Frustrated Abolitionists

As October 1861 rolled around some progress had been made toward freedom for the slaves. Abolitionists could point to such things as Gen. Benjamin Butler’s “contraband of war” policy endorsed first by the Lincoln administration and then by Congress when it passed the First Confiscation Act in August. They could mention a U.S. House resolution in July absolving the Union Army of capturing fugitive slaves, a move which no doubt made it harder in practice for Maryland slaveholders to reclaim their slaves who had found refuge in army camps. They could be heartened by Gen. John C. Frémont’s bold decision at the end of August to free the slaves of disloyal Missouri slaveholders (even if it was soon countermanded). They could even–quietly or not–cheer Jayhawker James H. Lane’s sacking of Osceola, Missouri, on September 23, where he carried away several hundred slaves to freedom in Kansas.

Yet the main feeling of many abolitionists in Fall 1861 was one of frustration. The source of that sentiment was the Lincoln administration’s failure to embrace emancipation as a war goal. They could not understand why Lincoln could not see the logic that the Civil War represented an unprecedented opportunity to rid the United States of the curse of slavery once and for all. As Frederick Douglass put it in September, “The present policy of our Government is evidently to put down the slave-holding rebellion, and at the same time protect and preserve slavery. This policy hangs like a mill-stone about the neck of our people.

It was left to the New York Times, usually closely aligned editorially with the Lincoln administration, to explain the government’s reluctance to move beyond confiscating slaves of disloyal owners to freeing them. A Times editorial read, in part, on October 9, 1861:

But as things stand, now, no policy could possibly be adopted which would be half so fatal to the Union cause as that which is pressed by the Abolitionists upon the Government. Its first effect would be to divide the North, — to create a powerful party in nearly every Northern State against a war to be prosecuted by such means and for such an end. Unquestionably Slavery has lost the hold which it had previous to the rebellion, on the forbearance and quasi respect of the great mass of our people. The slaveholding section is felt to have forfeited all claim on the country by its mad attempt to overthrow the Government. But still there are tens of thousands of our citizens who do not believe that the condition of the slaves would be improved by immediate emancipation, while they shrink with natural horror from the scenes of butchery and outrage by which such an event might be attended. They believe in fighting for the Union, — and are willing to devote themselves, thoroughly and heartily, to the task of sustaining the Constitution and restoring the authority of the Government; — but they would not give either men, money or moral support to a war waged for the emancipation of Southern slaves.

¶So long as this sentiment pervades the public mind to any considerable extent, it is very evident that the policy recommended would destroy utterly that unanimity of opinion and of action which, up to the present time, has constituted the strength of the Government in its contest with rebellion. No true friend of the Union will do anything to divide the North. No more effective way of aiding the rebels could be devised than to thrust into the controversy some new and exciting issue which should have that effect. The country has need of the utmost energies which the hearty and unanimous action of the people can bring forward. Yet who does not know that thousands and tens of thousands of those officers and men, who are now in the field to defend the Union, would withdraw instantly, if the war were to be openly and avowedly waged for the emancipation of the slaves?

¶This of itself would be a sufficient reason [???] for opposing, under existing circumstances,the policy proposed. There are other considerations, equally cogent, against it. The real contest for the Union is in the Border States. There is a powerful and resolute Union Party in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Tennessee, fighting with the North and West in defence of the Government, it would be unwise to weaken their hands by any act not absolutely required by the rest of the country; — and while the Union cause would be weakened through divisions in the North and West by an emancipation edict, it would be ruined in the States we have named. We can see nothing to be gained anywhere to the Union cause by such a policy. We do not see how it could have any practical effect upon the rebel States most interested in Slavery; for it could not liberate a single slave beyond the lines of our army, where there would be no power to carry it into execution. If there had been any indication of a purpose on the part of the slaves to rebel, such an edict might stimulate and encourage them in so doing. But it is among the most remarkable features of the war that, up to the present time, we have no authentic intelligence from any quarter of the slaveholding States, of any movement whatever, large or small, towards an insurrection of the slaves. Although the great mass of the fighting men of the South are in Virginia, the slaves in all the Southern States have made as yet no attempt to secure their freedom. Until they do so — or until the Union men in the Border States shall ask such action at the hands of the Government, as calculated to aid them in their contest with rebellion, we see no possible good to be accomplished, while much serious evil would certainly be caused by an edict of emancipation. We can see no quarter in which it would strengthen the hands of the Government, — or give greater effect to its blows; while it would divide and weaken public sentiment in the loyal States, and strengthen the rebels in those where the contest is doubtful.

¶President LINCOLN has taken upon this subject the ground of a wise and true statesmanship. While he has been faithful to the policy and sentiments of his whole life, he has held the Government to a firm and steady course upon this question. We believe that his policy is just and wise, and that it will be fully vindicated by the results. The Government has simply nothing whatever to do with Slavery — and it should have nothing whatever to do with slaves. That it may and should deprive rebel owners of their services, whenever it deprives them of their property of any kind, by way either of precaution or of punishment, there can be no doubt. Nor ought our military commanders to assume for a moment the office of slave-catchers for rebel owners; — there is no law whatever to justify them in so doing. If the slaves of such owners come within our lines let the owners pursue them and recapture them, taking all the risks and running all the chances of being themselves held to answer for their treason. Under a purely passive, let-alone policy on the part of our armies, there is no danger that Slavery will reap any undue advantage from the rebellion which is waged on its behalf against the Government.

It would take another year of war for Abraham Lincoln and many other people in the North to see the logic of the abolitionists and embrace freedom for the slaves. For their part, the slaves would not wait, as they had already shown and would continue to prove over the same period. They could and would act even Lincoln would not, and in the process they would help make clear the logic of abolition to Union victory.

Sources: 1); 2)

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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2 Responses to Frustrated Abolitionists

  1. Gil Wilson says:

    It was good that both Congress and events were ahead of Lincoln. He could afford to be the moderate because others were taking the lead. Imagine how it must have felt at Fort Monroe and the soon to be liberated Port Royal…..we’re free…maybe. Also impressive is this massive social change to the military in the field….were they fighting for Union or Freedom. It required some time to make the shift. I do believe that from the United States defeat at Bull Run the die was cast to end slavery…only a very quick war would have stopped the change.

  2. Edwin Thompson says:

    Donald – Today, the NY Times has a good article by Don H. Doyle on the French-American relationship at the begging of the civil war. Despotism was a common form of government in the 19th century. Lincoln had good reason to be concerned that a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”, could perish from the earth. Eliminating our national sin and keeping our infant republic was a challenge. Think about the fact that we had a government in which the Commander in Chief of the army was an elected official! Not typical in the mid 19th century.

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