The War Years


Before April 1861, Northerners usually dismissed as mere posturing the Southern threats to leave the Union should Lincoln be elected. The Republican party refused to compromise its fundamental commitment to free-soil territories; after the agonizing and ultimately inconclusive results of the Missouri Compromise and Compromise of 1850, few thought that a mutually agreeable decision could be reached with the South.

On Dec. 20, 1860, a convention of South Carolina delegates officially declared their state out of the Union. By the first day of February 1861, seven more states had followed suit (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas). Less than a month later the Confederate States of America 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. This print embodies a subtly derisive irony by depicting secessionist South Carolina as Stowe's inveterately mischievous slave girl Topsey. By conflating the state with the slave, the artist indicates the degree to which the identity of the South was based upon its involvement with African-Americans. Stowe's Miss Ophelia, the New England spinster who tries to reform Topsey's by teaching her to read the Bible, is recast as Lady Columbia, symbol of Liberty and Republicanism. She is flanked by a liberty cap-- a Classical symbol of emancipation-- and a bald eagle. The American flag in her lap has several holes in the area where stars should be.

"So, Topsey," Miss Ophelia scolds, "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 situation than the image can convey. Those 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 Southern honor, wealth, and regional character. Many 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 had committed itself to restricting slavery to the South in its national platform.

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."

In Lincoln's first inaugural address, the new President performed a delicate balancing act designed to warn the South against persisting in its course and to reassure it that slavery would not be fully abolished. "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

The Progress of the War

The following images all touch upon the relation of African-Americans to (white) mainstream 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 predictably envisioned the issues from an Anglo-Saxon point of view.

One of the Northern states' primary fears 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, and never officially recognized the Confederate States of America, 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, the stereotypical Englishman, 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 blight 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 upon imports from India and Egypt, and the textile industry itself was losing ground to linen and wool production.

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 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 England on behalf of the Confederacy, another major Northern concern stemmed from the military potential of Southern slaves. Despite deep-seated reservations about allowing blacks into its own military, the Union had found that they could be highly effective soldiers, and feared that the South might make the same discovery.

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, 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 (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. 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 states to encourage moderation? And how would these contrabands become part of Northern society?

The efforts to address these questions represented the first step in the long road toward emancipation. As it became evident that the war was not going to be short or easy, Union 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.

A popular solution to the issue in general was that of repatriation. By shipping freed slaves to Africa, white America would be able to avoid the troublesome details of integration. It could also congratulate itself for its sense of naturalistic morality, in that it was The Right Thing to Do to to send the slaves "home." This course of action was intially favored by Lincoln himself; the wide currency of such an idea among the supposedly enlightened Northern citizenry is captured by the frontispiece to The Negro Problem Solved; or, Africa As She Was, As She Is, and As She Shall Be. Safely on his side of the Atlantic, a man receives a Bible decending from the heavens. A spear can be made out in the lower foreground. In one of the less subtle examples of Biblical metaphor, a lion lies next to a lamb-- implying that humanity will finally be at peace when black people are back where they belong.

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 of 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 of 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. 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; in its very existence, however, the document was revolutionary.

Nevertheless, Republicans were convinced that the only way to guarantee the absolute and permanent destruction of slavery in America 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.

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