The War Years


During the 1860 presidential campaign, Republicans usually dismissed as mere bluff Southern threats to secede from the Union if Lincoln were elected. Some Democrats had already warned of secession in the election of 1856, which pitted Democrat James Buchanan against Republican John C. Fremont and American Party candidate Millard Fillmore. Then, many voters had supported Buchanan as the only alternative to potential disaster, but in 1860, the Republicans refused to meet Southern threats by compromising their party's fundamental commitment to free-soil territories. Many Northerners had seen enough compromise, especially since the Missouri Compromise and Compromise of 1850 had not resolved the territorial dilemma.

Of course, the South would in fact make good on its threat. On Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina, through a convention of elected delegates, officially declared the state out of the union, sparking a string of secession votes in the lower South (Mississippi on Jan. 9, Florida on Jan. 10, Alabama on Jan. 11, Georgia on Jan. 19, Louisiana on Jan. 26, and Texas on Feb. 1). By the middle of February, the Confederacy certified its existence as a political entity by adopting a provisional constitution and electing Jefferson Davis as its provisional president.

The cartoon below, "South Carolina Topsey in a Fix," is a complex piece of anti-secessionist artistry. It imagines a scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was written in large part as a protest against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and which sold some 300,000 copies, more than any other American novel of the 19th century. The novel's sentimental depiction of the horrors of slavery outraged people both above and below the Mason-Dixon line (although for different reasons), further inflaming sectional tension. Toward the outset of the Civil War, when President Lincoln met Stowe, he reputedly commented, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."

The print embodies a subtly derisive irony in depicting secessionist South Carolina as Stowe's inveterately mischievous slave girl Topsey -- it indicates the degree to which the identity of the South depended, whether Southerners liked it or not, on its black population. Stowe's Miss Ophelia, a New England spinster who tries to reform Topsey's morals by teaching her to read the Bible, is recast as lady Columbia, a symbol of liberty and Republicanism, flanked by a liberty cap and bald eagle. She holds an American flag in her lap with several holes in the blue field where stars should be, and scolds the child.

"So, Topsey," Miss Ophelia says, "you're at the bottom of this piece of wicked work -- picking stars out of this sacred Flag! What would your forefathers say, do you think? I'll just hand you over to the new overseer, Uncle Abe. He'll fix you!" Topsey responds: "Never had no father, nor mother, nor nothing! I was raised by speculators! I's mighty wicked anyhow! 'What makes me ack so?' Dun no, missis -- I 'spects cause I's so wicked!" Another slave, probably representing a different secessionist state, runs down the stairs, saying, "Hand us over to ole Abe, eh? Ize off!"

Rich in meaning as this print may be, secession was a much more complex and dangerous situation than the image can convey. Early in 1861, when the print appeared, most Americans did not expect a civil war that would last four years and cost upwards of 620,000 lives. There was still hope that secession would be a temporary crisis, reversible through more negotiations and compromises between North and South ("voluntary reconstruction"). The four major states of the upper South -- Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas -- had not yet seceded, and those that had seceded wrestled with their own political divisions. As the spring wore on, however, the Confederacy gained momentum, conflicting positions regarding secession became more entrenched, and the nation hurtled toward the fateful shots at Fort Sumter and the commencement of all-out warfare.

The print also glosses over the reasons for secession. Southerners who sought disunion in the wake of the election of 1860 would not have described their mindset as "mighty wicked." Secessionists insisted that nothing less was at stake than the survival of the South's institutions, honor, wealth and regional character. Whether they believed all of their rhetoric remains an open question, but it is sure that many Southerners, especially in the deep South, regarded the election of a Republican as a watershed moment in American politics that foretokened the eventual demise of American slavery. The Republican party, after all, was directly born of the bitter struggle against the expansion of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska, and in its national platform, the party had committed itself to restricting slavery to the South.

What slaveowners and slavery advocates believed, however, was that restricting slavery really meant strangling it. Several interrelated concerns combined to feed this fear. Admitting only free states to the Union would increasingly isolate the South. The economy of the nation would move in an entirely different direction from that envisioned by the South. Free states would consolidate their control of the Congress and move to abolish slavery. And in the meantime, without more territory to accommodate the spread of slavery, the South would be overwhelmed by a burgeoning black population, raising the likelihood of slave insurrections and darkening the overall complexion of a once genteel society. On the proactive side, moreover, Southerners knew that fortunes were to be made in expanding their slave economy into new areas: the West, Cuba, and even Mexico.

In the rhetoric of secession, then, it is not surprising to find outright assertions of the rightness of slavery. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens baldly phrased it, "Our new government is founded upon ... the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. This our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

The logic of secession, moreover, rested on the idea that the United States Constitution, and therefore the authority of the existing federal government, depended fundamentally on the continuing voluntary agreement of the states, and that a party to the original "contract" could legally remove itself from all associated responsibilities. In South Carolina's rationale for secession, convention delegates maintained that "the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other." The delegates continued by accusing the government of violating the contract by permitting free states to interfere with constitutionally recognized property rights through abolition societies, the fomenting of slave insurrections, the granting of citizenship to ex-slaves, and so forth. The South, in short, defended its secession as not only necessary and prudent, but legal.

But secessionist logic ran headfirst into the more compelling arguments of the North, which inevitably fell back on the principle of majority rule. If any minority segment of the country -- any group that lost an election, any group with a grievance -- could legally bow out of the larger society, the hard-won success of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 would be effectively erased. Moreover, the splintering minority would in turn lay the seeds of its own disintegration by justifying any number of future secessions from itself. And most importantly, the legitimate will of the majority would be thwarted. As New England writer James Russell Lowell put it, "the country is weary of being cheated with plays upon words. The United States are a nation, and not a mass-meeting; theirs is a government, and not a caucus, -- a government that was meant to be capable, and is capable, of something more than the helpless please don't of a village constable ... Rebellion smells no sweeter because it is called Secession."

In Lincoln's first inaugural address, a delicate balancing act designed both to warn the South against persisting in its course and to reassure the South that slavery would not be abolished, the new President sounded the same theme as Lowell and countless others. "If the minority will not acquiesce," he said, "the majority must, or the government must cease. There is no other alternative; for continuing the government, is acquiescence on one side or the other."

As events would show, neither side was in the mood to acquiesce. With the intensification of rhetorical bluster and the erosion of a middle ground where compromise was possible, the country slid toward war. Shots finally sounded at Fort Sumter in April, 1861 (before the secession of the border states). The fort, located near Charleston, South Carolina, stood as a symbol of federal authority. After several months of an uneasy period of waiting -- a kind of sitzkrieg -- the South finally acted by firing on Fort Sumter when Lincoln moved to reinforce the under-provisioned garrison there.

The Progress of the War

The following images all touch upon the political and military relation of blacks to American society during the period of actual warfare. Somewhat surprisingly, not a great number of prints dealt specifically with issues of race and slavery, while those that did tended, predictably, to envision the issues from a white point of view.

One of the primary fears of the North during the first two years of the fighting was that Britain would provide military or economic assistance to the Confederacy in order to protect its access to Southern cotton, which to a degree supported the English textile industry. Although Britain remained highly ambivalent toward the war in America, and never officially recognized the Confederacy, Northerners were concerned that the successful Union blockade of Southern shipping would provoke the British into backing the South. The following print, "John Bull Makes a Discovery," captures that anxiety:

John Bull, a common figure for Englishmen, holds a piece of cotton in his left hand and compares it to the hair of a kneeling slave. He says, "Well, yes! -- it is certain that Cotton is more useful to me than Wool!! --" Observing the scene are another black man, a gentlemen apparently crying, and a planter. The print suggests that Britain's ostensible moral opposition to slavery would give way to the demand for one of its chief imports.

Fortunately for the North, Britain was not as dependent on Southern cotton as the Confederacy would have liked to believe. When South Carolina Senator James Hammond predicted in his "King Cotton" speech of 1858 that, without the crop, "England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her," he did not foresee developments of the early 1860s that would reduce cotton's importance to Britain. Although the naval blockade, combined with a Southern cotton famine in 1862, dealt a serious blow to England's textile industry, leaving thousands of workers unemployed, the impact was not decisive. England was increasingly relying on more reliable cotton imports from India and Egypt, and the textile industry itself was losing ground to linen and wool production, where many unemployed textile workers could find work.

Moreover, contrary to the implication of the John Bull print, more than either economic considerations or a humanitarian concern for Southern slaves was operating in British public and political opinion. England really had little national interest in involving itself in an American war. Many Britons assumed that letting the war play itself out would weaken the United States to the advantage of Britain. The decision was made, to the South's incalculable misfortune, to stay out of the American conflict.

In addition to the potential interference of Britain on behalf of the Confederacy, another major Northern concern stemmed from the military potential of a large number of Southern slaves. The Union, despite deep-seated reservations about conscripting blacks into its own military, had found that they could be highly effective soldiers, and feared that the South might make the same discovery.

Over the course of the war, the Union enlisted approximately 179,000 black soldiers and 29,000 black sailors. Although many of these soldiers were put to work mainly at manual tasks, and virtually none of them became officers, they formed a crucial component of the Northern war effort. And for many whites, the experience of side by side with blacks proved instrumental in helping to overcome long-standing ignorance and prejudice. The following photograph shows soldiers belonging to E Company of the 4th U.S. Colored Troops:

Early in the war, the Union came up with a clever plan to deprive the Confederacy of a potentially important source of manpower. On May 23, 1861, six weeks after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, three slaves who had been working on Confederate fortifications in Virginia escaped to Fortress Monroe, a Union stronghold on the coast. The fort's commander, General Benjamin Butler, declared the slaves "contrabands of war" and refused to return them to their masters. Four days later, he issued a general proclamation to that effect, and by August, hundreds of slaves had fled to Fort Monroe, as depicted in the following print, "The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine":

A barefooted, barechested slave points toward Fort Monroe and taunts his erstwhile owner, "Can't come back nohow massa. Dis chile's contraban." The master, whip in hand, shouts, "Come back you black rascal." In the background, other slaves also flee toward the fortress. The following photograph shows a large group of contraband slaves who have made it to Union lines (a Union soldier is on horseback in the background):

On Aug. 6, Lincoln validated and expanded Butler's maneuver by signing a law authorizing the confiscation of any Southern property, including slaves, which could have a military function. Militarily, the "capture" of slaves would help prevent the Confederacy from arming its vast black population to fight, in an outrageous paradox, for the triumph of the South and of servitude.

But the contraband policy possessed political and moral as well as military significance. As the months wore on and thousands of slaves made their way into Union territory, the North could not avoid the difficult questions posed by the situation. Should the contraband slaves be automatically freed? Should there be compensation to their former owners? What if an individual owner was not engaged in rebellion against the Union? Should there be a more moderate contraband policy toward the border Southern states to encourage moderation? And how would these contraband blacks eventually merge into Northern society?

The efforts to address these questions represented the first step in the North's long road toward emancipation. As it became evident that the war was not going to be short or easy, the North's goals gradually came to encompass the outright destruction of slavery. The conservative and moderate branches of the Republican party, which had counseled accommodation toward the South and the gradual extirpation of slavery, eventually ceded the issue to the radical Republicans, who advocated immediate abolition.

During the fall of 1861 and spring of 1862, Congress enacted a number of measures abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, banning it in the territories, providing for some education and legal protection for blacks, and prohibiting army officers from returning fugitive slaves. These and other measures culminated in the July 17, 1862, confiscation act declaring all contraband slaves "forever free." But the effects of these Congressional actions were not sweeping, and were not practicably enforceable.

In the end, full emancipation would come only through executive action, and even here the route was tortuous. Lincoln had decided as early as July, 1862, to issue an emancipation proclamation, but faced formidable obstacles just in announcing it, let alone accomplishing it.

At the heart of the problem lay Northern racism, and Lincoln's fear that emancipation would only serve to divide the country further. Northern Democrats and a good number of conservative Republicans did not want to see a racially "amalgamated" society. In the Congressional election year 1862, Lincoln had to walk a fine line between radical Republicans, who criticized him for being too moderate and "appeasing" the South, and conservatives, who feared that outright emancipation would degrade the country. The former had the stronger moral argument, and were probably closer to Lincoln in spirit, but the conservatives had the numbers.

Accordingly, Lincoln chose a middle course. He agreed with his advisers that he should withhold an emancipation proclamation until such time as the administration could sweeten the news with military success. Also, at this early stage, Lincoln favored the conservative policy of colonization, by which freed blacks would be transported to Africa, on the assumption that the two races could never peacefully coexist in the United States.

After significant Southern defeats at Antietam, Perryville, and Corinth, Lincoln decided that the moment was right. On September 22, 1862, he signed an emancipation proclamation that was not absolute, but reflected the still-cautious approach he wanted to take. It called for gradual emancipation in the loyal slave states, encouraged voluntary colonization, and defended emancipation in terms of military necessity. In its conservatism, the Proclamation was politically prudent, but in its very existence, the document was revolutionary.

By the fall of 1863, when the Republican party swept the elections and the Union army was enjoying a string of military successes, the North was more or less agreed on the necessity and justice of emancipation. Abolitionists, for decades either maligned or patiently endured, found themselves at long last voicing the majority opinion. The war was no longer being fought simply to save the union, but to bring freedom to the slaves.

Republicans were convinced that the only way to guarantee the absolute and permanent destruction of American slavery was through a constitutional amendment, rather than more tenuous congressional or state action. On January 31, 1865, with the end of the Confederacy in sight, Congress voted to adopt the Thirteenth Amendment, with sixteen of eighty Democratic votes providing the margin of victory. By the end of the year, the Amendment had been ratified by all the states save Delaware, Kentucky and Texas.

  • Continue
  • Return to previous section
  • Return to main menu