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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

The Emancipation Proclamation

Jun 10th, 2013

3. In The Union War, Gary Gallagher energetically maintains that Union, not emancipation, defined the northern cause. Do you find this argument persuasive? How are we to understand the proclamation in light of Gallagher’s argument?

MS: Gallagher’s argument stems from an old historical conundrum: How do we explain the average northern white citizen’s motives in a war fought to end slavery, when only a minority of the northern population were abolitionists or committed to black freedom and rights? Although it should also be noted that most northerners were Free Soilers by the eve of the Civil War.

JO: Among Republicans, including Lincoln, there was never an either/or choice between a war for the Union and a war over slavery. It was always both, from beginning to end: “Liberty AND Union.”

KM: Gallagher splits Union and emancipation in a way that may have more to do with his quarrels with certain historians than with how northerners actually understood what they were fighting for. Why did so many northerners believe the Union was worth saving? Gallagher’s own sources tell us that many believed they were fighting for a national experiment of world- historical importance: a nation formed on republican, not monarchical, principles, one in which common people were entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Such ideals implied a rejection of slavery as an institution of aristocratic pretensions, one more characteristic of a European world of birthright and hierarchy than of the new world of self-government and upward mobility. The causes of Union and human liberty were thus intertwined from the beginning.

MS: Posing Union and antislavery or emancipation as competing principles or motives, I think, is a false start; instead historians should perhaps explore the complicated relationship between them. The antislavery Free Soil majority in the North that elected Lincoln in 1860, and the men who bore arms in defense of the Union and voted overwhelmingly for him in 1864 saw the two as inextricably linked after emancipation became the official policy of the U.S. government. In fact, northerners overwhelmingly rejected the badly defeated Constitutional Union Bell-Everett ticket of 1860, with its platform of allegiance to the Union, and the 1864 Democratic presidential candidate, George McClellan, whose election slogan, “Union without emancipation,” did not gain much traction.

JO: Republican lawmakers started from the assumption that the Constitution did not allow them to prosecute a war for any “purpose” other than the restoration of the Union. But they also started from the assumption that slavery was the cause of the war and emancipation a legitimate means of suppressing the rebellion. Long before he was elected in 1860, Lincoln said that slavery was the “only” thing that had ever threatened to destroy the Union. The proclamation reflects that conviction: we are faced with a rebellion caused by slavery, and by freeing the slaves we suppress the rebellion.

LM: Gallagher’s position does not seem controversial to me. The issue appears always to have been how a war that began as a war to preserve the union became transformed into a war to abolish slavery, both as a means of accomplishing that goal and for the purpose of eradicating an evil institution.

KM: If most white northerners did not go into the war hoping to abolish slavery, they did have big problems with slaveholders, and they proved willing to hit slavery as hard as necessary—to the point of destroying it—if that’s what was required to vanquish the Confederacy. If there is a historical question here, perhaps it is precisely this: How—among northerners who were not already abolitionists—did support for Union and disgust with the “slave power” shade into support of immediate freedom for slaves? This is not a question Gallagher’s book answers, in part because it starts with the premise that Union and emancipation were two completely separate principles.

MSJ: My point of reflection on The Union War is somewhat different in that I want to point up what readers will not learn from The Union War. They will not learn what motivated African American northerners to devote themselves to the war effort, which they did by the tens of thousands. I say that we cannot learn this from the book because, as Gallagher forthrightly explains, African Americans in the Union states did not fall within the purview of his study. Their numbers were small, he reasons, such that black Americans on the home front and on the battlefield field can be bracketed out of an analysis of “the North” and its commitment to preserving the Union. Gallagher’s choice in this instance represents a missed opportunity to tell us something more ambitious about the nature of northern motivations for supporting the Civil War.

LM: As to who embraced a doctrine of emancipation and for what reasons, who opposed it and how they expressed that opposition, and how attitudes changed over time, that is the multivalent story that continues to emerge. The key, as far as the proclamation goes, is how Lincoln’s thinking developed, in response to what discussions, texts, and events and how his changing understanding made the union war into an abolition war.

KM: Gallagher’s book did not change how I see the Emancipation Proclamation, but Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning did. Her book compellingly reveals what difference the proclamation made not just for empowering the enslaved to seek out Union lines but also for shaping Confederate policy. By providing for the enlistment of black men as soldiers, the proclamation recognized that black men’s national loyalty mattered and worked to cement their allegiance to the Union. This, in turn, helped pressure Confederate officials to rethink slaves’ relationship to their nation. McCurry thus reframes the war’s final years as, in large part, a contest between the Union and the Confederacy for the loyalty and manpower of southern slaves, an insight that helps us understand, among other things, the timing and rationale for the Confederate push to enlist black men as soldiers.

MSJ: Gallagher’s failure to explain African American thinking about the Union rests on the assumption, it seems, that there is nothing to explain. In this view, the reasons for African American support of the war effort are obvious. Not so fast. Were black northerners always motivated by emancipation and never by Union? Did their ideas shift over time? Did Union and emancipation exist as companion objectives? To what extent did black and white citizen-soldiers share ideas about the war’s purpose? To what extent did they disagree? Gallagher does not aim to answer these questions. Nonetheless, the answers to these questions are neither obvious nor simple to arrive at. In this short space, I’ll merely suggest that incorporating the view of black Americans into our thinking may enrich our insight into the war in the North. No group of northerners expended more effort to win entrée into military service, and no group risked more than black men who faced enslavement and execution in the field. And when we look closely at how African Americans debated the war across time, we learn something about the alchemy of “northern” thought. It was not merely framed by either Union or emancipation. It is worth recalling, for example, that early in the war some black northerners were motivated neither by emancipating the slaves nor preserving the Union. They objected altogether to military service, arguing that no nation that had refused to honor their citizenship should be defended at the risk to young black men’s lives. Objections to black military service gave way to arguments that posited military service as an avenue to citizenship rights for free black northerners. And this view never receded—black northerners were motivated by their longstanding claims to equal rights in the northern states. They were at the same time patriots, who claimed a sort of hyper-loyalty to the Union that only those who had been so long dispossessed could manifest. And they were deeply emancipationist. Their fates, black northerners believed, were tied to those of their millions of enslaved “brethren.” Theirs was no simple motivation. They fought for civil rights, they fought for Union, and they fought for southerners—enslaved southerners and their emancipation.

MS: While there is no question that African Americans fought for their own liberation, as Ira Berlin’s Freedom series has also shown, the scarred backs and harrowing stories of, not to mention the military intelligence brought by, “contrabands” made an abolitionist of many an Iowa farm boy. Some historians, like Chandra Manning, have gone so far as to claim that the average northern soldier fought against slavery. I think she and Gallagher represent opposite poles in this debate and both miss out on what David Potter showed a long time ago, how antislavery and the Union go from being competing to complementary values for most northerners during the war. Southern secessionists had long argued that Union meant abolition and the slaveholding minority who hoped the Union would protect slavery proved to be hopelessly wrong. The old understanding of the Union, built on constitutional compromises over slavery and legal protections for human bondage, lay dead in the battlefields. The new understanding of the Union was one that even Garrisonian abolitionists, whose antebellum motto was “No Union with Slaveholders,” could fervently support. Emancipation gave meaning and purpose to the Civil War as a war for only the Union never could. The Emancipation Proclamation as Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and even the proslavery ideologue George Fitzhugh argued was a defining event of not just the war but of the nineteenth century.

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