Trying to Stand in the Way of History

Last Thursday’s Disunion in the New York Times has a piece by Richard Striner on Abraham Lincoln’s attempt in early 1862 to induce Delaware to accept compensated emancipation. This was a topic that Civil War Emancipation covered back in late November. As indicated then and by Striner in Disunion, the Delaware legislature defeated Lincoln’s initiative “in February 1862 by a margin of one vote. Then the legislature worsened the situation by passing a declaration that if ‘the people of Delaware desire to abolish slavery within her borders, they will do so in their own way’ and that ‘any interference from without, and all suggestions of saving expense to the people . . . are improper.’

President Lincoln’s subsequent attempts to encourage the other loyal slave states to adopt compensated emancipation also received little support. Having not seceded, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri felt they had earned the right, especially in light of the First Confiscation Act, to keep their slaves. In this spirit, Border state politicians launched a counter-offensive in early 1861 seeking to dampen the growing sentiment for emancipation in the North. This sentiment supported the war for Union but sought to prevent slavery’s abolition from becoming an aim of the conflict.

Ultimately, of course, the efforts of the loyal slave states to fend off emancipation would prove futile. But in early 1861, although increasingly embattled, they fought to keep the war about Union only. On January 2, 1862, Anthony Kennedy of Maryland presented the U.S. Senate a resolution from the Maryland legislature that made clear its opposition to emancipation. The resolution began:

The General Assembly of Maryland have seen with concern certain indications at the seat of the General Government of an interference with slavery in the slaveholding States, and cannot hesitate to express their sentiments and those of the people they represent, in regard to a policy so unwise and mischievous. This war is prosecuted by the nation but with one object; that, namely, of the restoration of the Union as it was when the rebellion broke out. The rebellious States are to be brought back to their places in the Union, without change or diminution of their constitutional rights.

The resolution then referred to the U.S. House resolution of the previous summer which declared “this war is declared to be prosecuted, not ‘in any spirit of oppression, or for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, or purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union.’

It also made a favorable reference to Gen. John A. Dix and the expedition he sent in November 1861 to restore Union control in Virginia’s Northern Neck (an isolated coastal section of the state that is immediately south of Maryland’s Eastern Shore). Seeking to reassure the white population there of his good intentions, Dix had issued a proclamation, dated November 13, 1861, stating among other things, “Special directions have been given not to interfere with the condition of any persons held to domestic service; and, in order that there may be no ground for mistake or pretext for misrepresentation, commanders of regiments and corps have been instructed not to permit any such persons to come within their lines.

So Dix obviously made it clear he would not be Benjamin Butler, giving refuge to the slaves of disloyal owners, a policy to warm the hearts of Border State slaveholders.

It was not just in Maryland, where such fervent anti-abolitionist sentiments held sway in early 1862. For example, in response to Secretary of War’s suppressed annual message to Congress, the Democrat newspaper, published in Louisville, Kentucky, stated of Simon Cameron’s proposal to recruit African-American soldiers for the Union Army:

Arm the slaves of the rebels, and the act will do as much harm to the Unionist as the rebel. It changes, as we have said before, the whole contest from a sacred cause of religion and patriotism to a John Brown raid. It loses, if carried into effect, all the border slave States, and, we firmly believe, some of the conservative border free States. It concludes the war as effectually as if a hundred battles had been gained by the Southern Confederacy.

In short, the Democrat raised the specter of slave revolt. While such fears were still strong in the Border States in early 1862, they were increasingly at odds with opinion in the North and in Congress that saw abolition as a necessary outcome of the conflict, if for no other reason to settle for all time the vexing slavery issue. For example, on January 5, 1862, the U.S. House committee on the District of Columbia reported a bill to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C. This bill, which provided for compensated emancipation, would become law in April. Clearly, as strong as anti-abolitionist sentiments were in the loyal slave states, as 1862 progressed they increasingly stood in the way of history as public opinion in the North embraced freeing the slaves.

Sources: 1); 2); 3)

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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