Tag Archives: slavery

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.
Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, slavery

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:

Leave a comment

Filed under 1800s, American history, battle, Civil War, General Grant, Presidents, slavery, United States

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).

1 Comment

Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, Congress, history, Presidents, slavery, United States

Thomas Day – “A Free Person of Color”

In my novel New Garden, p. 140, I make a brief reference to Thomas Day:

Ellen McAllister had selected all of the home’s furnishings with the exception of those in her husband’s study. Some came from her childhood home in southside Virginia, but most were made by Thomas Day, a free African-American furniture maker who operated a shop in Milton, North Carolina.

Statue of Thomas Day

Statue of Thomas Day (Source: NCPedia.org)

Anyone familiar with the work of Thomas Day knows that antebellum wealthy citizens of North Carolina and Virginia, especially tobacco plantation owners in the Dan River Basin on the Virginia-North Carolina border, prized furniture manufactured by Day.

Day was born in 1801 in southern Virginia, the child of “free persons of color.” He learned his cabinet making skills from his father, who moved the family to Warren County in 1817. In 1825, Day moved to Milton in Caswell County on the Virginia border.

Day quickly acquired a reputation for excellence. Buyers sought not only his furniture, but also fireplace mantles, stair railings, and newel posts for their homes. His pieces were largely of the popular Empire style, but some details often deviated from the norm, giving them a unique sought-after Thomas Day touch. Demand grew to a point that by 1850, he operated the largest furniture factory in North Carolina. He used the latest tools of the period, including machinery powered by steam engines. His employees included slaves that he owned, who worked alongside white employees. In 1838, his white employees included five Moravians of German descent.

As was true in many other states in 1830, North Carolina law prohibited free blacks from migrating into the state. Day had fallen in love with a free black Virginian, Aquilla Wilson. Day’s reputation within North Carolina’s elite was such that 61 white citizens of Milton signed a petition to the state legislature asking that an exception to the law be made for Miss Wilson. The exception was granted, allowing Thomas and Aquilla Day to live together as man and wife.

Milton Presbyterian Church

Milton Presbyterian Church (Source: LearnNC.org)

Day straddled two worlds. He catered to the white elite while negotiating the laws that restricted the movements of persons of color. He sent his children to Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts for their education. He attended at least one abolitionist meeting in New York City in 1850. On the other hand, his shop built the pews for Milton Presbyterian Church, where his family sat among the white parishioners while slaves and other free persons of color sat upstairs. By 1850, he also owned fourteen slaves, but they likely were slaves in name only, as North Carolina law placed severe restrictions on manumission of slaves. New Garden, p. 202.

Like most American businesses, Day’s enterprise suffered from the economic downturn brought on by the Panic of 1857. Day died in 1861, but he had left an indelible mark on the North Carolina economy, an example of what a free African American could accomplish if given only the slightest chance to succeed.

Thomas Day's workshop in Milton, NC

Thomas Day’s workshop in Milton, NC (Source: LearnNC.org)

For more about Thomas Day, go to the following sources:

Leave a comment

Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, history, North Carolina, slavery

The 1860 Democratic National Convention: Seeds of Self-Destruction

1860 DNC in Charleston, SC (Source: Wisconsin Historical Society)

1860 DNC in Charleston, SC (Source: Wisconsin Historical Society)

It sounds outrageously preposterous today, a Democratic national convention held in Charleston, South Carolina. But the Democratic party of April 1860 was very different from the one of today.

Northern and Southern Democrats were fiercely anti-abolitionist, the primary difference being that Northern Democrats supported Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine, whereby federal law would not protect slavery in any territory where the people did not want it. Southern Democrats would hear none of it, demanding a government that supported the rights of masters to employ their slaves wherever, whenever, and however they wished. They were accustomed to a Southern-dominated Supreme Court, a Southerner or a Southern sympathizer in the White House, and an equally divided Senate that protected slave owners’ rights as new states were admitted into the Union. They feared the prospect of new states tilting the balance in the Senate as Americans settled territory not conducive to a slave-based economy.

Senator Stephen Douglas (Source: The New York Times)

Senator Stephen Douglas (Source: The New York Times)

The Democratic delegates expected Senator William Seward of New York to win the Republican nomination. Republicans accepted slavery where it was already legal, but opposed its further expansion. A unified Democratic Party could win the White House only by winning some states outside the South’s borders.

Many Southern delegates saw little difference between Seward’s position and that of Douglas if future states were likely to outlaw slavery anyway. The Southern “Fire Eaters” wanted more and were prepared to go their own way if they didn’t get it. They demanded a plank in the party platform providing:

. . . that the Democracy of the United States hold these cardinal principles on the subject of slavery in the Territories; First, that Congress has no power to abolish slavery in the Territories; Second, that the Territorial Legislature has no power to abolish slavery in any Territory, nor to prohibit the introduction of slaves therein, nor any power to exclude slavery therefrom, nor any right to destroy or impair the right of property in slaves by any legislation whatever.

It was too much for the Northern delegates to swallow. The Douglas forces won a hollow victory when the plank was voted down. But Douglas needed two thirds of the delegates’ support to win the nomination. The Fire Eaters walked out when they did not get their way and the chairman ruled a candidate had to win two thirds of the delegates including in that number the delegates who had walked out. The delegates agreed to reconvene in Baltimore in June.

Senator William Seward (Source: About.com)

Senator William Seward (Source: About.com)

In Baltimore the Douglas forces got a new chairman, new rules, and pro-Douglas delegates from the cotton states, thereby securing the nomination. The Fire Eaters held their own convention, nominating the sitting vice-president, John Breckinridge. The party had split, paving the way for Lincoln’s, not Seward’s, election. Six months later, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.

Thus, although the first shots were not fired until April 12, 1861, the seeds of self-destruction were sown in the same city one year earlier.

For an excellent historical account of the Charleston convention, see chapter 1 of Bruce Catton’s The Coming Fury (1961). For a fictional account (with the same results), see chapter 62 of my novel, New Garden (2013), where one of the principal characters serves as a North Carolina delegate.

1 Comment

Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, slavery, Uncategorized

Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight

A Vietnam War protest (Source: Haverford Blog)

A Vietnam War protest (Source: Haverford Blog)

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, I often heard the expression “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” in the context of the Vietnam War but gave little thought to the expression’s origins. The sentiment was given voice in numerous protest songs, perhaps most poignantly by Credence Clearwater Revival in Fortunate Son.

Those on the battlefront largely come from the less fortunate among us. It was true in the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Vietnam War. It is true today.

In the 1840s, recruiting officers filled the ranks of the American army by going into German and Irish ghettos of America’s cities. The foreign born accounted for more than 40% of the army’s enlisted men. [John S.D. Eisenhower, So Far From God, U.S. War with Mexico 1846-1848, p. 35, Anchor Books (1990)] Recruiting strategy has changed very little since that time.

Volunteers filled the ranks of both armies early during the Civil War, but with one-year enlistments about to expire, the Confederates extended the enlistments and implemented America’s first draft in April, 1862. The conscription law provided exemptions for various professions, including civil servants.

Four months later, the Confederate Congress passed a more controversial exemption, one for owners of twenty or more slaves. Thus, those who had been the principal driving force for war, wealthy planters, now became exempt (although a number of course would serve in the Confederate ranks). At the eve of the war, the fair market value of twenty slaves was between $20,000 and $30,000, which is equivalent to between $400,000 and $600,000 in today’s currency.

Burning of an African-American orphan asylum (Source: New York City Draft Riots Blog)

Burning of an African American orphan asylum (Source: New York City Draft Riots Blog)

The Union followed with its own draft law in March, 1863, whereby a lottery was conducted in each Congressional district to meet that district’s quota. The law allowed a man to escape the draft if he paid a commutation fee of $300 (good until the next lottery drawing). He could escape the draft altogether by hiring a substitute. Both J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie escaped the battlefront by hiring substitutes.

The law met protests in the North. The worst degenerated into the New York City draft riots in July, 1863, culminating in the lynching of African Americans and the widespread destruction of property. [Iver Bernstein, New York City Draft Riots, Oxford University Press (1990)] Many Northern white workers resented being sent to the front lines to end slavery every bit as much as poor white Southerners resented having to fight so their wealthy neighbors could expand slavery beyond their borders.

The New York City draft riots (Source: New York City Draft Riots Blog)

An African American man is hanged and buildings are burned during the NYC Draft Riots (Source: New York City Draft Riots Blog)

Citizens north and south understood that while the rich and powerful had concluded only war could settle their differences, the poor among them would do most of the killing and dying that decided the contest.  And even today – over 150 years later – we see that these roles have not changed much in times of war.

2 Comments

Filed under 1800s, 1900s, American history, Civil War, history, riots, Vietnam War

Quakers as Slave Owners

Levi Coffin (Source: The Full Wiki)

Levi Coffin (Source: The Full Wiki)

Anyone who has studied the antebellum period knows that slavery violated Quaker principles and that some Quakers participated in the Underground Railroad. One of the most notable Quakers in the Underground Railroad was Levi Coffin, who was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, but as a young man moved to Indiana and later to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he served in the unofficial capacity of “president” of the Underground Railroad). But it was not always so. For well over one hundred years, slave ownership did not violate Quaker principles. Some Quakers owned slaves prior to the American Revolution and others retained that status even after the American colonists won their freedom from Great Britain.

The Levi Coffin House (Source: LittleIndiana.com)

The Levi Coffin House (Source: LittleIndiana.com)

In that most propitious of years, 1776, the Society of Friends made the purchase of slaves a disownable offense (i.e., a Quaker who persisted in violating that principle would be taken off the rolls of the Society). The issue then became how to handle those Quakers who already owned slaves or those who inherited slaves at a later date. The Society of Friends’ practice with respect to all Quaker principles was to persuade non-compliant Quakers to desist from actions inconsistent with those principles.

That was easier said than done in North Carolina, where state law forbade owners from freeing their slaves absent proof of some “meritorious” act, largely defined as some form of heroic conduct. The owner was also required to post bond with the court in an amount equal to the slave’s value – not easy when money was in short supply.

So how did North Carolina Quakers bring themselves into compliance with their religious principles if they lacked the wherewithal to post bond or proof of meritorious conduct? The North Carolina Yearly Meeting  (hereinafter “NC Society of Friends”) remedied the issue in 1808 by providing that Quaker slave owners could clear their consciences by transferring the slaves, in trust, to – drum roll please – the Society of Friends! Thus, the NC Society of Friends became one of the largest slave owners in the state.

In 1828, the NC Society of Friends owned more than seven hundred slaves. Of course, these African Americans were not treated as slaves, although they retained that status under North Carolina law. Over the years, the Quakers gradually achieved the slaves’ freedom by transferring the slaves to Quakers who left North Carolina to live in free states. Upon arrival in a free state, the Quaker “slave owner” would then set the slave free.

Thus, one should understand that although Quakers reached their anti-slavery principles almost ninety years before the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed the practice, they, too, took time to reject the institution as inconsistent with their moral principles and religious beliefs. Of course, they reached that conclusion without a bloodbath that took over six hundred thousand American lives.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see Seth B. Hinshaw’s The Carolina Quaker Experience (Chapter 12, “Effects of Slavery in the South”), Thomson-Shore, Inc., Dexter, MI (1984).

3 Comments

Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, Quakers, slavery, Uncategorized, Underground Railroad