I enjoyed reading a post made yesterday by Jared Frederick in his blog, History Matters, about a recent lecture given by Gary Gallagher at West Virginia University. As Frederick summarizes the gist of Gallagher’s remarks:
Gallagher’s lecture was entitled “Wherever Our Army Has Been, There Remain No Slaves: The Union Army in the Equation of Emancipation.” He delved into the Federals’ varied roles in slave liberation. Gallagher urged his audience to view emancipation as a diverse process not necessarily revolving around a single person or event. As he noted, “The impact of the Union army should be central to any consideration of the process of emancipation. To leave it out–whether to emphasize the movement toward freedom of hundreds of thousands of African Americans, Abraham Lincoln’s continuing importance, or some other factor–prevents true understanding of one of the transformative movements in American history.” In other words, the notion of emancipation has been largely demilitarized in the consciousness of many historians, focusing instead on the broad political and social ramifications of escaped slaves, politicians, and President Lincoln.
This summary is fairly consistent with the thesis of Gary Gallagher’s recent book, The Union War (2011). But if Jared Frederick is summarizing Gallagher correctly, I am heartened by his remark, “to view emancipation as a diverse process not necessarily revolving around a single person or event.” This would suggest Gallagher has backed off a little from The Union War, when he states of the Union Army, “Their hard and costly service salvaged the Union and, more than any other factor, made possible emancipation” (3). No serious scholar would leave out the Union Army from the story of emancipation in the American Civil War. The arrival of Union forces undermined slave discipline by essentially nullifying slaveholders’ ability to use force against their slaves. It reached the point later in the war, where even the prospect of the Union Army’s arrival was enough to undermine slave discipline and force planters to renegotiate the terms of their slaves’ work to keep them from abandoning plantations.
Yet it is not right to privilege the Union Army or another person or group of persons as the most important factor in emancipation. While the Union Army certainly made freedom for the slaves possible, it likely would have not become an agent of liberation had not the slaves forced the issue by seeking refuge with it. For example, in April 1861, Gen. Benjamin Butler offered the services of his troops to worried Maryland slaveholders, who believed a slave revolt was imminent. The following month, now in command of Fortress Monroe in Virginia, confronted with three slaves, escaped from building Confederate fortifications, seeking sanctuary in his lines, Butler gave them refuge. Indeed, the main reason the Union Army became an agent of liberation was its recognition of the military value of slaves to the Confederacy. Which would not have happened had not Confederate forces put slaves to work en mass in support of their military operations. So not only the slaves should receive credit for helping to liberate themselves, but white Southerners deserve backhanded credit as well for inadvertently giving Union forces a reason to undermine slavery by making use of their slaves for military purposes. And credit must be given to President Lincoln and Congress for their increasing support of emancipation over the course of the war. And the northern electorate for supporting emancipation at critical moments, when had the weight of opinion been different, Abraham Lincoln and other northern leaders might have backed away from emancipation. And the weight of international opinion that was increasingly against slavery and prevented the major European powers from supporting the Confederacy or actually intervening in the conflict, when otherwise it was in their geopolitical interest to do so.
So the moral here is that there is plenty of people and groups that are responsible for the American Civil War becoming a war that destroyed slavery. And the chain of cause and effect is sufficiently complex that it really is not useful trying to decide who or what was most important in emancipation. What we can be thankful for was that the interest and actions of these various people and groups converged in such a way that in the first half of the 1860s, they finally caused the end of a revolting institution that blotted the promise of the United States.