“What shall be done with the Slaves?”

As fall turned to winter in 1861, it became clear to some Americans that emancipation, widely dismissed at the Civil War’s start, was becoming a real possibly. As Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune perceptively and presciently put it in their issue of November 23, 1861:

As we will not admit, not even in argument, that success can await this Southern rebellion, or that any other result can follow the struggle than the complete exposure and defeat of its infamous purpose, so we hold that the destruction of Slavery, sooner or later, must be its inevitable consequence. In their insane ambition, and under the pressure of the natural laws of political economy, these Southern madmen have pulled the house down over their heads. It may not, indeed, all come down with a single crash; but whether it should fall into instantaneous ruin, or shall crumble away piecemeal, now one section and now another, that it is shaken to its very foundations and cannot, even with the most skillful props, be sustained much longer, can hardly admit of a doubt. Some persons, who have data for their conclusions, estimate that in Missouri alone, within the last eight or nine months, the slave population of about 90,000 is diminished by 50,000; of these, 25,000 have left their masters, and disposed of themselves according to their own will and pleasure, and the other 25,000 have been hurried off to the South from a market where, it is presumed, they will presently be an utter loss. As it is in Missouri, so it is in all the border States to a greater or lesser extent. In all of them the tenure of the masters upon the slaves has been broken in thousands of cases, and in many thousands more the masters have rid themselves of property whose value, they fear, will soon cease altogether. The system, in a whole tier of States from Missouri to Delaware, though not plucked up by the roots and cast away, is loosened and broken so that its leaves and branches are withering and shrivelling, and it must presently die. The same causes that have produced these results in the border States, are about to be introduced, we trust, into those south of them, and will have like consequences. Whether the Federal Government resorts to emancipation or not, as a military necessity, events are proclaiming that a death-blow has been struck at Slavery, whether we like it or not. It may not fall this month or next, this year or next, in the whole South, but a system so pernicious, politically, morally, and economically, cannot long survive the inroads of destruction when once commenced.

So with slavery’s destruction increasingly likely as 1861 moved toward its close, some persons began to ask, “What shall be done with the Slaves?” At this stage of the Civil War many white Northerners believed that slaves would not be capable of caring for themselves in freedom, at least initially. And many, like white Southerners, were convinced that former slaves could not live in peace with their former owners and other whites. This made emigration outside the United States for freed slaves seemingly a necessity.

Even some abolitionists believed in 1861 that ex-slaves would need to leave the country. For example, on November 30, 1861, the National Republican, published in Washington, D.C., carried a speech made by Senator and General James Henry Lane of Kansas, in Springfield, Missouri, on November 8. Lane, made a militant abolitionist by Bleeding Kansas, told an audience of Union soldiers:

It should be the business of Congress, at its coming session, to adopt a law directing the President of the United States, by proclamation, to order the rebel States, within thirty or sixty days, to lay down their arms and return to their allegiance, or, in default thereof, declare every slave free throughout their domains. So far as I am concerned, I hope the Almighty will so direct the heart of the rebels that, like Pharaoh, they will persist in their crime, and then we will invade them, and strike the shackles from every limb.

Provision too, should be made for settling the African in Hayti, Central or South America, and let the race form a nation by itself. Liberia has served a glorious purpose in teaching the world that these oppressed and wretched people are capable of supporting themselves, and of self-government. I look upon the Republic of Liberia as the bud–yes, full blown hope of the whole of Africa, and wish them every encouragement and success. But it is too many thousand miles for us to transport four million of slaves. This age has not the time and patience requisite to such a task.

But our own continent has room sufficient with soil, climate, and productions, suitable for the accommodation of this people, who, in the mysteries of Providence, have been thrown among us. Transportation to the places named may be made a practicable reality. The good of both races requires their separation. Ages of oppression, ignorance, and wrong, have made the African a being inferior in intellect and social attainments to the Caucasian, and while together, we shall always have low, cringing servility on the one hand, and lordly domination on the other. It is better for both parties that each enjoy the honors and responsibilities of a nationality of his own. In such an event, our common humanity would make a vast stride toward perfection.

The Weekly Anglo-African, a voice of the North’s free black community, addressed the same topic in its November 23, 1861 issue. In an article with the title, “What shall be done with the Slaves?” the paper wrote:

The policy of the government in regard to the slave question appears to be this. In the partially loyal or border States, to uphold loyal slave owners, by securing to them their slaves for the present; in the disloyal and entirely rebellious States, to accept the services of all slaves, and hire and pay them as laborers, and if necessity requires to arm them as auxiliary troops; setting free all that come within the lines of the troops, engaging to pay only loyal owners for their abstracted property [emphasis in the original].

This amounts in fact to entire emancipation–if the slaves will it–of all the slaves in the cotton States; and their [sic] can be no doubt that slaves will accept this offered emancipation. In regard to the slavery of the border States, even the N. Y. Herald–a competent authority on this point–admits it will end with the war.

Hence, the question now agitating the public mind, almost as deeply as the war itself, is, or rather, what shall be done with the slaves, or rather, freed-men?

Two modes of disposing them have been named. 1st. Banishment to some foreign territory. 2nd. (By the New York Herald) The division of them among the non-slave-possessing Unionists of the cotton states.

Not surprisingly, the Weekly Anglo-African rejected both these solutions. It found forced emigration to be unfair, inhumane, and impractical. It dismissed dividing slaves among non-slaveholding Unionists in the cotton states as “diabolical if it were not perfectly ridiculous.” Instead, it suggested a solution that many freed people themselves would later embrace: confiscating the land of disloyal white Southerners and redistributing it the slaves. The paper wrote:

The solution of what to do with the slaves will force itself upon the government just as other questions in this war have done. During the war, this government will require, will use, and will pay for, the labor, or other services, of all the slaves in the ultra-rebellious states. When the war is ended, there will be few, if any, slaves, for the government to dispose of. There will be four million of free men and women and children, accustomed to toil, who have by their labor during sixty years past supported themselves, and in addition,  an extravagant aristocracy, and in addition produced a staple or staples which have been the basis and support for American, British, and French industry. Besides these laborers, land will confiscated to the government, and turned into public lands, subject to preemption rights, or if Gerrit Smith gets again into Congress, turned into “free land for the landless.” What course can be clearer, what course more politic, what course will so immediately restore the equilibrium of commerce, what course will be so just, so humane, so thoroughly conducive to the public weal and the national advancement, as that the government should immediately bestow these lands upon these freed men who know best how to cultivate them, and will joyfully bring their brawny arms, their willing hearts, and their skilled hands to the glorious labor of cultivating as their OWN, the lands which they have bought and paid for by their sweat and blood?

So it is fascinating that in the first year of the Civil War, the nation already was negotiating in public discourse the terms under which the slaves would be freed. Compensated emancipation followed by emigration was an early favorite, but as the Anglo-African predicted the Lincoln administration eventually would recognize this idea as impractical. It is equally interesting that free blacks in the North in 1861 already were broaching the idea of redistributing land from disloyal planters to the slaves. It also would never become a reality, but it is highly significant the notion of redistribution was being broached so early in the Civil War.

Sources: 1) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030213/1861-11-23/ed-1/seq-4/;    2) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014760/1861-11-30/ed-1/seq-1/; 3) http://research.udmercy.edu/find/special_collections/digital/baa/item.php?record_id=1383&collectionCode=baa.

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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