By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Emancipation became an integral part of the North’s national war strategy. Learn more about the role of various players, including the black and white abolitionists, Union generals, the Congress, and Abraham Lincoln.
Among groups in the North, only black and white abolitionists called for freedom as a war aim from the very beginning. In May 1861, Frederick Douglass, along with other abolitionists, predicted that the war was for and against slavery, and if the North won, slavery would die. Wendell Phillips, one of the most prominent white abolitionists, reminded secessionists at the beginning of the war, “The moment you tread outside the Constitution, the black man is not three-fifths of a man; he is a whole man.” The three-fifths was a reference to the clause in the Constitution.
General Daniel Allman, who had commanded a brigade of black troops during the war, said that the first gun that was fired at Fort Sumter sounded the death knell of slavery, and those who fired it were the greatest practical abolitionists the nation had produced. Those people from the very beginning believed that emancipation was going to be part of the North strategy.
Learn more about the sectional controversies and clashes that set the stage for secession and war.
Constitutional Clause for Slavery
Abolitionists acknowledged that the Constitution did protect slavery in the United States, but they got around that by saying that slavery was a military necessity for the South and therefore could be targeted under the war powers clause of the Constitution. They believed that abolition was necessary for them to win the war, and that they had to strike at this very important component of the Confederate war effort.
Abolitionists also believed that the argument that it should be put in terms of helping win the war was necessary in order to rally as many white Northerners as possible to the cause of emancipation. Everyone who favored the Union, they thought, could accept the military need to do away with slavery in order to hurt the Confederate war effort.
Need for Emancipation
The abolitionists wanted emancipation because that was a moral high ground to take, and they wanted to kill slavery. However, many of their fellow white Northerners didn’t think it was a great evil, so they wanted to put it in terms of a military necessity to convince their fellow white Northerners for its need.
Senator Charles Sumner wrote to a fellow abolitionist in November 1861, “You will observe that I propose no crusade for abolition. Emancipation is to be presented strictly as a measure of military necessity. Abolition is not to be the object of the war but simply one of its agencies.”
For Sumner, it was the most important object of the war, but he understood that it couldn’t be presented that way. That was the only practical strategy for the abolitionists to take because there was certainly no consensus in the white North on the issue of emancipation.
Learn more about slavery’s role in causing the conflict.
Steps towards Emancipation
Several generals attempted to strike at slavery in 1861 and 1862. They were the men on the front lines. They’re actually at the point where the United States military power was bumping up against slavery. They’re the ones who, in many ways, were in the best position to do something, and a number of them acted.
Many members of Congress and individual military leaders took halting steps toward emancipation. There was a step forward, and sometimes they retreated from that step, but later advanced beyond that.
Both generals and Congress contributed to the process, and many had in mind that international law could be applied to the question of whether or not the United States would be able to strike at slavery in the Confederacy. There was a provision of international law that said, in wartime, an enemy’s property was subject to confiscation, to be used to sustain the enemy’s war effort.
Advocates of confiscation argued that the blockade and the treatment of captured Confederate soldiers as prisoners of war indicated that this was, in fact, a war between two nations rather than simply an insurrection on the part of Southerners who were still inside the United States. If it’s a war between two nations, they said, international law could apply. If it’s merely an insurrection on the part of some white Southerners, international law won’t apply, but the Constitution would apply.
Abraham Lincoln’s Perspective
Sometimes Abraham Lincoln treated it as a war between nations, as when he called for a blockade. That really is a concession that you’re fighting against another nation when you institute a blockade.
If you say that you’re going to treat soldiers from your enemy’s armies as prisoners of war, you’re conceding that they’re really soldiers for another nation; otherwise, you’d just treat them as rebels or as traitors.
At other times, Lincoln would argue that the states hadn’t really left the Union. They’re really still in it—they’re just temporarily under the control of evil people.
General Benjamin Franklin Butler
Those who wanted to strike at slavery argued that the states were gone and so the international law applied. The first person to do that was General Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusetts. He was one of North’s political generals, in command someplace or the other through the entire war although he had almost no military ability.
He showed his lack of military ability wherever he went, but he was a very astute politician. He belonged to virtually all the major political parties of his time at one time or another. As an able politician, he always landed on his feet when he switched parties.
This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Benjamin Franklin’s Real Intellect
Benjamin Franklin was a pioneer in arming blacks to fight for the Union, and he was also one of the most hated Northern figures of the war. He was hated for being the Union commander in New Orleans in 1862, when he issued an order saying that Southern women who were in the habit of dumping their chamber pots onto Union officers, spitting on them, or yelling things at them, would be treated as women of the evening pursuing their avocation. The white South thought he was calling their women prostitutes, hated him for that.
He was also hated for because of what he did relating to slavery on the Peninsula.
Learn more about the reasons why young men joined the colors of the North or the South.
In May 1861, Franklin commanded at Fort Monroe at the tip of the Peninsula, and a few African Americans who’d been working on Confederate fortifications escaped to Butler’s lines. He refused to return them to their masters, and he said, “These men are contraband of war, and I will not return them.”
That phrase stuck, and, for the rest of the war, slaves who made their way to Federal lines were called contrabands. It was an example of the idea of self-emancipation too because those men took it upon themselves to go to Union lines, and then Ben Butler refused to send them back.
Reigning John C. Frémont
A second military commander who had an impact in this area was John C. Frémont. In August 1861, as commander of the Department of Missouri, Frémont issued an order confiscating the property and freeing the slaves of all rebels in Missouri. As a result, abolitionists and many republicans made Frémont a hero. They felt that they should be striking at the slaveholders.
However, Lincoln refused, telling Frémont to withdraw the order because he was afraid that it might have a pernicious effect in terms of the loyalty of the border states. So, Frémont backed off and many radical republicans and the abolitionists in the North were upset with Lincoln because he reined Frémont in.
Common Questions about the American Civil War
The main abolitionists of slavery were Frederick Douglass, General Daniel Allman, and Wendell Phillips.
Benjamin Franklin was a pioneer in arming blacks to fight for the Union. He was also one of the most hated Northern figures of the war.
During the civil war, slaves who made their way to Federal lines were called contrabands.
In August 1861, as commander of the Department of Missouri, Frémont issued an order confiscating the property and freeing the slaves of all rebels in Missouri. As a result, abolitionists and many republicans made Frémont a hero. Lincoln asked Frémont to withdraw the order because he was afraid that it might have a pernicious effect in terms of the loyalty of the border states.