To save the Union or to free the slaves?

April 27, 2015

Donny Schraffenberger and Alan Maass explain how a war that began with the North aiming to keep the U.S. intact, even at the cost of slavery remaining legal, became a revolutionary war of emancipation, in the latest article in a series on slavery and the Civil War.

ON APRIL 2, 1865--one week before the surrender at Appomattox that ended the Civil War--the Confederate capital of Richmond was evacuated. After the Confederate Army left, Southerners burned their own city.

Among the Northern forces that first occupied Richmond in these weeks 150 years ago was the 25th Corps of the Union Army--a unit made up almost entirely of Black soldiers. They helped patrol the city and put out the fires. The final end of the white slave republic in the U.S. South was being overseen by former slaves, now soldiers in the Union Army.

On April 4, two days after the Confederate forces evacuated Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad visited the still smoldering ruins of the city. As they arrived, Lincoln was instantly recognized by former slaves, who greeted him ecstatically. As Admiral David Porter, who traveled with Lincoln, later wrote:

No electric wire could have carried the news of the president's arrival sooner than it was circulated through Richmond. As far as the eye could see the streets were alive with negroes and poor whites rushing in our direction, and the crowd increased so fast that I had to surround the President with the sailors with fixed bayonets to keep them off...They all wanted to shake hands with Mr. Lincoln.

Union Army soldiers before the Battle of Fredericksburg
Union Army soldiers before the Battle of Fredericksburg

Lincoln--who four years before, weeks before the first shots were fired in the Civil War, had offered to support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing slavery in the states where it existed--was deeply moved by these celebrations. Another officer described Lincoln asking a man who had knelt before him to rise, saying:

Don't kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter. I am but God's humble instrument; but you may rest assured that as long as I live, no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic.

Similarly joyous scenes played out in the months and years before the South finally admitted defeat in April 1865. They confirmed what had seemed uncertain four years before to all but the most far-sighted abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx--that the Civil War would revolve around the revolutionary aim of destroying the institution of slavery and the Southern ruling class that depended on it.

Slavery and the Civil War

One hundred and fifty years ago, the institution of slavery was finally destroyed with the end of the Civil War. Socialist Worker writers tell the story.



DOUGLASS HAD been critical of Lincoln for not embracing this aim from the beginning. Confederate forces started the war with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the federal fort guarding harbor in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1861. At this point, Douglass wrote, both sides, North and South, were fighting "in the interests of slavery...The South was fighting to take slavery out of the Union, and the North was fighting to keep it in the Union."

What Douglass meant was that Lincoln had made it clear he would accept a Union where slavery still existed in the South. However, Lincoln and the recently formed Republican Party were adamant about stopping the spread of slavery to new territories and states. The South, meanwhile, wasn't satisfied with preserving slavery where it existed. It not only wanted new slave states--some Southern leaders proposed to conquer Cuba and Central America as new places to expand the slave South.

This issue--whether slavery would expand or not--was what finally brought the long-running conflict between the Southern slaveocracy and the Northern system based on free labor to a head. All the previous clashes had been papered over with compromises that maintained the balance of power between slave states and free states so the South could continue to dominate the federal government. The South held the balance of power in the Senate and U.S. Supreme Court for almost all the years leading to 1861.

When Lincoln was elected president in 1860 on a platform of stopping any further expansion of slavery, the slave power recognized that this was the beginning of the end of its dominant position--because further expansion of states where slavery was illegal would tip the balance to the North in the Senate and eventually the Court. Most of the states of the Confederacy had seceded from the Union by the time Lincoln took the oath of office.

Still, when the Civil War began, most people in the North thought it would be over in a few months. Lincoln called for volunteers for 90 days of service. He hoped that a majority of white Southerners were still loyal to the federal government and would come to their senses against the leaders of the newly seceded Southern states. Instead, the call for volunteers caused more states to secede.

During the first two years of the war, the North did poorly in the war's Eastern theater--the primary battleground was located in Virginia, east of the Appalachian Mountains. The Confederate Army won overwhelming victories, including the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

Popular histories of the Civil War often claim that these Confederate successes were the result of the superiority of the South's generals, like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In fact, the commander of the Northern forces, Gen. George McClellan, was renown within the Army for his technical skills as a military strategist. The problem was that he was utterly disinterested in fighting the war against the Confederacy.

McClellan was a supporter of the Democrats, the party of slavery in the South and of pro-slavery sentiment in the North. He represented a wing of the Northern elite that wanted to preserve the U.S. as it was before the South seceded, with slavery and the Southern ruling class intact. They wanted the war to impact Southern society as little as possible--enough to return the seceded states to the Union, perhaps, but not enough to threaten the lucrative plantation system, based on the exploitation of slave labor.

So McClellan pursued a timid war strategy consistent with this aim. The commander of Union forces became notorious for overestimating the size of the Confederate troops his men were fighting--and using this as an excuse not to advance. The South, commanded by generals wholly committed to the slaveocracy winning the war, were able to rout numerically superior Northern forces on a regular basis.


FOR ALL his political differences with McClellan and the Democrats, Lincoln showed indecision himself in this early period--tellingly, on the issue of slavery.

For example, in August 1861, Major Gen. John Frémont, in command of Union forces in the West, issued an order declaring martial law in Missouri and emancipating the slaves of any owners who took up arms. Missouri was a slave state that had stayed in the Union, but pro-Confederate forces were gaining strength.

Frémont, an abolitionist and the Republican Party's presidential candidate four years before Lincoln ran in 1860, saw the order as a way to strengthen the resolve of the Union side in Missouri against the violence of the pro-Confederate forces. Abolitionists cheered the Frémont Proclamation, but Lincoln feared that it would alarm the so-called Border States--slave states like Missouri that had stayed a part of the Union--and push them into the Confederacy. He forced Frémont to rescind the order and then maneuvered to have him replaced.

Frederick Douglass was furious. "To fight against slaveholders without fighting slavery is but a half-hearted business and paralyzes the hands engaged in it," he wrote. "Fire must be met with water. War for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery."

One of the myths of the Civil War is that the North won because it had a larger population and greater resources to draw on--particularly its industrial production and transportation system. These were, indeed, necessary for the North to prevail, but not enough by themselves. The North also needed the political will to defeat the slaveocracy.

Political and ideological factors were bound to play a greater role in the Civil War. Both the North and South relied on volunteer armies--to a greater extent than any other U.S. war, according to historian James McPherson. The living conditions for soldiers were bad, the pay was low--and beyond that, the carnage of the Civil War was unparalleled.

The war caused the deaths of some 750,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians--amounting, by one estimate, to around 10 percent of all Northern males between the ages of 20 and 45 and more than 30 percent of Southern white males between 18 and 40. The casualty rate in the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 was four times greater than in the D-Day invasion of France during the Second World War.

To endure this suffering and slaughter required more than the usual forms of coercion that keep all wars as "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." The Civil War required a greater level of political understanding and commitment.

The South, of course, had clear aims from the start of the war, but the aims of the North had to develop and mature, particularly among the rank-and-file soldiers of the Union Army. Slavery was the key. As James McPherson wrote in his book What They Fought For 1861-1865:

Whereas a tacit agreement united Confederate soldiers in support of "Southern institutions," including slavery, a bitter and explicit disagreement about emancipation divided northern soldiers...[U]nlike Confederate opinion on slavery, which remained relatively constant until the final months of the war, Union opinion was in a state of flux. It moved by fits and starts toward an eventual majority in the favor of abolishing slavery as the only way to win the war and preserve the Union.


DOUGLASS WAS right: A war against slaveholders had to become a war against slavery for the North to prevail. The transformation began first as a matter of military necessity--and above all, because slaves forced the issue by escaping to the lines of the Union Army.

From the beginning of the war, thousands of slaves recognized that their fate was bound up with the outcome of conflict, and so they struck out to reach areas controlled by Northern forces. This posed the question: Was this "contraband" to be treated as escaped property and returned to its "owner," as the Fugitive Slave Act had required before the war?

Apart from the moral atrocity that this would represent, there was a practical dimension. Slaves were a critical resource in the Southern war effort. The Southern ruling class relied on them to provide the necessary labor to keep the economy and war effort going while a larger proportion of Southern white men fought. Black slaves did the backbreaking work of building fortifications for Southern forces.

Would Union officers return a valuable resource to help their enemies defeat them? Some racist officers proposed to do exactly this and even offered assistance in putting down slave uprisings--in keeping with the leanings of the pro-Democratic Northern command led by George McClellan.

But others reached different conclusions. Gen. Benjamin Butler--a Democrat and sympathizer with, in his words, "Southern rights, but not Southern wrongs"--learned that three slaves had escaped from building Confederate fortifications and reached the Union-controlled Fort Monroe, which he commanded.

Butler decided he would not return the escapees, but would consider them "contraband of war," to be put to work as laborers--unpaid, until the Army later dictated a wage for the former slaves--for the Union Army. Within weeks, 1,000 fugitive slaves had escaped to the fort.

In Washington, Congress and the Lincoln administration reacted to such developments by passing the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, which gave a legal cover to Butler's "contraband of war" reasoning. The Militia Act allowed Union officers to employ escaped slaves in the Northern war effort, and Congress banned slavery in the Western territories and enacted a plan to emancipate slaves in Washington itself--though it provided compensation to the slave owners.

Lincoln was still vacillating. He forced John Frémont to rescind his proclamation in Missouri after Congress passed the first Confiscation Act--arguing that this would appease "loyal" slave owners in the Border States and keep them in the Union. But he was under growing pressure from Black and white abolitionists in the North, from radicals in his own party--and from the trickle-turned-torrent of slaves escaping to the camps of the Union Army.


BY THE time the second Confiscation Act was passed by Congress in the summer of 1862, Lincoln was leaning toward taking another decisive step that would turn the Civil War into a war on slavery: the Emancipation Proclamation.

He was convinced by his Cabinet to wait until the Union Army had won a major victory--then still few and far between--so the order didn't seem like an act of desperation. Lincoln got his chance in September 1862 when the Battle of Antietam in Maryland ended in a standoff, and the Confederate Army was forced to retreat back into Virginia.

A few days after, Lincoln unveiled his proclamation, declaring that unless the Confederate states returned to the Union by the end of year, all slaves in those states would be declared "henceforth and forever free." The Emancipation Proclamation also allowed the Northern armies to sign up Black men as soldiers.

The Emancipation Proclamation was, by intention, a half-measure. It left slavery intact in the Border States like Kentucky and Missouri--and even in areas of the South that were under the control of the Union Army. But the implications were clear to everyone: The Civil War was transformed from an attempt to put the pre-Civil War U.S. back together again to a war to destroy slavery. After January 1, 1863, Blacks would win their freedom wherever the Union Army advanced in the Confederate states.

Reflecting the sentiments of a large part of the Northern white population that abhorred slavery but was hesitant to stand for abolition, Lincoln himself was increasingly transformed by events themselves, like issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. By the end of the war, he was adamant against any suggestion that slavery should not be abolished.

This conversion was a vindication of Douglass' belief that the Civil War would ultimately come to revolve around the abolition of slavery. And it was driven, most of all, by the determination of slaves to free themselves.

The effect of the Emancipation Proclamation was to finally make freedom for 4 million slaves the official war aim of the North. It turned the Northern military forces into an army of liberation, since wherever they advanced in the South, the promise of emancipation could be enforced. By the end of the war, Black soldiers were one-tenth of the ranks of the Union Army.

How that transformation unfolded during the next two years of the war will be the subject of the next installment of this series.

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