On January 21, 2011, I started this blog. One year and 172 posts later, it has been quite a trip. It has been a fascinating journey to follow the story of emancipation day-by-day, and to realize just how much changed between January 1861 and January 1862.
At the beginning of 1861, many politicians in the North and border slave states practically were falling over each other with eleventh hour efforts to forestall further secession and convince the states that had left to return. (Their efforts were like a clumsy spouse trying to appease their disgruntled partner as they move their things out the door.) These initiatives culminated in Washington Peace Conference of February 1861 that was rich in sentimentality but bereft of any solutions that would actually hold the Union together. Abraham Lincoln too would offer an olive branch to the South upon his inauguration in early March, but of course it would be rejected, leading to the attack on Fort Sumter in April as the Confederacy sought to assert its independence and sovereignty.
In hindsight and with much irony, it is clear the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter arguably was perhaps the most potent blow ever struck for emancipation. By making war on the federal government, the Confederates effectively turned it from a protector and abettor of the peculiar institution into its implacable foe and the increasingly witting ally of the slaves. To crush the rebellion would require depriving the South of its resources to make war, and the slaves were a particularly valuable asset for the Confederacy. Hence, when confronted with the choice of whether to return escaped slaves to their rebel owners, Gen. Benjamin Butler made the critical decision in May 1861 to give them sanctuary, inadvertently opening the floodgates of freedom to whatever slaves could reach Union lines.
Of course, without the initiative of the slaves Butler likely never would have had to make the choice that culminated in the First Confiscation Act in August 1861, legally depriving rebel slaveholders of their human property. While few sources exist on what the slaves were feeling and thinking in 1861, it is clear from their actions and their background noise in the writings of white people that they believed the war was about them, however much that whites denied it, and that they were prepared to use the conflict to try to gain freedom. Their efforts in this regard were less the result of conscious collective action, as masses of people that wanted the same thing–freedom–saw their opportunities to achieve that goal and took them.
The slaves found abettors to their goal of freedom in the Union military. Certainly, Union forces did not start out intending to help the slaves gain freedom–quite the opposite. In the earliest days of the war, Union army leaders, in particular, tried to act in a conciliatory fashion toward slaveholders in the border states as they staged for action against the Confederacy. But contact with slavery, slaves, and slaveholders soured many Union soldiers on the peculiar institution as they confronted it up close for the first time. They could experience firsthand the arrogance of slaveholders and see the suffering of the slaves. Even if they dismissed what they saw, Union troops often recognized that fugitive slaves could make their own lives easier by performing labor in their camps. Hence, through countless individual acts, the soldiers in camp undermined slavery in the loyal slave states even as Union military campaigns into Confederate territory began to accomplish something similar, most notably the Union landing at Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861.
By Fall 1861, it was increasingly clear to an growing number of influential Union personalities that a war simply for Union was simply not enough. That to achieve a true and lasting victory, slavery must be destroyed. A bold and foolhardy John C. Frémont would use his power to try to bend the Union cause to the end of emancipation, and be rebuffed by President Lincoln. But even Lincoln by the end of 1861 would be taking a tentative step toward emancipation by encouraging Delaware to enact gradual and compensated emancipation.
So, 1861 proved a critical year in the drama of emancipation in the American Civil War. At the beginning of 1861, freedom for the slaves seemed inconceivable. By year’s end, it was at the very least an increasingly realistic possibility, if not a foregone conclusion. Such was how the war’s outbreak had changed the political landscape for slavery in the United States. Yet it would require further developments to make emancipation a reality, and I look forward in the second year of this blog of following those events as they transpire in the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, plus bringing up whatever else that arises that proves to be of interest.