Civil War Emancipation Turns One!

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.

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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8 Responses to Civil War Emancipation Turns One!

  1. Mark H. says:

    This is a very enjoyable and helpful blog. I thank you for it! — Mark Higbee

  2. Margaret Blough says:

    I have always regarded the Civil War and its impact on the institution of slavery to be Exhibit A on the Law of Unintended Consequences.

  3. Edwin Thompson says:

    You stated: At the beginning of 1861, freedom for the slaves seemed inconceivable. I don’t think history supports this statement.

    Slavery demise was clear when the Republican Party formed in 1856. The French and the British had already banned it decades before. The framers of our constitution argued over it. The fugitive slave act and Dred Scott decision fueled the continued objection to slavery. It was a time when even the governor of New York was helping slave’s escape to Canada. No – at the beginning of 1861, the institution of slavery was on its way out.

    Within 4 years of the creation of the Republican Party, Lincoln was nominated on a platform in which the federal government had the authority to control slavery. He won 50% of the Northern/Midwestern vote in a 4 way race. Lincoln was not even on the ballot in 10 states and still won with 40% of the popular vote. Today we talk of mandates – that was a mandate.

    Perhaps if you said people didn’t think they would have to crush the southern states in a long drawn out war to limit slavery, I would agree. But the long drawn out war was only because of the depth of southern arrogance. As you said: “They could experience firsthand the arrogance of slaveholders and see the suffering of the slaves”. Travel opened their eyes.

    • Hi Edwin. At the start of 1861, all white Southerners had to do was keep their cool, wait and see, and not do anything rash (like secede) and slavery was secure in the United States for the immediate future. Lincoln and Congress’ mood in early 1861 was to bend over backwards to demonstrate they were not a threat to slavery where it already existed. Certainly, by seeking to limit its expansion, Lincoln and the Republicans called into question the survival of slavery in the long run. But, of course, believing with certainty that emancipation would result in a bloody race war, white Southerners felt they could not tolerate even the slightest threat to the peculiar institution. But I sometimes wonder how history would have been different if the Lower South had not responded to Lincoln’s election with secession.

  4. Edwin Thompson says:

    Hi Donald – Yesterday I forgot to congratulate you on the anniversary of your blog. I read it and enjoy it. Thanks for posting the history and your thoughts.

    As we head into an election year, we hear many candidates discuss positions. In a democracy, we vote for these people based on their words, their reactions to challenges, and their positions on the present day condition. 1860 was no different. Lincoln was a country lawyer, unknown to the Mid Atlantic and New England states; and he would have remained unknown and unelectable unless he could win wins the votes of these people.

    Lincoln did this with his 1860 Cooper Union speech in NYC. Even then, NYC was the economic, political, and cultural center of this country. New York had great influence on the election. His speech won the votes of these people because he was going to stand up to slavery. It is why the south succeeded before he even came into office. It is disingenuous to state that all the south had to do was nothing. Nothing would have been the demise of slavery and the southern political leaders knew it. Slavery is a culture of violence and keeping people ignorant (both free white men and slaves). Lincoln election resulted in a violent reaction by the south – which is consistent with the culture of slavery. His Cooper Union words told southern leaders what was coming.

    Too often people forget why Lincoln was elected in the first place. Lincoln won the election because a majority of stubborn, self righteous New Englanders and a mixed bag of other American voted him. They suported his positon on critical issues of 1860. His position: slavery was evil.

    PS – Your post has made me re-read the Cooper Union Speech. It may be the greatest American speech.

  5. Edwin Thompson says:

    Hi Donald

    Friday’s Disunion article goes right to the heart of Lincoln’s intentions with slavery. In response to a question on the pressure from abolitionist, Lincoln responsed:

    To the Wa-al that reminds me of a party of Methodist parsons that was travelling in Illinois when I was a boy, and had a branch to cross that was pretty bad — ugly to cross, ye know, because the waters was up. And they got considerin’ and discussin’ how they should git across it, and they talked about it for two hours, and one on ’em thought they had ought to cross one way when they got there, and another another way, and they got quarrellin’ about it, till at last an old brother put in, and he says, says he, ‘Brethren, this here talk ain’t no use. I never cross a river until I come to it.

    This little story says alot of intentions.

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