Ok, let’s press on. We still have a handful of myths that must be exposed before we can begin to examine what are truly the most significant effects of the American Civil War and its aftermath.
Myth: The Northern States fought to free the slaves.
Of all the myths associated with the Civil War era, this one is the most enduring, and the most easily disproven. The value of this myth as propaganda is enormous, of course. In the first place it makes the War neatly allegorical, pitting the liberating North against the slaveholding South. If the Northern states invaded and subdued the Southern states in order to free the Southern slaves, then who could reasonably deny the moral goodness of their cause? Of course, if the invasion and subjugation of the South had nothing to do with freeing the slaves; if the invaders were in fact indifferent to the fate of the slaves, or even hostile to them, then the white hat might not fit so well.
The undeniable historical fact is that the Northern states had no intention of freeing the slaves.
Once Mr. Lincoln’s call to arms had driven the middle south out of the Union, and into the Confederacy, the War commenced in earnest. Congress, absent the seceeded states, convened in Washington, already a vast armed military camp, to establish the war’s objectives and to assist in raising the funds to wage it.
On July 21, 1861 the fledgling Confederate forces routed the Federal army at the First Battle of Manassas. It was a humiliating defeat for the Northern States, and it ended the prevailing notion in the North that the war would be quickly won.
Four days later, on July 25, the federal Congress passed the Crittenden Resolution, with only two votes opposed. The Resolution specifically declared that the object of the war would be reunification of the states only, and specifically provided that the war was not being fought to interfere with slavery in any way. In fact, the Resolution specifically required that the government take no action against slavery, and announced that the war would end when the seceeded states returned to the Union, with slavery intact.
Earlier, in February 1861, Congress, by a 2/3 majority, had adopted the Corwin Resolution, a proposed constitutional amendment that would forbid any future constitutional amendment to abolish slavery (such as the eventual 13th Amendment). President Lincoln endorsed the resolution in his First Inaugural Address. The resolution provided: No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State. If adopted, slavery would be given express consitutional protection, including protection against amendments that might later abolish it. A very remarkable proposition indeed.
On May 13, 1861, with the War underway, Ohio ratified the proposed amendment, which would perpetually guarantee slavery. In January, 1862, nearly a year into the war, and with Southern prospects still favorable, Maryland ratified it. And Illinois, Mr. Lincoln’s home state, ratified the amendment later in 1862. With their citizens fighting and dying on Southern fields, the Nothern congress and states were actually acting to secure the rights of slaveholders, not to abolish them.
Nor were the non-seceeding slaveholding states acting to abolish slavery. Wait. Y’all did know that some of the states in the so-called Union during the Civil War allowed slavery, didn’t you? That’s right, some of the non-seceeding states, whose soldiers were dying on Southern battlefields, legally allowed slavery. In fact, many of the soldiers who served and died in the Nothern army were themselves slaveholders (and the vast majority of those who served in the Southern army were not). But I digress…
During the War, every attempt to abolish slavery in slaveholding non-seceeding states failed; even in Delaware, which had fewer than 2,000 slaves.
Meanwhile Mr. Lincoln pressed forward on his long-held dream of deporting black people and colonizing them in Africa or Haiti. He told a delegation of black Americans who called upon him at the White House that they should support his colonization scheme, saying, “there is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be for you colored people, for you to remain with us.” In his December, 1862 message to Congress, Mr. Lincoln urged Congress to support his colonization plans, while assuring Nothern states that they could continue to legally exclude black people from their states. In fact, under then-existing state laws, black people, free or slave, were legally barred from entering Iowa, Indiana, Oregon, Kansas or Mr. Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. Of course, tens of thousands of soldiers from these states risked their lives in battle against the men of the Southern states. The Nothern states probably could not have prevailed without them. And while they fought in the South, their states continued to seal their borders from black people.
As the war dragged on, sentiment to abolish slavery began to grow. I should stop here briefly, to comment on abolitionism. A sub-myth, if you will, that has established itself in our history, is that there existed in the North a large movement of progressives dedicated to abolition of slavery and equality among the races. In fact, there were such people, and history has proven them to be enlightened and admirable. But there were very few of them, and they were almost universally reviled in the North and South alike as dangerous, radical terrorists. They had no almost no political or moral clout. They were associated with things like John Brown’s raid, and were as unpopular then as the most radical political subversives would be today.
In any event, in 1864, with the war nearing an end and Northern victory all but certain, the constitutional amendment banning slavery that would eventually be enacted as the 13th Amendment was first proposed in Congress. When it came up for a vote in 1864, even though there were no Southern representatives in Congress, it was defeated. It did not pass until January, 1865, with the war weeks from ending.
Interestingly, the federal government had permitted West Virginia to seceed from Virginia during the War, but on the condition that it abolish slavery in its constitution. Even though less than 5% of its population was black, the West Virginians initally objected, but eventually acquiesed. Eventually, although the new consitution did abolish slavery, it also prohibited blacks from voting, attending public school or entering the state. Congress required removal of the prohibiton on entry, but accepted the other restrictions, and admitted West Virginia. Ultimately, even after the war had ended, New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky refused to ratify the 13th Amendment. Those states, which had contributed signficantly to the Northern victory, preferred that slavery remain legal, even after the Southern states had surrendered.
So we can definitively conclude that the Northern states did not fight the Civil War to free the slaves. That is not to say, of course, that there were not soldiers in the Nothern army who fought for that reason. Certainly there were idealistic heroes who fought for precisely that reason, just as there may have been some soldiers in the Southern army who were motivated by a desire to keep blacks enslaved. But such folks were the extreme exception to the rule.
One group of Northern soldiers, however, undeniably fought for black freedom and they deserve special mention. To keep up with then ever increasing need for manpower, the federal Congress eventually passed a law offering freedom to slaves who joined the Union army. Many slaves who had not been included in the Emancipation Proclamation (what? you didn’t know there were slaves who did not get the benefit of the Emancipation Proclamation? that subject is for next time…), took advantage of this offer. Most came from the Border States, where it was their only route to freedom. Initially the promise of freedom applied only to the soliders, not to their wives and children. Later Congress agreed to include their families too. Nearly 60% of Kentucky’s eligible blacks served, for example. Many black men served in combat roles, and many gave their lives, but the vast majority were not permitted to hold anything other than menial positions. In any event, over 180,000 black Americans ultimately served in the Northern army. These men, whether they saw combat or not, truly did fight for their freedom.
So lets wrap this up for now. Two questions naturally come to mind. I’ve argued that the Northern states did not fight to free the slaves, but what about the Emancipation Proclamation? And if they weren’t fighting to free the slaves, why did these hundreds of thousands of Northern soldiers fight?
That’s where we’ll pick up next time…
Grace and Peace