Modern history

Fighting for Union or against slavery?

The Union and the Confederacy faced very different tasks in the war. The South had to defend its territory and force the federal government to halt military action. The North had to bring the Confederacy to its knees by invading the South and isolating it from potential allies abroad. While most northern leaders believed that the nation could be reunited without challenging the institution of slavery, enslaved Southerners immediately looked for ways to loosen their bonds. Meanwhile northern abolitionists worked to convince Lincoln and Congress that only emancipation could resolve the problems that had led to war.

Debating the Role of African Americans

The outbreak of war intensified debates over abolition. Some 225,000 African Americans lived in the free states, and many offered their services in the hopes that victory would lead to the emancipation of southern slaves. At a recruitment meeting in Cleveland, African American leaders proclaimed, “Today, as in the times of ’76, we are ready to go forth and do battle in the common cause of our country.” But Secretary of War Simon Cameron had no intention of calling up black soldiers, and some local officials prohibited African American recruitment meetings.

Northern optimism about a quick victory contributed to the rejection of black soldiers. Union leaders also feared that whites would not enlist if they had to serve alongside blacks. In addition, Lincoln and his advisers were initially wary of letting a war to preserve the Union become a war against slavery, and they feared that any further threat to slavery might drive the four slave states that remained in the Union into the Confederacy. African Americans and their supporters nevertheless believed that the war opened a door to freedom and that continued pressure might convince Union leaders to change their minds. As activist Amy Post proclaimed, “The abolitionists surely have a job to do now in influencing and directing the bloody struggle, that it may end in Emancipation.”

For their part, southern slaves quickly realized that the presence of Union troops made freedom a distinct possibility. Enslaved workers living near battle sites circulated information on Union troop movements. Then, as slaveholders in Virginia began to send male slaves to more distant plantations for fear of losing them, some slaves chose to flee. Those who could headed to Union camps, where they provided labor as well as knowledge of the local terrain and the location of Confederate forces. Slave owners, in turn, followed fugitives into Union camps and demanded their return. Some Union commanders denied slaves entrance or returned them to their masters, but a few Union officers saw the value of embracing these fugitives.

On the night of May 23, 1861, for example, three Virginia slaves paddled upriver to the Union outpost at Fort Monroe, requesting sanctuary from General Benjamin Butler. Butler was no abolitionist, but he realized that slaves were valuable assets to the Union cause and so offered them military protection. He claimed fugitive slaves as contraband of war: property forfeited by the act of rebellion. As news of Butler’s decision spread, more runaways sought refuge at Fort Monroe. Within four days, another sixty-seven slaves had arrived at “Freedom Fort.”

Lincoln endorsed Butler’s policy as a legitimate tactic of war because it allowed the Union to strike at the institution of slavery without proclaiming a general emancipation that might prompt the border states with slaves to secede. Congress expanded Butler’s policy. On August 6, 1861, it passed a confiscation act, proclaiming that any slave owner whose bondsmen were used by the Confederate army would lose all claim to those slaves. Although it was far from a clear-cut declaration of freedom, the act spurred the hopes of abolitionists.

Fighting for the Right to Fight

From the start, the Union army recruited a wide array of Americans. Indeed, nearly every ethnic and racial group served in Union ranks except African Americans. German and Irish immigrants; Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish Americans; native-born whites from the Northeast and Midwest; and Mexican American soldiers in the West all fought with the Union army. In an effort to eliminate this one exception, abolitionists had long argued that African Americans would make excellent soldiers, and Radical Republicans in Congress emphasized the military advantages ofallowing black enlistment. As Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner explained, “You will observe that I propose no crusade for abolition. [Emancipation] is to be presented strictly as a measure of military necessity.”

MAP 13.1

Early Civil War Battles, 1861-1862 In 1861 and 1862, the Confederate army stunned Union forces with a series of dramatic victories in Virginia and Missouri. However, the Union army won a crucial victory at Antietam (Sharpsburg); gained control of Confederate territory in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi; fended off Confederate efforts to gain New Mexico Territory; and established a successful naval blockade of Confederate ports.

Meanwhile American Indians fought on both sides. The Comanches negotiated with both Union and Confederate agents while raiding the Texas frontier for horses and cattle. The Confederacy gained the greatest support from slaveholding Indians who had earlier been removed from the Southeast. The Cherokee general Stand Watie led a panIndian force that battled alongside white Confederate troops on the western frontier. However, most members of the Cherokee and other southeastern tribes, along with Osage, Delaware, and Seneca Indians, sided with the Union. Ely Parker, a Seneca sachem and engineer, rose to become a lieutenant colonel in the Union army, serving with General Ulysses S. Grant.

While some Indian regiments were rejected by state officials, African Americans were barred from enlisting by federal authority. In 1862, however, a series of military defeats helped transform northern attitudes. Although Union forces gained ground along the southern Mississippi River, they lost important battles farther north. In the spring of 1862, Confederate troops led by Stonewall Jackson won a series of stunning victories against three Union armies in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. That June and July, General Robert E. Lee fought General George B. McClellan to a standstill in the Seven Days Battle near Richmond. Then in August, Lee, Jackson, and General James Longstreet joined forces to defeat Union troops at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Map 13.1).

As the war turned against the North, the North turned against slavery. In April 1862, Congress approved a measure to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, symbolizing a significant shift in Union sentiment. During that bloody summer, Congress passed a second confiscation act, declaring that the slaves of anyone who supported the Confederacy should be “forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.” Finally, Congress passed a militia act that allowed “persons of African descent” to be employed in “any military or naval service for which they may be found competent.” Lincoln quickly signed these acts into law.

Yet support for the 1862 militia act also built on Union victories. In April 1862, a Union blockade led to the capture of New Orleans, while the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee provided the army entrée to the Mississippi valley. There Union troops came face-to-face with slavery. Few of these soldiers were abolitionists, but many were shocked by what they saw. At some captured plantations, soldiers discovered instruments used to torture slaves. One Union soldier reported he had seen “enough of the horror of slavery to make one an Abolitionist forever.” Local blacks also provided valuable intelligence to Union officers.

The rising death toll also increased support for African American enlistment. The Battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest battle in American history up to that point. Earlier battles had resulted in a few hundred or even a few thousand casualties, but Shiloh raised the carnage to a new level. General Grant marveled, “I saw an open field . . . so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping only on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” As the war continued, such deadly battles became routine. The Union army would need every available man to sustain its effort against the Confederates.

Amid the roller coaster of victory and defeat, African Americans gave practical force to the 1862 militia act. In October 1862, a group of African American soldiers in the First Kansas Colored Volunteers repulsed Confederates at a battle in Missouri. Early the next year, another black regiment—the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth—attracted recruits from across the North. Frederick Douglass helped recruit a hundred men from New York State, including his three sons—Charles, Lewis, and Frederick Jr. In the South, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson and other abolitionist officers organized former slaves into units like the First South Carolina Volunteers. By late 1863, tens of thousands of African American soldiers were serving with distinction and contributing to key northern victories.

Union Politicians Consider Emancipation

By the fall of 1862, African Americans and abolitionists had gained widespread support for emancipation as a necessary goal of the war. In making a final decision, Lincoln and his cabinet had to consider numerous factors. Embracing abolition as a war aim would likely prevent international recognition of southern independence, a significant advantage; but it might also arouse deep animosity in the slaveholding border states and drive them from the Union.

International recognition was critical to the Confederacy. Support from European nations might persuade the North to accept southern independence. More immediately, recognition would ensure markets for southern agriculture and access to manufactured goods and war materiel. Confederate officials were especially focused on Britain, the leading market for cotton and a potentially important supplier of industrial products. President Davis considered sending Rose Greenhow to England to promote the Confederate cause among British textile workers and government officials, who were concerned about disruptions to their economy caused by the Union blockade.

Fearing that the British might capitulate to Confederate pressure, abolitionist lecturers toured Britain, reminding residents of their early leadership in the antislavery cause. The abolitionists recognized that the Union’s formal commitment to emancipation could give the North an edge in the battle for public opinion and prevent diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy. By the summer of 1862, Lincoln agreed. But he wanted to proclaim emancipation as a sign of Union strength, not weakness, so he waited for a victory before making a formal announcement.

A series of Union defeats in the summer of 1862 had allowed Lee to march his army into Union territory in Maryland. On September 17, Longstreet joined Lee in a fierce battle along Antietam Creek as Union troops brought the Confederate advance to a standstill near the town of Sharpsburg. Union forces suffered more than 12,000 casualties and the Confederates more than 10,000, the bloodiest single day in U.S. warfare. Yet because Lee and his army were forced to retreat, Lincoln claimed Antietam as a great victory. Five days later, the president announced his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to the assembled cabinet. He held firm despite a bloody defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, that December, when Confederate troops inflicted nearly 13,000 Union casualties while suffering only 5,000 of their own.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the final edict, proclaiming that slaves in areas still in rebellion were “forever free” and inviting them to enlist in the Union army. In many ways, the proclamation was a conservative document, applying only to slaves largely beyond the reach of federal power. Its provisions exempted from emancipation the 450,000 slaves in the loyal border states, 275,000 slaves in Union-occupied Tennessee, and tens of thousands more in Louisiana and Virginia. The proclamation also justified the abolition of southern slavery on military, not moral, grounds.

Despite its limits, the Emancipation Proclamation prompted joyous “Watch Meetings” as abolitionists and free blacks met to give thanks as the edict took effect. At black churches across the North, crowds sang “Glory Hallelujah,” “John Brown’s Body,” and “Marching On.” If the Union proved victorious, the Emancipation Proclamation promised a total transformation of southern society.


• What arguments did each side make in the debate over African American enlistment in the Union army?

• How and why did the Civil War become a war to end slavery?

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