Emancipation Sentiment Grows – August 1861

In August 1861, support for emancipation began to gain momentum in the North. With the realization after the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas the previous month that the Civil War would not be settled quickly, and that it would be costly both in treasure and lives, sentiment grew that only slavery’s end would make the conflict worth it. A good example of this feeling is a letter from Connecticut that appeared in the New York Times on August 9, 1861. Its unnamed author wrote:

To the Editor of the New-York Times:

You say truly that this war in which we are engaged has for its object simply to put down the rebellion against our nationality. This is the object and the whole of it.

But how are we to accomplish this object? Many say, “Gather an immense Army, pay hundreds of millions of money, and go on from battle-field to battle-field, till the treason is stamped out; meanwhile, scrupulously respecting the institution of Slavery.”

What is this Slavery? What has it done that it should be treated so tenderly, and be marked as the last thing to be thrown overboard in the endeavor to save the laboring ship? Here we are, proposing to sacrifice great commercial and manufacturing interests, hundreds of millions of ready money in the shape of taxes, and tens of thousands of precious lives in an experiment to get along without harming the institution of Slavery by this war. What have these rebels and traitors done that we should be so much more chary of their property than of our own–so much more tender of their investment in human flesh and blood than of the lives of our own sons and brothers? What is there so very precious about this very peculiar institution of our deadly enemies that we should shield it from harm with our own fortunes and bodies up to the last possible minute; that we should dare and sacrifice to the last extremity before consenting to have it perish? One would think Slavery to be the Kohinoor of the country, instead of the nation’s shame, the by-word of Christendom, the incorrigible fire-brand and disintegrator of our nationality, the mother of treason and rebellion. Was not this rebellion got up in the interests of Slavery? Are not these men who are stabbing at the public heart, slaveholders, and is it not because they are slaveholders that they are so stabbing? Is not Slavery at this moment the right arm with which treason is working against us? Who plant the masked batteries, who make the intrenchments, who drag and manipulate the munitions of war, who furnish the food to support the armies of our enemies, who raise the cotton from which, if at all, our foes must get the sinews of war–who but slaves? The system of American Slavery does not deserve the forbearance and sacrifices we are practising in its favor. On my conscience, I believe we are acting like fools in this whole matter.

Another unnamed Times reader from Massachusetts wrote similarly a few weeks later, their letter published in the newspaper on August 26, 1861. This person, while mindful of the property rights of loyal slaveholders, could not see any proper end of the Civil War without slavery’s destruction. They wrote:

So, also, if upon proper effort we find that we cannot, while sparing Slavery, so subdue the rebellion as to offer the loyal citizens adequate protection and encourage them to act out their principles freely, then also the time will have come to admit the law of necessity and turn our arms directly to the extermination of Slavery itself. This will then be the only and most direct way of keeping good faith with the loyal citizens whose rights and blessings treason is destroying.

In few words, is it not possible now to see with great certainty that our present difficulties cannot, by any possibility, be satisfactorily settled, and in a way to insure our national safety and prosperity, except by abolishing Slavery in our national domain? So long as it remains, is it not everlastingly the same evil thing? Will force or subjugation change its moral or political nature, its interests, its sympathies, its subtle and perverting, but constant influence? Will men become wiser in evil and more harmless in sin? Can the spirit of despotism, of pride, of hate, of scorn, of violence, be forced out of it? Or will the weight of subjection laid upon it cause it to harmonize with the spirit and working of our free institutions? Are we not, then, to-day authorized in assuming that the removal of this enemy to our liberties is the only way to union and peace? And, if we are not to go back, but onward, and if we can foresee the result to which we must come, is it not prudence to take the tide we cannot stem or change, and aim at once to realize the end towards which events are tending? The time was when the North could stand still and see the dealings of God with Slavery, the rivers of his power surrounding it and sweeping it away, but the South has now forced us from this neutral position, and plunged us in the swelling waves where Slavery or Freedom, the one or the other, must go down.

Certainly the belief that the war must not end without emancipation was a minority position in the North in August 1861. The majority northern sentiment at that point still favored no challenge to slavery’s legal status. It was hard to overcome the prewar conventional wisdom that chattel bondage was a state and local concern, and the federal government had a duty to protect property rights even of slaveholders. Congress voted early that month it was legal as a war measure to confiscate the slaves of disloyal slave owners, but it did not challenge legality of slavery itself.

Still, there was a subversive potential in the Confiscation Act that northern conservatives recognized. An editorial in the Washington Star, reprinted in a Chambersburg, Pennsylvania newspaper in August 1861, stated of this legislation: “As sent back to the Senate from the House, it seems to amount to a scheme for taking any and every man’s negroes from him, who choose to fancy to be turned loose upon society. Or, in other words, to a virtual proclamation on the part of the Government that the end and aim of the war is to abolish slavery throughout the South.” While the editorial exaggerated the law’s intent, many of its backers certainly hoped that the Confiscation Act merely would be a step on the road to the full abolition of slavery. The Lincoln Administration and others in the North, fearful of the loyal slave states, avoided in August 1861 linking the war to slavery’s future in the United States. But the increasing expenditure of lives and money to save the Union would cause them to reconsider that position. A particularly poignant example would present itself before month’s end, but that is a story for another time.

Sources: New York Times, 9 August 1861, http://www.nytimes.com/1861/08/09/news/popular-ideas-of-the-rebellion-the-war-and-slavery.html; New York Times, 26 August 1861, http://www.nytimes.com/1861/08/26/news/shall-end-present-war-be-end-aemrican-slavery-editor-new-york-times.html; Washington Star editorial: http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/news/vs1861/pa.fr.vs.1861.08.21.xml#01

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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