedom for all men so employed. Lincoln declined to exercise that authority. When a group of Indianans offered to form two black Union regiments in early August, Lincoln turned them down.97
The first practical challenge to this policy came from the field, from individual commanders who thought it folly to spurn so large a potential source of military manpower. During the spring and summer of 1862, a number of Union officers sorely in need of additional forces began on their own initiative to use “contrabands” to guard Union-occupied plantations against Confederate raids.98 On St. Simons Island off the Atlantic coast, black men guarded a camp of some four hundred refugees. When a Confederate unit landed there, apparently intending to recapture those people, the black guardsmen “vigorously attacked” them. Two guards were killed and one was wounded in the fighting, but the defenders drove the raiders from the island.99
In April 1862, General David Hunter sought to transform makeshift, informal arrangements like that one into official policy. He asked Edwin M. Stanton (who replaced Simon Cameron in the War Department in January 1862) for permission to arm contrabands in the Department of the South. Receiving no reply, the abolitionist general set about implementing that plan on his own, beginning to recruit, equip, and drill a full-scale infantry regiment. By the end of June, he was already declaring his “experiment” to be “a complete and even marvelous success.” His new black troops, he informed the War Department, were “sober, docile, attentive, and enthusiastic, displaying great natural capacities for acquiring the duties of the soldier.” They were also “eager, beyond all things, to take the field and be led into action.” Hunter looked forward to organizing “from 48,000 to 50,000 of these hardy and devoted soldiers” by the fall of 1863.100
But this initiative ran headlong into a barrage of criticism. Democrats denounced it, and the government refused to endorse it. Having already rejected Hunter’s May 1862 emancipationist edict, Lincoln was not now ready to muster blacks into his armies. A frustrated and angry Hunter therefore dissolved his regiment shortly before resigning his command and leaving the Department of the South altogether.101
A similar story played out that summer above New Orleans, at Camp Parapet, where General John W. Phelps began forming three hundred fugitives into five companies of Union infantry to help defend his position and police the vicinity. When ordered instead to confine fugitives in his district to manual labor, Phelps submitted his resignation.102
But while the Lincoln government moved toward accepting black troops more slowly than it did toward emancipation, it did begin that journey in the summer of 1862. At a July 21 cabinet meeting, Lincoln opposed arming blacks. But a day later he gave Treasury secretary Salmon P. Chase the impression that while he still thought “that the organization, equipment, and arming of negroes … would be productive of more evil than good,” the president now seemed readier to allow individual field commanders to “arm, for purely defensive purposes, slaves coming within their lines.” And within a few more days Lincoln was considering how, once Union troops took Vicksburg, they could retain control of the Mississippi River with the active aid of “the black population on its bank.” By early August he was wondering whether to send black soldiers on combat missions against some of the Confederacy’s Indian allies.103
This advancing transformation of the government’s thinking allowed a brigadier general named Rufus Saxton to pick up where David Hunter had left off. A graduate of West Point, Saxton had been an abolitionist since his Massachusetts boyhood, considering slavery “the foulest wrong which has disgraced humanity in the nineteenth century.”104 Now serving as military governor of the sea islands, General Saxton faced the same debilitating shortage of soldiers that had plagued Hunter, a shortage recently aggravated by the transfer of troops from the sea islands to the Virginia theater.105 Saxton responded to this problem by urgently requesting the right to uniform and arm contrabands, who would act as auxiliaries to the white Union soldiers on the islands.106 On August 25, 1862, Stanton authorized him “to arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States” as many as five thousand “volunteers of African descent” and to “detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them.”107
Here were the origins of the First South Carolina Volunteers. A few months later, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent Massachusetts abolitionist who had been both a friend and ally of John Brown, took command of the new black regiment.108He found it composed overwhelmingly of men only recently emancipated. In bondage, most had toiled in the fields, but some had been carpenters, barrel makers, masons, shoemakers, and house servants. All had now volunteered for Union duty.109 As the forty-year-old Sergeant Prince Rivers of Company A put it, “This is our time. If our fathers had had such a chance as this, we should not have been slaves now.” And if he and his comrades did not make the most of this chance, “another one will not come, and our children will be slaves always.”110
The federal government formally assigned Higginson’s regiment a limited role. It was “to guard the plantations and settlements occupied by the United States from invasion and protect the inhabitants thereof from captivity and murder by the enemy.”111 But Higginson and his superiors on the scene chose to interpret defense actively, mounting attacks on enemy forces along the South Carolina coast and later in northern Florida.
Meanwhile, General Benjamin Butler—formerly of Fort Monroe, Virginia, and now in command of Union troops occupying New Orleans—was again pioneering new federal policy. This time, he did so with regard to free black residents of the South.
New Orleans contained a large and in many ways unique population of free blacks. Many were of very light complexion, some eight out of every ten being of mixed African and European descent. They enjoyed considerably greater legal rights than most counterparts elsewhere in the South, a result of the terms on which the United States had acquired this part of the continent half a century earlier. These two facts gave rise to a third: Many of the city’s free black residents owned a considerable amount of property.
The relatively privileged position of these people helps to account for the April 1861 rally in the Crescent City (mentioned in chapter 2) by some 1,500 hommes de couleur libre in support of the Confederate cause. And for the formation shortly afterward of a regiment of free blacks, called the Native Guards, which Confederate governor Thomas O. Moore formally inducted into the state militia.
State and city officials, however, proved quite ambivalent about the regiment. After Farragut’s and Sherman’s Union forces managed to pass the two forts defending the city in April 1862, the governor called upon the Native Guards “to maintain their organization, and to hold themselves prepared for such orders as may be transmitted to them.” But, armed only at the last minute and then only with antiquated muskets, they remained on the periphery of the action as Union troops took control of the city.112
After New Orleans’s surrender, four of the Native Guards’ line officers called on General Butler to offer him their services.113 They explained that they had previously sought to prove themselves loyal to suspicious Confederate authorities in order to safeguard their lives and property. But they would rather fight against the slaveholders’ republic than for it.114
Butler accepted their offer. Two developments evidently influenced his decision. The first was Butler’s apprehension in early August that a Confederate force was about to attack the city. The second was word from Treasury secretary Chase that both the northern public and the Lincoln administration were rethinking the subject of black soldiers.115 Nothing if not politically shrewd and agile, Butler was soon exhorting all former members of the Native Guards to volunteer for Union service.116 The United States’ First Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards officially began its life on September 27, 1862. By Thanksgiving, two additional black regiments stood beside it.117
On paper Butler’s overture extended only to already-free members of the city’s black population. But as a Union official noted concerning the enlistment process, “nobody inquires whether the recruit is (or has been) a slave.” As a result, the new Union regiments admitted not only members of the original Native Guards and other free blacks, but “the boldest and finest fugitives” from slavery as well. In fact, nearly nine out of ten of Butler’s First Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards had never served in the Confederate militia, and at least half were probably contrabands. Nearly all of those who joined the Second and Third regiments had recently been slaves, too.118
These freedmen brought to their new duties a fervor that those who had never lived in bondage could hardly match. One such man found his unit marching down Canal Street one Saturday morning. As he passed his former master’s place of business, this soldier shook his musket toward the place and exclaimed, “ ‘Dat’s de man I wants to meet on de field oh battle!’ ”119
Events were moving still more rapidly in Kansas. There James H. Lane, James Montgomery, and Charles Jennison, all veterans of the fierce prewar conflict over slavery in that territory, began in August 1862 to recruit black refugees from Missouri and Arkansas into irregular combat units. That the War Department explicitly denied them permission to do so seems not to have slowed them down at all. They had formed as many as seven companies by the end of September, and in October they engaged pro-Confederate guerrillas in Missouri. The black soldiers “fought like tigers, each and every one of them,” a Kansas journalist reported, “and the main difficulty was to hold them well in hand.”120
The final Emancipation Proclamation announced Lincoln’s intention to formalize and generalize these experiments. By January 1863, he had decided to bring black men “into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts.”
One of the first fruits of the new policy was the formal mustering into federal service in late January 1863 of James Lane’s First Regiment, Kansas Colored Volunteers. And on January 26, the War Department authorized the strongly antislavery governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, to raise as many black troops as he deemed suitable, thereby initiating the formation of what would become the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry regiment. Abolitionists energetically set about recruiting to its ranks, and because Massachusetts contained only a small population of free black men of military age, they were permitted to seek recruits far beyond the borders of the Bay State. Frederick Douglass’s sons Charles and Lewis joined the regiment, and their father crisscrossed the free states urging black men to follow suit. Four companies were ready for service by late March, and the continuing influx of recruits prompted the formation that May of the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Infantry regiment.121
These developments contained strong implications for other aspects of federal policy. Those now being asked to take up arms and risk their lives in Union uniforms could hardly be urged simultaneously to prepare to leave the country. Lincoln’s turn toward the recruitment of black soldiers therefore required an end to his public calls for colonizing free black people abroad.
The Lincoln government’s decision to free and arm black men infuriated the Confederacy’s leaders and supporters. It was, announced the Richmond Examiner, “the most startling political crime … yet known in American History.”122 General Lee denounced Lincoln’s “savage and brutal policy” for consigning “our social system” to “destruction,” subjecting “the honor of our families” to “pollution,” and in general condemning the South to a “degradation worse than death.”123 Gertrude Thomas scorned this base “attempt to arouse the vindictive passions of an inferior race.”124 The Mobile Register and Advertiser was horrified by the thought that “our sons” might now “meet their own slaves on the field.” It was therefore time, said the paper’s editor, to have “the black flag … raised, and war to the knife proclaimed.”125
In July 1863, Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard, the son of Louisiana sugar planters, sent a note across the lines to a Union counterpart, lecturing him about the evils of emancipating and arming people like the slaves of North America. “The employment of a merciless, servile race as soldiers,” Beauregard admonished, always invited “atrocious consequences.” That was so obvious, he continued, that when Napoléon invaded Russia in 1812, he “refused to receive or employ against the Russian Government and army the Russian serfs,” even though those serfs “were ready on all sides to flock to his standard” if he would only liberate them.126
Beauregard knew his Napoléon—or at least, knew Napoléon’s version of those events. What Beauregard didn’t seem to grasp was the crucial difference between Napoléon and Lincoln: the very different roles that they played in the course of their two nations’ great national revolutions.
Napoléon Bonaparte was a parvenu who gained fame by military service for the French Revolution’s cause. But when he seized political power in 1799, destroyed the young republic, and then anointed himself as emperor five years later, he was dragging that revolution backward, far away from its earlier radically democratic impulse. The man who invaded Russia in 1812 did so to aggrandize and enrich himself and the new imperial aristocracy he had created. Emperor Napoléon I certainly had no desire to emancipate Russian serfs.127
Abraham Lincoln showed in 1862–63 that he was made of very different stuff and stood at the head of very different forces. He did not, as we have seen, think of himself as a revolutionary. Indeed he initially set his face determinedly against revolutionary measures. He certainly did not regard himself as the representative of America’s enslaved population. But he was fighting a war to defend a democratic republic against its foes, a war born of his party’s determination to place chattel slavery on the road to extinction for the sake of that republic’s economic, political, and moral health.
Lincoln first tried to achieve his aims with relatively conservative methods. The failure of those methods confronted him with three alternatives. He could give up the whole attempt, as some northern (“Peace”) Democrats wanted to do. That is, he could concede defeat and allow slave states to withdraw from the nation. Or, he could continue trying to prosecute the war while clinging to the now demonstrably inadequate, halfway methods of the past, as McClellan and other (“War”) Democrats wished to do. Or, finally, he could stand by his initial determination to fight and win the war while making the changes necessary to do that. He could, that is, recognize and accept the “inexorable logic of events”—the need for a more aggressive military strategy and a revolutionary, emancipationist war policy.
Lincoln chose the third course. Confronted with the impossibility of winning the war in the old way, he would not abandon the goal. “We must disenthrall ourselves,” he said, of “the dogmas of the quiet past” and recognize the imperatives of “the stormy present.” We know “how to save the Union,” he said: By “giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”128
In choosing that path, Lincoln proved himself capable of revolutionary leadership and a figure less like Napoléon Bonaparte than like Cromwell, Robespierre, or South America’s Simon Bolívar. Half a century before the U.S. Civil War began, Bolívar—the would-be liberator of most of South America from Spanish rule—discovered that he could not accomplish that goal without doing still more. In order to triumph, he would also have to mobilize, arm, and promise freedom to the continent’s black slaves.129
In the spring and summer of 1862, Abraham Lincoln confronted a problem similar to Bolívar’s, and he, too, resolved upon a revolutionary solution. As he did so, the popular base and constituency of the Union war effort changed, shifted. Initially preoccupied with maintaining the support of northern conservatives and border-state masters, Lincoln now turned away from those sectors and toward the enslaved population and their champions in the North. He would henceforth depend upon them, far more than on northern conservatives or union masters, to bring the struggle against the rebellious slave states to a successful conclusion.
These decisions confirmed an appraisal of Lincoln’s character and place in history that a prominent revolutionary across the ocean made of him. European socialists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels watched events in the U.S. Civil War closely from afar by studying northern newspapers and letters they received from friends and supporters in America. The Union’s conduct by the spring of 1862 left Engels disgusted. “Where, amongst the people, is there any sign of revolutionary vigour?” he demanded. “Where, throughout the North, is there the slightest indication that people are in real earnest about anything?”
But Marx had formed a more positive view. “President Lincoln never ventures a step forward before the tide of circumstances and the general call of public opinion forbid further delay,” he wrote. “But once ‘Old Abe’ realizes that such a turning point has been reached, he surprises friend and foe alike by a sudden operation executed as noiselessly as possible.” And Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, Marx judged, was “the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union.”130