Northern Complicity in Slavery During the Civil War

In yesterday’s Disunion in the New York Times, Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman shared a piece entitled “Partners in Iniquity.” It basically explores how the northern states were complicit in and benefited from slavery throughout its existence. This is a fact well-known to the historical profession, but not as well-known outside it, so this blog appearing in the Times is both useful and timely (just as the continuing focus of Disunion on slavery in the Civil War has been salutary).

Beckert and Rockman write, “Historians increasingly understand that slavery was not just important to one region of the United States, but to the economic development of the United States as a whole. This realization changes everything: by recognizing the economic interdependence of North and South and slavery’s centrality to American capitalism itself, it becomes possible to see the outbreak of the Civil War as more surprising than predictable.” From this perspective the Civil War was not an irrepressible conflict, but an avoidable war which business interests ultimately proved unable to prevent.

What the authors don’t write about is that the interdependence they discuss continued even after April 1861. A trade existed, both legal and illegal, between North and South throughout the Civil War. Northern businessmen, operating under licenses issued by the U.S. Treasury Department, acquired cotton and other commodities from Confederate sources in exchange for manufactured goods, including military supplies.

Although the Lincoln administration wanted to strangle the southern economy and mounted a naval blockade of Confederate ports, they recognized that it would be useful to allow some cotton to continue to flow out of the South to discourage European powers, such as Great Britain and France, from intervening in the conflict even if it meant some military goods made it back into the Confederacy. The Confederate decision early on to embargo exports of cotton to pressure the Europeans toward intervention actually assisted the North before the naval blockade became more effective in reducing but not extinguishing the Confederacy’s international trade.

Allowing a limited trade with the South also served the goal of encouraging Unionist sentiments there. It was Lincoln’s hope to reconcile southerners to the Union by reviving the cotton trade in areas of the South that came under occupation by federal forces. (Indeed, this was one reason for exempting Union occupied areas of the South from the Emancipation Proclamation–planters there needed to be able to keep their slaves to grow cotton.) Particularly if the Federals could capture a major southern port, which they did with biggest one of all–New Orleans–on May 1, 1861, they could use it to draw southern interests in its hinterland back toward the Union with trade. But accomplishing this goal required allowing southern cotton planters, not only in areas under occupation, but also in areas still under Confederate sway, to be able to sell their cotton. Which was accomplished officially via the Treasury Department license system and unofficially via trade that took place by evading or with the tacit approval (often greased by bribes) of federal authorities.

The Lincoln administration also had to permit some trade with the South so New England textile mills could continue to function (including clothing Union forces) and to allow the North to maintain its trade with Europe, which before the war had often involved northern merchants purchasing European goods with cotton they had acquired in the South.

So a dirty fact, if not exactly a dirty secret, of the Civil War was that the North continued to be complicit in the southern slave economy until the last days of the war. The volume of the trade fell significantly compared to before 1861, which served Union military interests of strangling the Confederacy economically. But even as it extinguished slavery, the North continued as a “partner of iniquity” until the end of the peculiar institution.

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
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