Interracial worship service, Port Royal, S.C. Source: The London Illustrated News, 5 December 1863
December 1863 was a busy month in the history of emancipation in the American Civil War. On December 8, President Abraham Lincoln issued the first salvo in the debate over how Reconstruction should proceed in the South following the final Union victory that most people in the North believed at the end of 1863, after a series of major battlefield successes that year, was now only a matter of time. Formally called the
“Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction,” but more commonly known as the “10 Percent Plan,” it got the latter name because it envisioned a generous and lenient peace in which all but a specified group of high-ranking rebels would be automatically eligible for amnesty and a seceded state could resume a full and equal place in the Union, if only 10 percent of 1860 voters swore an oath of future loyalty to the United States. The proclamation would prove controversial and lead the Radical Republicans in 1864 to push through Congress an alternative, the Wade-Davis bill, which proposed to deal with the Confederate South much more harshly (a story for another time).
One of the reasons the Radical Republicans disliked Lincoln’s 10 Percent Plan was it made no provisions for the former slaves beyond indicating that slave property would not be restored to ex-Confederates taking the oath. Essentially, it set aside the question of the future status of the ex-slaves beyond making clear they would not be returned to bondage, even if their former owners resumed their loyalty to the United States.
But if the truth be told, even with the Radicals their priority in December 1863 was less the future of the former slaves and more guaranteeing they remained free, as well as liberating the millions that were still effectively slaves at the end of 1863, even if the Emancipation Proclamation had freed most of them formally at the start of the year. There also were slaves in the loyal slave states and in enclaves of the Union-occupied South not covered by the proclamation, and the nagging worry that the hodgepodge of steps taken to free slaves during the war would at some point successfully be challenged in the courts (not an idle worry given the conservative character of the American judiciary at the time).
To deal with these concerns and to end slavery for good throughout the United States, on December 14, 1863, James Ashley of Ohio introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment moved slowly through Congress, in part because of resistance from Democrats, and in part because some Radicals wanted the amendment not only to free the slaves, but also to declare their equality before the law. Although the amendment ultimately would be passed and ratified without the equality provision, the desire of some Radicals for it would be addressed later with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and ultimately the 14th and 15th Amendments.
On December 20, Abraham Lincoln affirmed his dedication to end slavery no matter what by issuing a statement that simply said, “I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation; nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.” Clearly, Lincoln was throwing down the gauntlet, letting anyone who cared, North or South, know that there would be no backsliding on freedom for the slaves. His subsequent lobbying for the 13th Amendment in Congress clearly demonstrated he was in earnest in making the statement.
Yet despite the progress to emancipation in December 1863, it should never be forgotten that statements and legislative initiatives of political elites ultimately affected the lives of real people in profound ways. People that at the end of 1863 were in an awkward and uncertain condition, with the institution of slavery crumbling around them, but not yet entirely free of its influence. For example, 1863 had seen the first widespread recruiting of African Americans into the Union Army. While black men that enlisted effectively escaped the clutches of slavery, they often left behind loved ones on plantations where their departure was resented and their families faced retaliation from angry slaveholders.
An example of this phenomenon is documented in a letter dated 150 years ago today. Although correspondence between slaves is rare, it is not unheard of, and sometimes got preserved when it came into the hands of bureaucratic organizations like the Union Army. Such was the case, when on December 30, 1863, a slave woman, Martha Glover, wrote to her husband, Richard Glover, from Mexico, Missouri. Richard had joined the Union Army and Martha wrote him to complain of mistreatment in his absence. Presumably, he passed on the letter to his superiors in the hope they could intervene on his family’s behalf. Whether the letter had any effect in that regard is unknown, but it was preserved in the army’s papers and eventually made its way to the National Archives, where it was discovered and published by the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Martha Glover wrote 150 years ago:
My Dear Husband I have received your last kind letter a few days ago and was much pleased to hear from you once more. It seems like a long time since you left me. I have had nothing but trouble since you left. You recollect what I told you how they would do after you was gone. they abuse me because you went & say they will not take care of our children & do nothing but quarrel with me all the time and beat me scandalously the day before yesterday– Oh I never thought you would give me so much trouble as I have got to bear now. You ought not to left me in the fix I am in & all these little helpless children to take care of. I was invited to a party to night but I could not go I am in too much trouble to want to go to parties. the children talk about you all the time. I wish you could get a furlough & come to see us once more. We want to see you worse than we ever did before. Remember all I told you about how they would do me after you left–for they do worse than they ever did & I do not know what will become of me & my poor little children. Oh I wish you had staid with me & not gone till I could go with you for I do nothing but grieve all the time about you. write & tell me when you are coming.
Tell Isaac that his mother come & got his clothes she was so sorry he went. You need not tell me to beg any more married men to go. I see too much trouble to try to get any more into trouble too– Write to me & do not forget me & my children– farewell my dear husband from your wife
So what is to be made of Martha Glover’s plea to her husband beyond communicating to him the desperate nature of her situation? First, it shows the high personal price that could be paid by slave families when a father, son, or brother entered Union service. Little wonder that Martha lamented, “Oh I wish you had staid with me.” Second, it demonstrates the continued power of slaveholders as 1863 ended, despite the blows dealt to the peculiar institution by the war. So as the year came to a close, after a year of the Emancipation Proclamation and the corrosive effect of black recruitment into the Union Army and other events, while it was down, slavery was far from out for the count. More pressure would need to be applied in 1864 and beyond to bring the peculiar institution crashing down once and for all. But much progress to this end had been made in 1863.