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Does Abraham Lincoln deserve all the credit?
Who freed the slaves?

February 25, 2005 | Page 8

JOHN GREEN unravels one of the great myths about the American Civil War.

MANY MYTHS surround the American Civil War, including one that tells us that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with a stroke of his pen--in an act of moral indignation at the horrors of slavery in the Southern states.

This telling of history oversimplifies the truth so much as to render it useless.

Lincoln did issue the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863, which on paper freed slaves in the states of the Confederacy that had seceded from the United States. But it took a fighting force of 2 million soldiers in the Union Army to bring the Confederacy to its knees--and make the defeat of the slave system a fact. African Americans themselves contributed in many crucial ways--from slaves who rebelled in the South, to free Blacks in the North who agitated for abolition, to Black soldiers who served in the Union Army.

What's more, Lincoln himself didn't enter the Civil War as a firebrand abolitionist, itching for the opportunity to end slavery. Instead, the Northern anti-slavery movement had to pressure Lincoln--and ultimately, the logic of winning the war against the Confederacy pushed Lincoln to adopt more radical positions at each step.

Thankfully, Lincoln rose to meet each challenge. By the end of the war, his actions had transformed himself into an unwavering abolitionist. But as important as his role was, the destruction of slavery depended on much more--the actions of masses of other people, including, crucially, slaves themselves.

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THE CIVIL War was the result of an irreconcilable conflict between two social systems--slavery in the South and free wage labor in the North.

Lincoln campaigned for president in 1860 as an opponent of slavery's expansion into the new territories in the Western U.S. Although morally opposed to slavery, he was not ready to immediately deprive slave owners of their property "rights" where slavery already existed.

Instead, Lincoln proposed colonization as the solution to the "Negro problem." The government would gradually purchase the freedom of slaves and then send them to Liberia in Africa, removing them from American society.

This idea satisfied neither slave masters nor the abolitionists. The former slave Frederick Douglass, a supporter of Lincoln's Republican Party, skewered the colonization plan. "Mr. Lincoln assumes the language and arguments of an itinerant Colonization lecturer, showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy," Douglass said.

Meanwhile, the Southern slaveocracy opposed any attempt to gradually eliminate slavery, or even to check its expansion into the new territories of the West. Slave labor had made the small class of Southern rulers rich. To survive, they needed new lands for their plantation system, and new slave states to retain their political dominance in the federal government.

Lincoln underestimated these factors. Even in his inauguration speech--by which time several Southern states had seceded from the union--Lincoln offered an olive branch: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists."

Far MORE perceptive than Lincoln, Northern Blacks responded quickly to South Carolina's secession from the union at the end of 1860. They organized mass meetings, pledging support and volunteers for the coming war.

But the government rejected these offers. Lincoln believed that the conflict with the South would be resolved quickly--with a "silent majority" of Southern unionists counteracting those who advocated secession.

A string of Confederate victories in the early battles of the Civil War forced a reconsideration of this policy. Numerically, slaves comprised nearly half of the secessionist states' already much smaller population. Should they defect to the North, the rebel states' strength would be sapped.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was limited to freeing only slaves in states that had seceded--slave masters in the border states that had remained officially neutral were exempt, as were any parts of the Confederacy already under Union control. Still, the document was a recognition that the goals of a Union victory to keep the United States together and the destruction of slavery were tied together and inseparable. Since the proclamation could only apply in reality if the North won the war, the Northern army became a de facto army of liberation--with slaves escaping to Union lines to gain their freedom.

Soon thereafter, the Union finally agreed to arm and train Black soldiers. Large numbers of Black men poured into the Union Army, more than half of them former slaves. Their sacrifices were enormous. Blacks suffered a casualty rate 40 percent higher than white soldiers (of the 38,000 who died, only 2,870 were actually killed in combat, reflecting the horrific living conditions for these soldiers.)

Black troops fought in nearly every major campaign. As a result of one battle alone in Virginia, 14 African Americans received the Medal of Honor. Yet these soldiers faced discrimination at every turn--racist treatment at the hands of all-white officers, disparity in pay, the worst assignments, outdated equipment.

Some white officers fought for the dignity of their troops. Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, whose story was immortalized in the excellent film Glory, was one example. The entire 54th--including the white officers who weren't subject to unfair wages--refused their unequal pay for an entire year. Towards the end of the war, the government relented and granted full and equal back pay.

Not surprisingly, armed Black soldiers terrified the Confederacy, which vowed to return to slavery or put to death any so-called "slave insurrectionists" caught in uniform (as well as any white officers leading them).

Blacks also played a crucial role in the war effort from behind Southern lines--engaging in sabotage, strikes, individual acts of violence, conspiracy, rebellion and marronage (forming illegal communities.) These slave disturbances drained Confederate resources, with militia and army units forced to patrol at home rather than fight the Union Army.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis' own slaves eavesdropped on his meetings--and passed information to Union agents, who were often Black women.

One of the more brazen acts of resistance came on the morning of May 13, 1862. Robert Smalls and a crew of seven other slaves snuck aboard the Confederate ship Planter with their families and piloted it over to Union lines. Smalls joined the Union Navy--and later became a five-term member of Congress from South Carolina during the short-lived Reconstruction era.

African American resistance is important to note because conservative historians attempted to obliterate this record.

Nevertheless, the Union's adoption of a total war strategy by 1863-64 was of paramount importance to the North's victory. Lincoln struggled for some time to find a suitable leader for the Union Army who would unreservedly prosecute the war. He found his man in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who--along with William Sherman and Philip Sheridan--carried out a scorched-earth campaign that was designed to break the back of the South.

At each step of the way, Lincoln faced calls for compromise among Northern political leaders--both from the Northern wing of the Democrats, the party of slavery, and from moderates in his own party. One testament to his unpopularity was that that he didn't expect to win reelection as president in 1864--only a series of military victories in the months before the election boosted his standing.

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THE UNION victory led to the abolition of slavery and the most dramatic redistribution of wealth in U.S. history--probably in the history of the world. It made citizens of African Americans and enfranchised Blacks males, who during the period of Reconstruction, when the South was under military control, elected Blacks to numerous political positions, including U.S. Senate.

So who freed the slaves? As important as Lincoln's role was, he doesn't deserve all the credit--or even most of it. Lincoln stands out in American history for the profound ways he shaped the world for the better--but as he himself admitted, he was also shaped by events.

The Second American Revolution was accomplished through the sacrifices of millions of men and women--both Black and white. This is the hidden history of the American Civil War and an important lesson for anyone today attempting to fundamentally transform society.

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