The Process of Black Colonization in the American Civil War


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The topic of black colonization was an important issue in the American Civil War, one that very closely followed that of emancipation. Colonization of freed slaves was a solution that seemed feasible to many Northerners, including Lincoln. But, did the idea succeed? Read to know the answer.

Painting of First reading of Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet, showing notable figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Gideon Wells, William Seward, Montgomery Blair, and Edward Bates.
There was a lot of debate about how the emancipated slaves were to be tackled. Black colonization was one of the option that Lincoln supported strongly. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The idea of black colonization went back to the nineteenth century, when a number of prominent people, including political leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay, advocated the idea of colonization, which would have seen freed slaves shipped out of the United States, thereby bypassing the problem of having to integrate them into American society.  

Different categories of people supported the idea for different reasons. 

Reasons for Supporting Black Colonization

Some people supported the idea of colonization simply because they hated black people. Others, perhaps including Lincoln, supported it from a mixture of self-interest and concern for the plight of freed blacks in the extremely racist American society. 

Colonizationists argued that colonizing the black people would avoid a post-emancipation race war. They said it would avoid competition between freed black laborers and white laborers in the North and in the South. They also thought that it would make the process of emancipation work much more smoothly, and that it would be a much less wrenching social experience for the nation than allowing the freed slaves to remain in the United States.

Learn more about African-American soldiers during war.

Lincoln’s Efforts Toward Black Colonization

In August 1862, when Lincoln met a group of free black men at the White House, it was the first time a president had met with or invited black people to the White House. 

His meeting was to get them to support colonization. He argued that slavery was the greatest wrong ever afflicted on people, but emancipation alone would not be able to get rid of all the racial differences in the United States. He argued that white Americans would simply not accept equality. He asked leaders to volunteer to go in the first wave of colonists to show the practicality of the idea. Quite expectedly, virtually all black leaders in the country denied the proposition. 

Robert Purvis, a rich, influential black abolitionist, wrote an open letter to Lincoln, summing up what the community felt on the issue: he felt that Lincoln’s talk on races was vain, and that the country belonged equally to everyone. Another black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, was more direct and clearly upset at reports of this meeting with Lincoln, claiming that it showed all of Lincoln’s inconsistencies, his pride of race, and his hypocrisy. 

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Experiments in Colonization

While some abolitionists opposed colonization, Lincoln held strong to it. There was once an expedition mounted to see how practical colonization would be. 

A group of about 500 freed slaves was sent to an island, Ile au Vache, off Haiti. A speculator had offered to colonize and settle them there, charging a certain amount from the government for it. 

However, there were none of the offered settlements when they reached. They were left to fend for themselves, and a disease soon swept through them. Very quickly, reports came back to Lincoln that things were going wrong there. Before a year had passed, it was clear that it was not going to work, so a United States vessel was sent to bring these people back. 368 survivors returned. 

Lincoln, henceforth, abandoned the idea of colonization, though it persisted weakly throughout the war.

The Credit For Emancipation

Throughout history, there has been a lot of discussion regarding who was responsible for emancipation.

Image of Emancipation memorial monument in Washington, D.C., showing Lincoln helping a black man rise.
The old view was that Lincoln was the one responsible for the emancipation of slaves; he was the Great Emancipator. (Image: US Government/Public domain)

The old view, represented in Thomas Ball’s statue in Washington, D.C., is that Lincoln was responsible for emancipation. The statue represents Lincoln reaching down and helping a black man rise from slavery. This view, of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, was held for a very long time. Although others also played significant roles—Congress through its legislation and Union generals in the military who took the possibility of freedom deep into the South—Lincoln’s role was highlighted. 

However, there was an ever-strengthening argument that none of this would have happened if countless slaves had not taken it upon themselves to flee from their plantations or farms, toward Northern military lines, and confront their opposition. 

The most reliable estimates suggest that about half a million slaves in the South had made their way to Union lines, which constituted about one in seven of all the slaves in the Confederacy. As a result, many scholars argue that there should be less talk of whether the white Congress, the white generals, or Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, and more talk about how slaves did so much of the work to free themselves. 

Learn more about Lincoln’s view on slavery.

Processing the Black Role in Emancipation

Most scholars agree that the role of the black people in the process of emancipation has virtually been ignored for many decades. They have essentially been left invisible. There have been many discussions and debates on Congress, on Lincoln, and on generals, but virtually no talk on what black people had been doing. 

However, these scholars also agree that it is equally a distortion of facts to state that black people alone freed themselves. All the elements of this equation have to be kept in place together to make sense of the situation. 

It is, without a question, true that Lincoln did play a key role, as did the Congress and the army. It was all of these factors coming together that culminated in the achievement of emancipation. 

This process had never been simply self-emancipation, or just the white leaders in the North achieving emancipation. 

There has never been any doubt that runaway slaves weakened the institution of slavery in the Confederacy, and hurt the confederate economy by running away from their masters and making their way to the Union lines. It was their presence that forced the United States government to deal with the problem of slavery.

At the same time, it would be a big mistake to neglect the critical role that the United States Army played in the process of emancipation. The army provided a haven for the slaves. As the army penetrated deeper and deeper into the Confederacy, it brought with it the potential of freedom to an ever-widening group of enslaved African Americans.

Common Questions about Black Colonization During the American Civil War

Q: What were some of the reasons for which black colonization was being pushed?

The idea of black colonization was favored by a number of different people for various reasons. Some supported it simply because of an inherent hatred for black people, while others supported it out of both self-interest and a concern for the plight of freed blacks in the extremely racist American society. 

Q: What steps did Lincoln take to bring about black colonization?

Lincoln invited a lot of black leaders to meet with him, and asked them to be the first to settle overseas in order to bring black colonization into the system. The black leaders declined and created a lot of hue and cry about the issue.

Q: What was the experiment conducted to check the practicality of black colonization?

A group of 500 freed slaves was shipped to an island, Ile au Vache, off the coast of Haiti. However, there were none of the offered settlements when they reached. They were left to fend for themselves, and a disease soon swept through them. Later, 368 survivors returned to the USA.

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