went to war to
The South definitely went to war to preserve slavery. But did the North go to war to end slavery?
No. The North went to war initially to hold the nation together. Abolition came later. On Aug. 22, 1862, President Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greeley, abolitionist editor of the New York Tribune, that stated: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
Lincoln’s own anti-slavery sentiment was widely known at the time, indeed, so widely known that it helped prompt the southern states to rebel. In the same letter, Lincoln wrote: “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”
Lincoln was concerned—rightly—that making the war about abolition would anger northern Unionists, many of whom cared little about African Americans. But by late 1862, it became clear that ending slavery in the rebelling states would help the war effort. The war itself started the emancipation process. Whenever U.S. forces drew near, African Americans flocked to their lines—to help the war effort, to make a living and, most of all, simply to be free. Some of Lincoln’s generals helped him see, early on, that sending them back into slavery merely helped the Confederate cause.
A month after issuing his letter to the New York Tribune, Lincoln combined official duty and private wish by announcing the Emancipation Proclamation, to take effect on January 1, 1863.
free and slave,
Neo-Confederates have been making this argument since about 1980, but the idea is completely false. One reason we know it’s false is that Confederate policy flatly did not let blacks become soldiers until March 1865.
White officers did bring slaves to the
front, where they were pressed into service
doing laundry and cooking. And some
Confederate leaders tried to enlist African
Americans. In January 1864, Confederate
Gen. Patrick Cleburne proposed filling the
ranks with black men. When Jefferson
Davis heard the suggestion, he rejected
the idea and ordered that the subject be
dropped and never discussed again.
But the idea wouldn’t die. In the war’s closing weeks, Gen. Robert E. Lee was desperate for men. He asked the Confederate government to approve allowing enslaved men to serve in exchange for some form of post-war freedom. This time, the government gave in. But few blacks signed up, and soon the war was over.
Slavery was on its
way out anyway.
Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were valued as being worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. True, several European colonies in the Caribbean had ended slavery, but that action was taken by the mother country, not by the elite planter class. To claim that U.S. slavery would have ended of its own accord is impossible to disprove but difficult to support. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor made for big profits, and the southern elite was growing ever richer. Slavery’s return on investment essentially crowded out other economic development and left the South an agricultural society. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for owners, as state after state required them to transport freed slaves beyond the state boundaries. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure.
As we commemorate the sesquicentennial of that war, let us take pride this time— as we did not during the centennial—that secession on slavery’s behalf failed.