07 March 2010

ch.18: A War of Liberation

Seward convinced the president that the Union would need a military victory before he could issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Otherwise, reasoned the Secretary of State, it would seem like a desperate maneuver. So Lincoln waited for that victory, but the situation only worsened. Lincoln had replaced McClellan but the new generals were no better. The Union army suffered serious defeats at Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville. By the late summer of 1862 the situation was so dire that the president brought McClellan back. On 17 September 1862, the great American armies met at Antietam. While the Union victory was slight, it was a victory—at least victory enough for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

But we should remember, even as we praise Abraham Lincoln, that the role of the slaves must be considered in this “War of Liberation." In many ways, the slaves freed themselves during this great Civil War.

A WAR OF LIBERATION: THE ROLE OF BLACK AMERICANS IN THE CIVIL WAR, PART I: At the start of the Civil War, most white Americans wanted to limit the war to the question of secession. Slaves and free blacks, however, knew that the conflict had slavery as its root cause, and they acted with energy, courage, and resolution to turn the struggle into a war for freedom.

As federal armies penetrated rebel states, slaves responded by fleeing to Union camps. Not wanting to lose the support of slave owners who were loyal to the North, Lincoln initially discouraged the slaves from coming, but nothing could stem the tide. By the spring of 1863, thousands of fugitive slaves had either reached or were on the march toward Union lines. It was one of the greatest movements of people in our nation's history.

Faced with an avalanche of impoverished humanity, Union commanders responded by employing adult slaves as laborers, guides, and scouts, and by also setting up refugee camps for their families. Black women worked as cooks and nurses. The men built fortifications and did the heavy work like hauling supplies, building roads, and "slopping out" latrines. Thousands of others were paid subsistence wages to work abandoned cotton plantations. Deep within the Confederacy, moreover, those slaves too far from Union lines to run away simply stopped acting like slaves. They refused to take orders, resisted attempts to be relocated or sold, fled to the swamps and woods by the thousands, and shed their submissive behavior to await their day of liberation. As a result of their actions, the institution of southern slavery was so weakened that hundreds of slavemasters deserted the Confederate army to deal with this insubordination at home.

As the number of Union dead increased, it seemed logical to many northern whites, both abolitionists and moderates alike, that blacks should be used as fighting men, but resistance to that idea was strong. To arm fugitive slaves and free blacks would be telling the South and loyal slave owners in the border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and West Virginia) that the war had become more than a fight to preserve the Union. It would have to become a war for liberation!

Black and white abolitionists, led by Frederick Douglass, argued persuasively for letting fugitive slaves serve as Union soldiers in the hope that the slaves' claim to immediate emancipation, and then to citizenship at the end of the war, would be strengthened by their valor in battle. Lincoln, who had all along resisted such a step, began to yield to the pace of events by the summer of 1862. The imminent collapse of slavery as an institution, the growing public sentiment in favor of arming blacks, and the international diplomatic advantages of freeing the slaves persuaded Lincoln to emancipate those slaves within areas controlled by the Confederacy and to begin recruiting black soldiers. In all, nearly 189,000 blacks--of whom 156,000 were former slaves--served in the Union army and in the United States Navy. The black army regiments, about 100 in total, were strictly segregated and commanded by white officers. Black sailors, on the other hand, served side by side with their white counterparts at sea.

A WAR OF LIBERATION: THE ROLE OF BLACK AMERICANS IN THE CIVIL WAR, PART II: The North's so-called "sable army" initially operated as a home guard, protecting black refugee camps from Confederate raiders. They engaged the enemy in bloody fighting at Port Hudson, Fort Wagner, Fort Pillow, Nashville, Vicksburg, Petersburg, up and down the Carolina coast, all over Virginia, and in scores of skirmishes in the Mississippi River Valley. Perhaps most important, these black soldiers, one-tenth of all Union forces, became by 1864 an army of liberation, rescuing thousands of slaves from behind enemy lines. The valor and courage black troops demonstrated under fire made ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment a virtual reality.

Fugitive slaves and black soldiers suffered terrible hardships during the war. Runaway slaves were sometimes killed and often viciously beaten when captured by Confederates, executed if caught in a soldier's uniform, and even brutalized by Union troops. Their refugee camps were sinkholes of exploitation and sickness. Black soldiers frequently bore the brunt of the heaviest fighting and were discriminated against in pay, rations, and supplies. Few rebel soldiers took black troopers as prisoners if they could avoid it. Insubordinate slaves within the Confederacy, moreover, were punished in ways far harsher than the usual treatment experienced by slaves before the war.

African-Americans, through their behavior as slaves and soldiers, forced all Americans to deal with slavery as a fundamental issue of the Civil War. Even the Confederate leadership came to appreciate this fact. In the last days before Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the Confederate Congress actually drafted legislation granting freedom to those slaves who would fight as soldiers for the South. In the words of Georgia Senator Howell Cobb, "You cannot make soldiers of slaves or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution, and if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Thus Americans, North and South, ended the war understanding what slaves had known from its beginning: that this great war spelled the destruction of the institution of slavery.

1 comment:

  1. Indeed, Secretary of State Seward was right when he suggested that the “Union would need a military victory before he [Lincoln] could issue the Emancipation Proclamation.” And that oh-so-close victory came on September 17, 1862 at Antietam, Maryland.

    But if it hadn’t been for the near miraculous discovery on the eve of battle by Union soldiers of General Lee’s “lost order” (Special Order 191), the Confederates might well have won the day and moved on to threaten Washington D.C. It is perhaps not too farfetched to suggest that the Emancipation Proclamation’s time-table was not curtailed, thanks to a “careless courier.”

    Tim Utter