Uncertainty, Discovery, and Hope – December 1862

In early December 1862, the future of emancipation in the Civil War was again in flux. By that time, the initial furor over the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had died away replaced by uncertainty over whether President Lincoln would make good on his threat in that document to free the slaves in the parts of the Confederacy not under federal control if the rebellious states did not restore their allegiance to the Union.

Abraham Lincoln fed that uncertainty with his annual message to Congress dated December 1, 1862, when he made one last effort to convince the slave states to accept gradual compensated emancipation, along with emigration of freed slaves to some place outside the United States. Clearly, Lincoln as 1862 ended still preferred a gradual end of slavery, which he no doubt saw as more orderly and peaceful, than the sudden and potentially tumultuous end to slavery inherent in the Emancipation Proclamation.

Yet it was also manifest by late 1862 that Lincoln was dedicated firmly to ending slavery. It was merely a question of how, not if. While the President dedicated much of his annual message to thinking aloud over the details of gradual compensated emancipation and emigration schemes, as if musing might somehow sell the nation’s citizenry on these ideas, at the end he left no uncertainty toward his ultimate purpose. In oft quoted words that have echoed down since, Abraham Lincoln wrote:

Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just–a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.

By December 1862 then, Abraham Lincoln had concluded that ending slavery was the only way to save the Union, his paramount goal in the Civil War.

Yet it was not just Lincoln who was in a position to influence the future course of emancipation. The Americans, of course, with the greatest interest in Lincoln’s true intentions were the slaves. Like the rest of the population they were uncertain about whether Abraham Lincoln would in the new year make final the Emancipation Proclamation. And the uncertainty made some slaves understandably restless. The New York Times‘ correspondent in Washington, D.C., reported on December 4 that slaves in Maryland’s southern counties, where slavery was most entrenched in that state were exhibiting this restlessness, despite the fact that Maryland was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation because it had remained loyal. The correspondent wrote:

Persons living in the lower counties of Maryland say that the slaves there are becoming very restive, in view of the near approach of the first of January, when they expect to become free, under the President’s Emancipation Proclamation. The fact that such an edict has gone forth, one informant says, is known to every negro in Lower Maryland. Considable trepidation exist among the whites, who fear that the negroes, when they learn that the Proclamation does not apply to their case, will break into open revolt, and, by force of arms, attempt the work of self-liberation. We learn that on the farm of a large slaveowner, living near Port Tobacco, a number of arms — some of them Government muskets — were recently found, which had been concealed by the negroes; showing a policy of preparation most significant at this time.

This newspaper article yet again demonstrates the influence the slaves had over their own liberation. While they could not by themselves bring about their own freedom, collectively their restlessness made whites in Maryland fearful to the point it would come to the attention of a Washington, D.C. reporter.

Yet December 1862 also was a time of discovery related to emancipation. One such discover was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, then freshly installed as the Colonel of the 1st South Carolina Infantry. Higginson, long a radical abolitionist, was predisposed to think well of the men of his command, all of them recently liberated slaves from the Sea Islands region of coastal South Carolina, George, and Florida. Yet it was one thing to sympathize in the abstract with the plight of the slaves, quite another to get to know them as people, especially those from the Sea Islands, many of whom spoke the Gullah dialect as their first language, largely unintelligible to a white New Englander like Higginson.

Still, despite the linguistic and cultural gap, Thomas Wentworth Higginson quickly grew to admire the men of his new regiment, especially how their behavior quickly dispelled many myths about the slaves that even white abolitionists had accepted as fact. For example, the belief that slaves were naturally lazy and would only work under the threat of the lash. On the same day Abraham Lincoln reported to Congress, December 1, 1862, Higginson wrote in his journal:

How absurd is the impression bequeathed by Slavery in regard to these Southern blacks, that they are sluggish and inefficient in labor! Last night, after a hard day’s work, (our guns and the remainder of our tents being just issued,) an order came from Beaufort that we should be ready in the evening to unload a steamboat’s cargo of boards, being some of those captured by them a few weeks since, and now assigned for their use. I wondered if the men would grumble at the night-work; but the steamboat arrived by seven, and it was bright moonlight when they went at it. Never have I beheld such a jolly scene of labor. Tugging these wet and heavy boards over a bridge of boats ashore, then across the slimy beach at low tide, then up a steep bank, and all in one great uproar of merriment for two hours. Running most of the time, chattering all the time, snatching the boards from each other’s backs as if they were some coveted treasure, getting up eager rivalries between different companies, pouring great choruses of ridicule on the heads of all shirkers, they made the whole scene so enlivening that I gladly stayed out in the moonlight for the whole time to watch it. And all this without any urging or any promised reward, but simply as the most natural way of doing the thing. The steamboat-captain declared that they unloaded the ten thousand feet of boards quicker than any white gang could have done it; and they felt it so little, that, when, later in the night, I reproached one whom Ifound sitting by a camp-fire, cooking a surreptitious opossum, telling him that he ought to be asleep after such a job of work, he answered, with the broadest grin,—

“Oh, no, Cunnel, da’s no work at all, Cunnel; dat only jess enough for stretch we.”

Hence, while there was uncertainty and fear about emancipation in early December 1862, there was also discovery and hope. It remained to be seen which would prevail in a future all Americans had some influence over, but that none could control on their own.

Sources: 1) http://www.infoplease.com/t/hist/state-of-the-union/74.html; 2) http://www.nytimes.com/1862/12/05/news/washington-important-work-laid-congress-correspondence-relating-army-potomac.html?pagewanted=2; 3) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/02/leaves-from-an-officers-journal/308820/.

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 donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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