About the Author
Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of several books. In 2006 he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia University. He has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians. He lives in New York City.
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The World the War Made
The Coming of Emancipation
On January 1, 1863, after a winter storm swept up the east coast of the United States, the sun rose in a cloudless sky over Washington, D.C. At the White House, Abraham Lincoln spent most of the day welcoming guests to the traditional New Year's reception. Finally, in the late afternoon, the President retired to his office to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Excluded from its purview were the 450,000 slaves in the loyal border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, 275,000 in Union-occupied Tennessee, and tens of thousands more in portions of Louisiana and Virginia under the control of federal armies. But, the Proclamation decreed, the remainder of the nation's slave population, well over 3 million men, women, and children, 11 are and henceforth shall be free."
Nearly two and a half centuries had passed since twenty black men and women were landed in Virginia from a Dutch ship. From this tiny seed had grown the poisoned fruit of plantation slavery, which, in profound and contradictory ways, shaped the course of American development. Even as slavery mocked the ideals of a nation supposedly dedicated to liberty and equality, slave labor played an indispensable part in its rapid growth, expanding westward with the young republic, producing the cotton that fueled the early industrial revolution. The slavery question divided the nation's churches, sundered political ties between the sections, and finally shattered the bonds of the Union. On the principle of opposing the further expansion of slavery, a new political party rose to power in the 1850s, placing in the White House a son of the slave state Kentucky who had grown to manhood on the free Illinois prairies and believed the United States could not endure forever half slave and half free. In the crisis that followed Lincoln's election, eleven slave states seceded from the Union, precipitating in 1861 the bloodiest war the Western Hemisphere has ever seen.
The Emancipation Proclamation not only culminated decades of struggle, but evoked Christian visions of an era of unbounded progress for a nation purged at last of the sin of slavery. Even the staid editors of the New York Times believed it marked a watershed in American life, "an era in the history . . . of this country and the world." For emancipation meant more than the end of a labor system, more even than the uncompensated liquidation of the nation's largest concentration of private property. Begun to preserve the Union, the Civil War now portended a far-reaching transformation in Southern life and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American society and of the very meaning of freedom in the American republic.
In one sense, however, the Proclamation only confirmed what was already happening on farms and plantations throughout the South. War, it has been said, is the midwife of revolution, and well before 1863 the disintegration of slavery had begun. As the Union Army occupied territory on the periphery of the Confederacy, first in Virginia, then in Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, slaves by the thousands headed for the Union lines. Even in the heart of the Confederacy, the conflict undermined the South's "peculiar institution. " The drain of white men into military service left plantations under the control of planters' wives and elderly and infirm men, whose authority slaves increasingly felt able to challenge. Reports of "demoralized" and "insubordinate" behavior multiplied throughout the South.
But generally it was the arrival of federal soldiers that spelled havoc for the slave regime, for blacks quickly grasped that the presence of occupying troops destroyed the coercive power of both the individual master and the slaveholding community. On the Magnolia plantation in Louisiana, the arrival of the Union Army in 1862 sparked a work stoppage and worse: "We have a terrible state of affairs here negroes refusing to work . . . The negroes have erected a gallows in the quarters and give as an excuse for it that they are told they must drive their master . . . off the plantation hang their master etc. and that then they will be free." Slavery in southern Louisiana, wrote a Northern reporter in November 1862, "is forever destroyed and worthless, no matter what Mr. Lincoln or anyone else may say on the subject."
"Meanwhile," in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, "with perplexed and laggard steps, the United States government followed in the footsteps of the black slave." The slaves' determination to seize the opportunity presented by the war initially proved an embarrassment to the Lincoln administration and a burden to the army. Lincoln fully appreciated, as he would observe in his second inaugural address, that slavery was "somehow" the cause of the war. But he also understood the vital importance of keeping the border slave states in the Union, generating support among the broadest constituency in the North, and weakening the Confederacy by holding out to irresolute Southerners the possibility that they could return to the Union with their property, including slaves, intact. In 1861, the restoration of the Union, not emancipation, was the cause that generated the widest support for the war effort.
Yet as the Confederacy set slaves to work as military laborers, and the presence of Union soldiers precipitated large-scale desertion of the plantations, the early policy quickly unraveled. Increasingly, military authorities adopted the plan, inaugurated in Virginia by Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, of designating fugitive slaves "contraband of war" who would be employed as laborers for the Union armies. Then, too, Northern abolitionists and Radical Republicans recognized that secession offered a golden opportunity to strike a fatal blow at slavery. Their agitation kept at the forefront of Northern politics the question of the struggle's ultimate purpose.
The steps by which Congress and the President moved toward abolition have often been chronicled. In March 1862, Congress enacted an article of war expressly prohibiting the army from returning fugitives to their masters . . .