Tag Archives: Civil War

The Emancipation Proclamation and the Evolution of Lincoln’s Views on Slavery

As I mentioned in my previous article, I serve as a docent at the Greensboro Historical Museum. The museum currently has among its exhibits one of the 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln in 1864. The copies were sold to raise money to care for wounded Union soldiers. The original proclamation, of course, was issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863.

I thought this would be a good time to correct some misunderstandings about the famous document and to discuss how Lincoln’s own thinking evolved about the subject of slavery. Every president takes an oath of office whereby he or she swears to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Thus, if Lincoln – a seasoned lawyer of at least regional if not national reputation – wished to extend freedom to those held in bondage, he was well aware that he had to do so consistent with the Constitution. (In 1863, the United States Constitution did not include the Thirteenth Amendment, which in 1865 abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.)

So, Lincoln relied on his Constitutional war powers as authority to declare free all persons held as slaves in states, or designated parts of states, “then in rebellion.” The proclamation did not release the bonds of slaves then living in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and parts of Louisiana and Virginia (including the counties that had seceded from Virginia to form West Virginia, and other counties under Union control). Lincoln wished to retain his tenuous hold on the border states and was prepared to allow slavery to continue there to preserve as much of the Union as possible. Critics complained that the proclamation granted freedom to slaves where he lacked the military capacity to enforce it and kept them in bondage where he had the military might to guarantee their freedom.

Source: CivilWar.org

Source: CivilWar.org

Whatever Lincoln’s personal views about slavery, his first priority was to hold the Union together. Various anecdotes indicate that Lincoln’s views evolved during the course of the war. He campaigned on a Republican platform that slavery would not be allowed in any new states carved out of United States territories. Slavery would remain legal where it already existed. He likely hoped it would wither on the vine. But Southern politicians saw execution of such a platform as the first step in a major shift in the existing balance of power between the free states and the slave states. Thus, before Lincoln took the oath of office, seven states made the fateful decision to attempt to extricate themselves from their existing governmental relationship with their northern brethren, thereby accelerating the end of the peculiar institution they hoped to preserve.

The idea certainly began earlier, but in July 1862, Lincoln raised the prospect of an emancipation proclamation with his cabinet officers. At the time, Union armies were faring poorly in the field and some officers argued that under then-existing conditions, it would look like a last gasp effort by a government headed to defeat. Lincoln agreed that any such proclamation should await a significant Union victory.

That victory came on September 17, 1862, at Antietam. There, General McClellan’s forces won a bloody, hard-fought battle against General Lee. Although in what would become an all-too-common theme, McClellan failed to pursue and destroy Lee’s army after the victory, it was nonetheless a victory on whose peg Lincoln could hang the proclamation. He issued a preliminary proclamation on September 22. The proclamation allowed slavery in any rebel state that chose to return to the Union before January 1. All of the rebel states remained in rebellion.

In meetings with African-American leaders, Lincoln suggested that once freed, blacks should leave the United States because he could not see the white and black races living side by side in harmony. Black leaders rebuked such a suggestion, noting that generations of slaves had lived in the United States for over 200 years. They had earned the right to share the bounties of democracy on an equal footing with the white race. In time, he accepted the argument, but not without reservation. Generations of free blacks would find that freedom did not mean equality.

Back to the constitutional authority for the Emancipation Proclamation. Rebels depended upon slave labor to prop up the war effort. They built trenches and military fortifications. They sowed and harvested fruits and vegetables. They raised and slaughtered the livestock. They produced the cotton that provided the rebel government the financial means to prosecute the war. They were a significant component of the Confederate war effort. Depriving the South of that component, in turn, would greatly enhance the Union’s chances of suppressing the rebellion.

Lincoln certainly harbored doubts about his constitutional authority to suppress slavery once hostilities drew to a close. There would no longer be a war to justify freedom for the slaves. Thus, his campaign for the Thirteenth Amendment, to guarantee the end of slavery in the United States. But for the moment, and indeed for the generations that have followed, the Emancipation Proclamation served as a historically powerful first step – recognition by our nation’s chief executive that slavery is an evil incongruous with democracy.

SOURCES:

I wrote this article based on dozens of books and articles on the subject. Three excellent sources are:

  • Catton, Bruce. Terrible Swift Sword. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1961 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, New York, in 2009).
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.
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My Second Book: Trouble at Mono Pass

Cover of my second book, Trouble at Mono Pass

Trouble at Mono Pass cover

As far back as I can recall, I have wanted to write a history-based novel. But between working a demanding full-time job, raising a kid, and just life in general, I started and stopped the book more times than I can count. Upon my fairly recent retirement, I had run out of excuses and finally published my first book, New Garden, in 2013.

Two years later, I am excited to announce that my second historical novel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is now available in paperback and later this month as an eBook.

The novels follow two Quaker brothers from Guilford County, NC, where my wife and I have lived for 30+ years (yes, I am dating myself here). In New Garden, both brothers break ties with their faith in order to pursue very different life paths. The book provides insights into American life in 1835-1865, including the practices and customs of nineteenth-century Quakers and the complex relationships in a slaveholding society.

Here is a teaser from my second book, Trouble at Mono Pass.

 “Why is the train stopping?” asked Ellen nervously.

Kate laughed. “It’s just the last pause before the train descends to the east.” She took Ellen’s hands. “Don’t worry. I’ve taken the train a hundred times.”

Next, they heard the faint metal grind of Wessels decoupling their car from the dining car. Several minutes later, when the forward cars were well beyond earshot, the girls heard a scuffle in the caboose. Wessels barged into the passenger car, waving a pistol. “Outside, girls!” he shouted.

The girls did as ordered, and walked out of the darkness of the snowshed into the daylight to see four horsemen heading their way with a string of horses behind them. Ellen and Kate held each other tight as they realized only their car and the caboose sat on the tracks. They watched in horror as Melon dragged Tyson’s bloody body from the caboose and tossed it at their feet. One hundred feet down the line, Jackson and Appleton pried two outside rails from the railroad ties and loosened the bolts from the fishplates that connected them to the adjacent rails. Wessels released the brakes, sending the car and caboose plunging into the ravine beyond their view. Jackson and Appleton put the rails back into place as quickly as they had removed them. The girls now realized no train passengers or employees headed this way would detect anything amiss.

“Mount up, ladies,” ordered Crawford, as Rollins brought the empty horses their way. * * * *

If you like the excerpt, please spread the word. The book is available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The e-Book version will be available at the end of March from Amazon.com, Apple (iBooks), and Barnes & Noble.com.

Cover of my first book, New Garden

Cover of my first book, New Garden

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Grant at His Best

General Sheridan (Source: AmericanCivilWar.com)

General Sheridan (Source: AmericanCivilWar.com)

In my most recent article, I described the battle of Cold Harbor as Grant at his worst and at his best. I said enough about Grant at his worst. Now about Grant at his best. He could have sat at Cold Harbor, numbed by a horrible loss, just hoping to keep Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia at bay while Sherman drove through Georgia. But he obviously did not. He remained resilient.

In later years, he acknowledged his failure at Cold Harbor. But he aimed to destroy Lee’s army. To do so, he had to stretch Lee’s troops to the breaking point. If Grant could lay siege to Richmond and Petersburg, Lee knew surrender was only a matter of time. Grant did so in a way that in retrospect may be perceived as reckless, but was bold in design and brilliant in execution.

On Tuesday, June 7, General Phil Sheridan led two Union cavalry divisions northwest toward Charlottesville. Lee had no choice but to order General Wade Hampton to respond in kind, taking his cavalry to intercept Sheridan. The cavalry served as the commander’s eyes, scouting the enemy’s movements. Without Hampton in the vicinity of Cold Harbor, Lee could no longer keep an eye on Grant. Of course, that was part of Grant’s plan, along with an assault by General Benjamin Butler on Beauregard’s forces at Petersburg.

Ten miles downriver from Cold Harbor, Grant’s engineers laid a half-mile pontoon bridge across the James River. Had Lee learned about the crossing in time, he could have destroyed Grant’s army. Sheridan’s diversion and the

Wade Hampton (Source: National Park Service)

Wade Hampton (Source: National Park Service)

Union army’s deliberate withdrawal from Cold Harbor allowed Grant to “steal a march” on Lee. By Monday, June 13, the Yankees were across the James and Grant had set up headquarters at City Point (modern day Hopewell). Lee could only hope to prevent Grant from overrunning Richmond. Lee did that much, in part because of Union generals’ blunders, but he could not prevent the Union siege that would drive the Confederate army and local civilians to starvation.

The South’s hopes now lay in holding out until Tuesday, November 8, the date of the national election. If the South could avoid a major loss before that date, Southern leaders were certain Lincoln could not be reelected and that they could negotiate a peace with Lincoln’s successor. That was a big “if.” Sherman drove through Georgia and the Carolinas and Sheridan laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley. By Election Day the only question was Lincoln’s margin of victory.

Historical Sources:

 

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Bloody May: Grant’s 1864 Campaign Against Lee

This month marks the 150th anniversary of Union General U.S. Grant’s campaign to destroy Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Portrait of General Meade (Source: SmithsonianAssociates.org)

Portrait of General Meade (Source: SmithsonianAssociates.org)

As Virginia’s many rivers go, the Rapidan receives scant notice. Its headwaters begin 4,000 feet above sea level near the Big Meadows in the Blue Ridge. From there, the river descends east, gradually widening until it flows into the Rappahannock River northwest of Charlottesville and Fredericksburg. During the winter of 1863-1864, every American identified the river as the boundary line between General Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

On Wednesday, May 4, 1864, Grant sent Meade’s 120,000 soldiers across the Rapidan on pontoon bridges constructed by the army’s engineers at two points: Ely’s Ford and Germanna Ford. Grant was determined to destroy Lee’s 60,000-man army and capture Richmond in the process.

Throughout the month of May, Grant and Lee danced their deadly Tarantella, suffering losses in proportion to their numbers. In the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, the Union army suffered casualties – killed, wounded, or captured – of 36,000 men while the Confederate casualties totaled 24,000. To put the losses in perspective, one has to remember that the United States population today is ten times that of 1864 (taking into account populations both north and south).

Battle of the Wilderness, Attack at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, 1865; Painting by Alonzo Chappel (Source: 1stArtGallery.com)

Battle of the Wilderness, Attack at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, 1865; Painting by Alonzo Chappel (Source: 1stArtGallery.com)

Despite the heavy losses, Grant continued forward, unlike the Union commanders who preceded him. He made “turn the left flank” the order of the day, and by Thursday, June 2, Union troops had fought their way within ten air miles of Richmond. Both commanders replenished their losses. Grant received 40,000 fresh troops in the second half of May, most from the “heavy artillery” units in and around Washington, who previously had seen action only on Washington’s parade grounds. Lee had to move Confederate troops south of Richmond and in North Carolina to bring his troop strength back to his original 60,000. By doing so, Lee risked a rout from the rear.

June would open with a shocking loss for the Union troops. I will address that in another article.

Most of this brief account is taken from my Civil War era novel, New Garden (pages 275-276), available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel is also available in Greensboro, NC, at the Greensboro Historical Museum and Scuppernong Books.

For historical sources about Grant’s campaign, I recommend the following:

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Happy Days Are Here Again: The 1869 Inauguration

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States (Source: Whitehouse.gov)

(Source: Whitehouse.gov)

The theme song from the 1930 movie “Chasing Rainbows” was the campaign song for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful 1932 Presidential campaign and would become the unofficial campaign song of the Democratic Party for years to come. But the song’s spirit aptly describes the atmosphere of Ulysses S. Grant’s first inauguration.

Grant’s opponent, former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, had waged an ugly, racist campaign. During the months between his nomination in May and his election in November, Grant had spent most of his time in his hometown of Galena, Illinois, and the rest of his time exploring America’s Great Plains. As was customary in most Presidential campaigns of the nineteenth century, Grant had left the public speaking to others.

The town’s citizens were in a celebratory mood. They had endured four years of war and almost four years with President Andrew Johnson and Congress at each other’s throat, culminating in Johnson’s narrow escape from conviction at his impeachment trial the past spring.

 Julia Boggs Dent Grant (Source: National First Ladies' Library)

Julia Boggs Dent Grant (Source: National First Ladies’ Library)

Although the air was cool and misty on Thursday morning, March 4, 1869, eager onlookers crowded the streets of the nation’s capital. All of them wanted a glimpse of the President-elect, the man who had brought an end to the Civil War. Some in the crowd wanted to see the First Lady, Julia Dent Grant, bringing their spyglasses to determine if there was any truth to the rumor that her brown eyes peered in two different directions.

Grant had won the election in an electoral landslide. Within the next few months, work crews two thousand miles to the west would complete the wonder of the age, the transcontinental railroad. Land-hungry men, North and South, were filling America’s vast territories. Scandals about Congressional bribes and generous payments to railroad companies would come, but on inauguration day citizens took a deep breath and celebrated the war hero who promised to bring peace to a recently reunited nation.

Sources:

 

 

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May 9, 2014 · 7:04 pm

The Fugitive Slave Law and Runaways

Printed in 1851, this flier was circulated around Boston and warned African-Americans of the Fugitive Slave acts, which legalized the capture and return of any runaway slaves (Source: Harvard Square Library)

This poster was distributed around Boston and warned African-Americans of the Fugitive Slave acts, which legalized the capture and return of runaway slaves. (Source: Harvard Square Library)

In 1850, Congressional leaders made their last valiant efforts to forestall conflict between the North and the South. However, in their attempts to reach some form of compromise, they unwittingly set the stage for the Civil War.

Some might say that civil war was the price the United States paid for orchestrating war with Mexico in 1848. By invading Mexico, or at least by sending troops to contested territory, the United States ultimately gained a huge swath of land that included modern day California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Like Thomas Jefferson before them when he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, most American leaders probably believed it would take generations before much of the new territory would be ripe for statehood. But history is full of unforeseen consequences, and James Marshall’s gold discovery in Coloma, California, accelerated the process by attracting sufficient numbers of Americans who wanted statehood. More importantly, California’s citizens had enacted a constitution that prohibited slavery.

For years, Southern leaders had sought to maintain balance in the United States Senate, admitting a free state to the union only while admitting a slave state at the same time. In 1850, they had many demands on the table: carving up Texas into a number of states in an effort to maintain equal representation in the Senate; continued legality of slavery in the nation’s capital, anathema to antislavery Northerners; and a stricter fugitive slave law to insure recovery of runaway slaves.

Anti-slavery forces in the North also had an agenda: admission of California and other future states acquired from the Mexican War as free states and abolition of the slave trade in the nation’s capital.

1850 also saw the last great stand of the Senate’s most famous orators: Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, John Calhoun of South Carolina, and Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay sought to ease tensions by proposing a series of resolutions. Each resolution offered something to the North, balanced with an inducement to the South. His strategy failed, but Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s chief opponent for the presidency ten years later, succeeded by gathering enough votes from Upper South and Midwest representatives, who approved the package as a whole.

Painting titled "Effects of the Fugitive-Slave Law" (Source: Library of Congress)

Painting titled “Effects of the Fugitive-Slave Law” (Source: Library of Congress)

Before the Compromise of 1850, a 1793 federal statute authorized Southerners to enter free states to capture runaway slaves, but state authorities were not obligated to enforce the law. Prigg v. Pennsylvania (United States Supreme Court 1842). One of the compromise’s components, the Fugitive Slave Law, sought to remedy Southerners’ dissatisfaction with existing law by creating a category of federal commissioners empowered to arrest and return runaways to their owners. The law also gave the commissioners authority to deputize any citizen to assist in enforcement of the law.

While many Northerners did not object to slavery where it lawfully existed, they took great exception to playing any role in its enforcement. Southern slave owners, who thought they finally had obtained a meaningful process for retrieving their fugitive property, fumed about Northerners’ resistance to the law’s enforcement and Northern states’ passage of personal liberty laws designed to thwart the enforcement of the law. Within a year of the law’s enactment, it became clear that enacting a law is considerably less difficult than executing it. After 1851, few runaways were returned to their owners under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Law.

For a fictional but faithful account of a runaway slave’s stop at an Underground Railroad station, please see the “Runaway” chapter in my historical novel, New Garden, available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel’s “Charleston” chapter about the Democratic Convention of 1860 also depicts Southern politicians’ dissatisfaction with Northerners’ resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law.

For a more detailed historical account of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law, see Professor James McPherson’s Ordeal by Fire, pages 70-89 (3rd Edition, McGraw Hill 2001).

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Judah Benjamin – Indispensable Adviser to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln’s second Secretary of War was the North’s most brilliant legal mind of the Civil War era. The South’s most brilliant legal mind of the era was Judah Benjamin, former United States Senator from Louisiana. Benjamin served Davis, first as Attorney General, then as Secretary of War, and finally as Secretary of State. He easily was the most prominent Jewish politician of his day (and, yes, I repeat, from Louisiana).

Benjamin was the second Jewish United States Senator, the first being David Levy Yulee of Florida. Both men were born outside the United States, Benjamin in St. Croix and Yulee in St. Thomas.

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator (Source: bioguide.congress.gov)

Benjamin served as Davis’s most trusted adviser throughout the war. Like his Northern counterpart Stanton, Benjamin succeeded an administrator who was not up to the task. As Secretary of War, he butted heads with many of the South’s strong-minded generals, including Joe Johnston and Stonewall Jackson. Jackson submitted his letter of resignation after one such incident, only to have the letter returned to him.  [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville, p. 224 (1958) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

As Secretary of State, Benjamin joined a unanimous cabinet recommending that Davis dismiss General Joe Johnston during the Atlanta campaign. Of Johnston, Benjamin said, “[he] is determined not to fight, it is of no use to re-enforce him, he is not going to fight.” [Catton, Never Call Retreat, p. 330 (1965) (2009 Fall River Press edition)] Davis’s decision to replace Johnston with John Bell Hood proved disastrous. Hood “was determined to fight,” but suffered twenty thousand casualties in the process, troops the South could ill afford to lose, leaving Georgia and the Carolinas largely defenseless against Sherman’s army. [Id., p. 383]

More in line with his duties as Secretary of State, Benjamin attempted through his ministers to obtain Great Britain’s and France’s official recognition of the Confederacy as a nation independent of the United States. Twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, 1863, doomed any such aspirations. Afterwards, Benjamin expressed his belief that the South never had much hope of securing such recognition from Great Britain:

When successful fortune smiles on our arms, the British cabinet is averse to recognition because “it would be unfair to the South by the action of Great Britain to exasperate the North to renewed efforts.” When reverses occur “it would be unfair to the North in a moment of success to deprive it of a reasonable opportunity of accomplishing a reunion of the States.”

[Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fredericksburg to Meridian, p. 655 (1963) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Benjamin remained loyal to Davis to the end, traveling with him and his “cabinet on wheels” from Richmond, to Danville, to Greensboro, to Charlotte, and finally into South Carolina. Finally concluding that the cause was lost, Benjamin conferred with Davis and then traveled “south to the Florida coast, then Bimini, and he set out disguised variously as a farmer and a Frenchman, with a ramshackle cart, a spavined horse, and a mismatched suit of homespun clothes.” Remarkably, Benjamin ultimately landed in Great Britain where he enjoyed a long and successful career as a British barrister. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 1007 and 1049 (1974) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Truly, Judah Benjamin was a remarkable man in a remarkable time.

For more information about Judah Benjamin, see Jonathan Tilove, “Judah P. Benjamin, ‘the Confederate Kissinger,’ Featured in Louisiana State Archives Exhibit,” The Times Picayune (April 20, 2010), www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/04/judah_p_benjamin.

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