Slavery Ends in Tennesee

Tennessee is an interesting case in the Civil War. While it seceded and joined the Confederacy in the second wave of secession that followed Lincoln’s call for volunteers after the assault on Fort Sumter, its mountainous eastern region, with relatively few slaves, remained staunchly Unionist, and Andrew Johnson, who came from that area, refused to resign his U.S. Senate seat and would go on to serve as the state’s Unionist military governor, be elected Vice President of the United States in November 1864, and become President after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.

Andrew Johnson served as the anchor of Lincoln’s efforts to reconstruct the state during the war itself. That such a reconstruction could occur was all the more amazing since Tennessee was a battleground throughout the Civil War. With a number of highly strategic rivers (Cumberland, Mississippi, and Tennessee) touching its shores, natural invasion routes to the Deep South, the State of Tennessee became a natural location for Union and Confederate forces to clash over the course of the war. U.S. Grant would make his reputation in the state as a winning general taking Forts Henry and Donelson, before nearly losing it with a sanguinary victory at Shiloh in April 1862. Union forces would go on to capture Nashville and Memphis before year’s end, ironically leaving Unionist East Tennessee the only region of the state in the hands of the Confederacy. Union forces would challenge that control, only to be repulsed at Chickamauga in September 1863, retreating and being more-or-less besieged in Chattanooga, until U.S. Grant, fresh from his triumph at Vicksburg in Mississippi would return and drive the rebels from the state. The Confederates would belatedly return in Fall 1864, when John Bell Hood, in command of the rebel Army of Tennessee, after having been driven from Atlanta by William Tecumseh Sherman, tried to lure Sherman out of Georgia by invading Tennessee. Not to be sidetracked in his plans to march from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean, Sherman detailed part of his enormous force under George Thomas, to stop Hood, which Thomas did in two battles at Franklin and Nashville, where in the later engagement the Army of Tennessee was all but destroyed. With his victory at Nashville, Thomas secured Tennessee for the Union for all time.

Tennessee also had been the site of April 1864’s Fort Pillow Massacre, in which Confederate cavalry raiding the state under Nathan Bedford Forrest had overwhelmed a small garrison of African Americans and white Unionists manning an obscure fortification on the Mississippi River, and then slaughtered most of the black defenders, many after they tried to surrender.

Slavery in Tennessee, with its stronghold in the Mississippi Valley was undermined by the Union occupation of that region and Middle Tennessee, even though Abraham Lincoln, in an effort to bolster the state’s Unionists, exempted Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. Seeing the hand-writing on the wall for slavery and with political ambitions beyond Tennessee, Andrew Johnson would call for “immediate” emancipation in Tennessee in late August 1863, although foreseeing a two-year legislative process to bring the peculiar institution to a final end in the state. Under pressure from Lincoln, who saw Tennessee as a test case for his administration’s ability to restore loyal state governments in South, and who by then believed slavery had to be eliminated as it was the root cause of secession, encouraged Johnson to speed up the process. So in January 1864, Johnson called a state constitutional convention to enact a reconstruction program for the state and require would-be voters to swear their support for an end to slavery in order to obtain suffrage. The convention was not held until a year later, after Johnson had been elected as Lincoln’s Vice President, and Tennessee voters approved the new state constitution in a vote on February 22, 1865, which included abolishing slavery. Tennessee became the third slave state and the first of the seceded states to end slavery on its own before the final ratification of the 13th Amendment. (Tennessee would ratify the 13th Amendment on April 5, 1865, the day the new state government took office.)

Source: Allen Carden, Freedom’s Delay: America’s Struggle for Emancipation, 1776-1865 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014), 280-81.

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The Myth of Black Confederates. Enough Already.

Freaking Out

I try in this blog to stick to its topic—the coming of freedom for the slaves in the American Civil War. Admittedly, I occasionally write on other subjects because I feel the compulsion to share my thoughts on them. I’ve written on the Civil War in Arizona (where I live). I’ve defended online higher education (where I work). And I’ve reviewed the new 9/11 Museum in New York City (which I visited last summer). But I’ve made a point of mainly discussing events in the history of emancipation in American Civil War, especially as their turn has come around in the sesquicentennial.

I have particularly avoided the recurrent hot button topics that dominate the Civil War blogosphere these days, especially the activities and misadventures of contemporary Neo-Confederates (the so-called “Southern Heritage Community”), and whether and to what degree African Americans served under arms in the Confederate Army. I happily leave that subject matter to fine bloggers like Brooks Simpson at Crossroads, Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory, Andy Hall at Dead Confederates, and (more recently) Megan Kate Nelson at Historista, (who has single handedly turned “freaking out” into a Civil War blogger meme), as well as an assortment of other blogs and bloggers that I keep an eye on.

Admittedly, I have dabbled in the black Confederate issue a few times in this blog (see herehere, here, and here) when it had some relevance to emancipation in the Civil War, especially nearer the start of the sesquicentennial in remembering possible informal black participation the early battles of the conflict. That is, before either army had a chance to formalize fully its rules and organizational arrangements, it appears there might have been some leeway for the unofficial participation of a few African Americans under arms for the Confederacy (and the Union). Still, one needs to be skeptical of such accounts as they were often second-hand or worse before they entered print, and anyone with any experience in mid-19th century newspapers and public records understands that such sources were less reliably factually than they are regarded today (especially the newspapers, which during the Civil War were still largely the creatures of political organizations and operated more for advocacy than the objective reporting of facts).

Certainly, there are enough snippets of blacks under arms for Confederacy early in the Civil War (and later on) that it is hard to dismiss them outright. As in any human social system, Civil War armies included, weird exceptions might appear, although given the nature of nineteenth-century sources it is always hard to take them at face value. Did some African Americans ever serve under arms for the Confederacy? It cannot be ruled out completely, but if so they were the exceptions that proved the rule that white Southern ideology was dead set against arming black men for service in the Confederate Army. It went against the white supremacy that was the raison d’etre of the Confederacy. Certainly, there were individual advocates for the idea of armed black Confederate solders early in the conflict, as I have discussed, and Patrick Cleburne’s famous January 1864 proposal. But if there were significant numbers of African Americans under Confederate arms by early 1864, why is Cleburne making a proposal to open the army to them and why doesn’t he cite these existing black Confederate soldiers in making his case for African-American troops in the Army of Tennessee? And why was there a heated debate about black enlistment in the Confederate Congress in the dying weeks of the Confederacy, when some white Southerners evidently overcame their prejudices just enough to approve the idea as a last desperate measure to stave off final defeat?

In any case, the question scholars should be asking is why this issue cannot be put to rest? To use Megan Kate Nelson’s meme, why are scholarly bloggers on the American Civil War repeatedly condemned to “freak out” from time to time over black Confederates? Why can provocateurs like John Stauffer use the issue (repeatedly) to draw attention to themselves? Why has this myth that substantial numbers of African Americans fought for the Confederacy gained such cultural power in the early 21st-century United States? Why are responsible scholars unable to say, “Enough already” and move on to more productive issues? And if we cannot say “enough already” why can’t we shift the debate to analyzing the cultural power of the myth? Much the same way professional historians refused to enter the morass of who shot John F. Kennedy, but instead analyzed the cultural power of the various conspiracy theories. That is the modest proposal this scholar and blogger would like to make regarding “black Confederates” since it is obvious that the power to suppress this myth is beyond academia’s power. So maybe we need to be asking why it has that power? And not freak out. Enough already.

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January 1865: The Time of Spielberg’s Lincoln (and other things)

The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War has now reached the January 1865 time period covered by Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, Lincoln. For anyone who has not seen this movie, Spielberg dramatizes Abraham Lincoln’s effort to get the 13th Amendment, definitively ending slavery in the United States, through the U.S. House of Representatives. The 13th Amendment’s passage in the House on January 31, 1865 was a major milestone in the history of emancipation in the United States (it had passed the U.S. Senate the previous April), allowing the amendment to proceed to the states for final ratification (which would occur in December 1865).

Yet the passage of the 13th Amendment was not the only noteworthy development in January 1865 relative to slave emancipation in the United States. On January 11, 1865, slavery ended in Missouri by state action, the second of the loyal slave states to end slavery on its own (Maryland had ended slavery about two months before on November 1, 1864). State-based emancipation does not get mentioned in Spielberg’s movie, which is understandable given the film’s emphasis on the effort to get the 13th Amendment through Congress.

Another noteworthy event in January 1865 related to emancipation occurred on January 9 in Nashville, Tennessee. That month, an all-white convention of Tennessee Unionists met to write a new constitution and restore loyal state government. Yet Tennessee’s African-American population refused to allow the concerns of their race to go unheard. A group of fifty-nine black residents of Nashville signed a letter dated January 9, 1865, outlining their concerns to the convention.

Not surprisingly, given that Tennessee was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation (since much of it was under Union occupation by the end of 1862), and the passage of the 13th Amendment by Congress was still uncertain, the first demand made by these fifty-nine black Tennesseans was that the convention explicitly end slavery in the state. They stated:

Your petitioners would ask you to complete the work begun by the nation at large, and abolish the last vestige of slavery by the express words of your organic law.

Many masters in Tennessee whose slaves have left them, will certainly make every effort to bring them back to bondage after the reorganization of the State government, unless slavery be expressly abolished by the Constitution.

Yet the black petitioners wanted more than simply to end slavery in Tennessee once and for all. Despite the professed disclaimer that “We do not ask for the privilege of citizenship,” the letter argued precisely that the convention should grant Tennessee’s African Americans basic citizenship rights, especially suffrage.

To bolster their argument for citizenship rights, they first based their claim on the service of black soldiers in the Civil War. The petition stated:

Near 200,000 of our brethren are to-day performing military duty in the ranks of the Union army.  Thousands of them have already died in battle, or perished by a cruel martyrdom for the sake of the Union, and we are ready and willing to sacrifice more.  But what higher order of citizen is there than the soldier?  or who has a greater trust confided to his hands?  If we are called on to do military duty against the rebel armies in the field, why should we be denied the privilege of voting against rebel citizens at the ballot-box?  The latter is as necessary to save the Government as the former.

Next they pointed out that free blacks prior to 1835 had been permitted to vote in Tennessee elections.

From 1796 to 1835, a period of thirty-nine years, free colored men voted at all her elections without question.  Her leading politicians and statesmen asked for and obtained the suffrages of colored voters, and were not ashamed of it.  Such men asAndrew Jackson, President of the United States, Hon. Felix Grundy, John Bell, Hon. Hugh L. White, Cave Johnson, and Ephraim H. Foster, members of the United States Senate and of the Cabinet, Gen. William Carroll, Samuel Houston, Aaron V. Brown, and, in fact, all the politicians and candidates of all parties in Tennessee solicited colored free men for their votes at every election.

They then turned to the argument that African Americans deserved citizenship rights because they were valuable, contributing members of Tennessee society.

This is not a Democratic Government if a numerous, law-abiding, industrious, and useful class of citizens, born and bred on the soil, are to be treated as aliens and enemies, as an inferior degraded class, who must have no voice in the Government which they support, protect and defend, with all their heart, soul, mind, and body, both in peace and war.

The black citizens also appealed to religion as a basis for their claim, not surprising given the religiosity of the South.

This Government is based on the teachings of the Bible, which prescribes the same rules of action for all members of the human family, whether their complexion be white, yellow, red or black.  God no where in his revealed word, makes an invidious and degrading distinction against his children, because of their color.  And happy is that nation which makes the Bible its rule of action, and obeys principle, not prejudice.

Lastly, given the convention was composed of Tennessee Unionists, they pointed out that African Americans as a group had been loyal to the national government throughout the war.

The Government has asked the colored man to fight for its preservation and gladly has he done it.  It can afford to trust him with a vote as safely as it trusted him with a bayonet.

How boundless would be the love of the colored citizen, how intense and passionate his zeal and devotion to the government, how  enthusiastic and how lasting would be his gratitude, if his white brethren were to take him by the hand and say, “You have been ever loyal to our government; henceforward be voters.”

Yet it was not just voting rights that the black residents of Nashville petitioned for in their January 9 letter. They also wanted the ability to testify in court against white Tennesseans, something which had heretofore worked against them in legal proceedings. They made their argument in this regard, in especially compelling terms, pointing out that Tennessee law gave greater standing in court to white rebels than it did to loyal African Americans.

At present we can have only partial protection from the courts.  The testimony of twenty of the most intelligent, honorable, colored loyalists cannot convict a white traitor of a treasonable action.  A white rebel might sell powder and lead to a rebel soldier in the presence of twenty colored soldiers, and yet their evidence would be worthless so far as the courts are concerned, and the rebel would escape.  A colored man may have served for years faithfully in the army, and yet his testimony in court would be rejected, while that of a white man who had served in the rebel army would be received.

Certainly, the passage of the 13th Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives in January 1865 was a monumental event, a major milestone in the final end of slavery in the United States. Nonetheless, this January 9 letter of the black residents of Nashville highlights a problem in the depiction of this event in Spielberg’s Lincoln, one that was much discussed at the time of the film’s release in late 2012. That is, its portrayal of African Americans as largely passive in the emancipation drama. If this January 9 letter demonstrates anything, it is at the grassroots, African Americans were anything but passive in early 1865 and their ambitions went beyond simple freedom. The efforts of these fifty-nine black Tennesseans demonstrates they wanted more than the end of slavery, they wanted inclusion as citizens, and in January 1865 were willing to petition a state convention with the ability to grant it. While the letter of the black residents of Nashville was ignored by the white Unionist convention, their efforts were indicative of black demands for citizenship rights that had been made for decades by African Americans and which would become even more strident as the war gave way to the Reconstruction period.

Source: http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/tenncon.htm

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January 11, 1865: The End of Slavery in Missouri

Donald R. Shaffer:

Thanks to Brooks Simpson for reminding me today is sesquicentennial of emancipation in Missouri. Missouri was the second of two loyal slave states that ended slavery by state action during the Civil War (Maryland ended slavery on Nov. 1, 1864). Kentucky and Delaware refused and slavery didn’t end in those places until the ratification of the 13th Amendment because the four aforementioned loyal slave states had been exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation.

Originally posted on Crossroads:

We know that January 1865 was an important month in the history of the destruction of slavery in the United States. After all, it was in that month that the House of Representatives joined the Senate in passing the Thirteenth Amendment, which aimed to complete the eradication of chattel slavery in the nation.

In Missouri, however, representatives of the Show Me state had beaten Congress to the punch. On January 11, 1865, Missourians led by Charles Drake terminated the peculiar institution. Among those slaves now recognized as formally free, by the way, were the slaves of Colonel Frederick Dent, Ulysses S. Grant’s father in law. As the colonel apparently never transferred official title of any of his slaves to his daughter Julia, the correct date for the end of slavery in the Dent family is January 1865 (not the misguided claims that Grant had slaves after the war or…

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So Slavery Wasn’t So Bad?

Donald R. Shaffer:

One of the best Civil War blogs around is Crossroads, written by Brooks Simpson. And one of Brooks’ causes is bedeviling the so-called Heritage community of Neo-Confederates (i.e., people who actually think the Confederacy was a neat thing and its destruction in the Civil War a tragedy). While part of me enjoys watching Brooks needle the Heritage community, sometimes I wonder whether the amount of attention he pays them gives them an importance they don’t deserve. After all, Brooks sits in an endowed chair at Arizona State University and all the Heritage community has are the power of its myths. But then again, maybe Brooks is on to something because certain especially pernicious myths have the potential to do real harm. Like the myth that maybe slavery wasn’t so bad for the slaves, which is asserted by Neo-Confederates. As I have said elsewhere before, I wish people who pushed that vile notion could be transported Twilight Zone-style for a month to live as a slave on an antebellum cotton plantation. Then maybe they’d see the error of their ways. In any case, here’s what Brooks Simpson has to say on this subject. Keep up the good fight, Brooks, but be careful not to give the Heritage community undue attention as you hold their feet to the fire.

Originally posted on Crossroads:

We’ve all heard it before from defenders of Confederate heritage: slavery wasn’t so bad. Of course, the people who say this are overwhelmingly white people, including descendants of slaveholders (hello, Connie Chastain!).

Some people have also decided that anything Charles Barkley says is worth listening to. We in the Phoenix area know differently. Barkley was a talented, personable basketball player who reminded us that he was not a role model, and with good reason. However, Barkley has decided that because he can comment on NBA games, he can use that forum to comment on everything else under the sun, and to do so in a way that fascinates some people and sparks more than its share of eye-rolling and head-shaking responses.

So when the Round Mound of Rebound decided to agree with Confederate heritage apologists advocates that slavery might not have been as bad as some people…

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African Americans and Sherman’s March

EbenezerCreek

Ebenezer Creek, Georgia, where on December 9, 1864, Union troops prevented thousands of black refugees who had been following them during Sherman’s March from crossing, and hundreds of the refugees subsequently drowned trying to ford the creek seeking to escape pursuing Confederate cavalry. Source: http://www.civilwaralbum.com/misc5/ebenezer_pan1.htm

***

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is now squarely focused on William Tecumseh Sherman’s legendary March to the Sea, in which he led the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of Georgia, and a cavalry division on a grand raid through the heart of Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah that lasted from mid-November to shortly before Christmas 1864. An important focus in the commemoration of this event has been on Sherman’s treatment of Georgia’s population, especially to what extent the activities of his army, particularly in foraging, caused suffering among civilians.

With one notable exception, coming from Carole Emberton over at Heather Richardson’s new website, We’re History, the debate of late over civilian suffering from Sherman’s March has focused mostly on Georgia’s white population or been essentially race-blind. Emberton, in her web article, “A Hungry Belly and Freedom,” shifts the focus to how Sherman’s March affected Georgia’s African Americans. She contends that Georgia’s slaves bore the brunt of food shortages created by Sherman’s foraging. They had never been fed terribly well to begin with, Emberton asserts, and years of malnutrition left many slaves on the path of Sherman’s March especially vulnerable to the resulting food scarcity in its wake, resulting in widespread suffering and even death from malnutrition-related causes.

The suffering also certainly puts into skeptical perspective Sherman’s subsequently famous and celebrated Special Field Orders, No. 15, issued on January 16, 1865, in which he set aside 400,000 acres of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida for ex-slaves to subsist on (helping to create the legend of “40 Acres and a Mule” since each family was limited to forty acres and the Union forces supposedly donated some former slaves surplus army mules). The suffering of Georgia’s slaves during the march helps explain this humanitarian gesture as essentially an act of damage control in the press from a general officer not noted for sympathy to African Americans.

Still, the incident which no doubt played the greater role in prompting Special Field Orders, No. 15 occurred on December 9, 1864, at Ebenezer Creek, Georgia (please see the image above). If some slaves were starving due to the foraging of Sherman’s men, it did not stop thousands of other slaves from attaching themselves to his army. The presence of some of the slaves was welcome, especially strong, able-bodied men who served in the “pioneer corps” at the front of the columns clearing the army’s way by repairing and building-up roads for heavy wagons, removing obstructions placed by Confederate militia and cavalry that shadowed Sherman’s army, and any other tasks necessary to assisting its forward progress. Various of other slaves made themselves useful in camp and in other roles.

The problem from the perspective of Union forces were the hundreds, eventually thousands of refugee slaves that attached themselves to Sherman’s columns but did not labor for it. Some were the dependents of African Americans working for Sherman’s army. Others simply sought to secure their freedom and safety by attaching themselves to the white Northerners, not trusting what their owners or other white Southeners would do when the Yankees moved on. Still others, as Carole Emberton noted, were hungry as a result of Union foraging and sought food from the one place they could be reasonably sure had it–Sherman’s army. It also was the case that some slaves simply were curious to see the northern army, which they regarded as their liberators and once they located the Yankees were loath to return to their place of enslavement. The efforts of slaveholders and other whites to discredit Union soldiers in the eyes of the slaves prior to Sherman’s arrival had backfired, as Edmund L. Drago put it, with “stories of Yankees’ burning and drowning blacks, forcing them to fight, harnessing them to carts, or shipping them to Cuba seldom succeeded in engendering fear among the slaves.”

Some Union commanders wanted to get rid of the black hangers on, who they believed potentially imperiled the progress of the army and proved a drain on its resources. No officer felt this way more strongly than Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, the XIV Corps’ commander, who used his middle initial in vain attempt to avoid association with the Confederate President to whom he was not related by blood, but had caused him to be nicknamed uncharitably within the Union Army, “General Reb.”

On December 9, 1864, as the XIV Corps crossed swollen Ebenezer Creek about twenty miles north of Savannah, Davis acted ruthlessly to detach his army from the approximately 5,000 black refugees who had joined his column. The refugees were kept from crossing the creek until the army had passed over the pontoon bridge, which was then dismantled before the refugees could cross. The black refugees were left to the mercy of Confederate cavalry under Joseph Wheeler, who had been shadowing Sherman’s army throughout the march, much too weak to attack Sherman head on, but able to pick off stragglers and foraging parties that strayed too far from the main columns. Rather than allow themselves to be captured by Wheeler’s cavalry, hundreds of black refugees, mostly women, children, and the elderly, tried to ford Ebenezer Creek, where many drowned. The remainder were captured by the Confederate cavalry and faced an uncertain fate, with no doubt many being returned to slavery.

Cut off from communications with the North during the march, news of the incident at Ebenezer Creek initially was slow to spread, but after Sherman’s forces occupied the port of Savannah, Georgia, on December 21, 1864, accounts from appalled eyewitnesses in Davis’ army quickly made their way to the outside world and into the northern press, prompting Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton himself to travel down to Savannah to investigate, arriving on January 11, 1865. Sherman managed to convince Stanton that Davis had acted properly, and the furor over the incident quickly died away in the glow in the North over the general success of the March to the Sea. Jefferson C. Davis never faced any formal proceedings over Ebenezer Creek and was even later breveted to Major General. It was easy for most white Northerners quickly to forget the incident because from their perspective the victims were only negroes. Especially, with Sherman’s grand if dubious gesture of granting 400,000 acres for recently liberated slaves to occupy five days after Stanton’s arrival (land which would be returned to its original owners months later by Andrew Johnson’s amnesty for ex-Confederates in May 1865).

So despite William Tecumseh Sherman’s successful effort at damage control in the northern press and his superiors in Washington, the incident at Ebenezer Creek on December 9, 1864, remains a blot on Sherman’s March and a tragic moment in the history of emancipation in the United States. Hundreds of slaves died so close to final freedom and thousands of others presumably were re-enslaved for a time because one Union corps commander placed questionable military expediency over urgent humanitarian considerations. Of course, this was indicative of the character of the entire march, where many thousands more Georgia slaves suffered hunger, and possibly starved, because the Union Army confiscated food that would have fed them.

Still, one cannot help but believe that despite the death and suffering for African Americans from Sherman’s March that for most it was heartening for Georgia’s slaves to see the arrival of the blue columns, for all the suffering their transit caused. The Union soldiers, as elsewhere, were the harbingers that the death of slavery was near and day of jubilee would soon arrive. For if the Confederates could not stop the Sherman’s legions as they marched through Georgia, how could they stop the final collapse of slavery?

Sources: 1) http://werehistory.org/hungry-belly-and-freedom/; 2) http://www.historynet.com/betrayal-at-ebenezer-creek.htm; 3) Edmund L. Drago, “How Sherman’s March Through Georgia Affected the Slaves,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 57 (Fall 1973): 361-75.

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Slavery Ends in Maryland: November 1, 1864

Abraham Lincoln originally had planned for emancipation to begin in the loyal slave states, with slaveholders gradually freeing their slaves over the remainder of the nineteenth century and being compensated with financing provided by the federal government. (And as many ex-slaves as possible then emigrating to some ill-defined tropical destination.) Lincoln tried to sell this plan during the first half of 1862, but because of strong resistance among slaveholders in the loyal states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, formal emancipation began in the Confederate South with the Emancipation Proclamation. The disloyalty of slaveholders gave Lincoln, he believed, the power to free slaves in the rebellious states by decree as a war measure using his powers as commander-in-chief. These powers, he also believed, did not extend to the loyal slave states because they were not in rebellion. If freedom was to come to these states, short a federal constitutional amendment, it would have to come from these states themselves.

And on November 1, 1864, Maryland was the first of the loyal slave states to end slavery on its own accord. Getting to that point had not been an easy process. It was given a head start of sorts by the fact Maryland’s slave-based economy had been in decline for decades before the Civil War. Maryland’s farmers long had been making the shift from tobacco, which was suitable for a slave workforce to cereal grains, which were not. The state’s slaveholders had responded to their now surplus workforce either by freeing slaves or (more often) selling them into the internal slave trade (which meant they generally ended up in the cotton states). But a result of the crop shift was that by the eve of the Civil War, the 1860 Census revealed about half of Maryland’s African-American population already was free.

What decades of tobacco’s decline had started, the Civil War accelerated by placing pressures on the peculiar institution which Maryland’s slave system found itself unable to cope with. First, Union troops from the free states entered Maryland over the war’s course, often staying in the state for extended periods, and providing protection in their camps from recapture to numerous slaves, often in return for the fugitives acting as temporary servants. Second, when slavery ended in the District of Columbia in Spring 1862, it became a new sanctuary for Maryland slaves, especially after the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act in June 1864. Third, the advent of black recruitment into the Union army in 1863, led to thousands of slaves leaving their plantations and gaining their freedom in federal ranks. The collective result of these events and the general weakening of state enforcement of slavery brought on by Civil War caused the price of slaves in Maryland to plummet as many owners sought to sell their human property while they still could, but found few buyers.

Still, some slaveholders continued to resist emancipation and two important bulwarks of slavery hung on in Maryland, in the southern counties and the Eastern shore. Both areas tended to be away from areas where either Union or Confederate forces routinely operated, and the plantation economy there was as robust as anywhere in the state. Slaveholders also had remained politically powerful in the state, even as slavery was in gradual decline before the Civil War. They had managed to enshrine the peculiar institution into the state’s constitution in 1851, meaning that any state-based effort to end slavery in Maryland would require a new state constitution.

The impetus for just such a new constitution came as the Civil War led the political power of the state’s slaveholders to go into decline. The war represented an opportunity for long marginalized anti-slavery forces to assert themselves. Interests that saw Maryland’s future in non-slave-based agriculture and manufacturing, and in growing commercial ties with the North and overseas. With many Maryland Democrats either having gone south to join the Confederacy or their political activities curtailed by Lincoln’s administration and the Union army, which believed Maryland must be held inside the Union by all means, a pro-Union political movement arose in the state during the Civil War under the leadership of future governor, Thomas Swann. It was Swann, who in 1863, pushed the Union party to embrace immediate abolition as a political goal.

With the support of the Union party, which dominated Maryland’s politics after 1863, the new state constitution, which included a ban on slavery, was put up to a referendum on October 12-13, 1864. The vote to approve the constitution was close, in an election marked by charges of intimidation and fraud, and the proposed constitution likely would have lost, but for Maryland’s Union soldiers who were allowed to vote in the field and overwhelmingly supported ending slavery. With the referendum narrowly approved it went into effect on November 1, 1864, 15o years ago today.

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