The Pivot of the War: Emancipation and the Union Army, Part 1
By Tom Nank,
Interpretation Intern, CWI, Gettysburg College
On September 17, 1862, one of the great battles in history was fought near the banks of Antietam Creek. On that day alone, over 23,000 men fell killed, wounded, and missing in action in the span of just twelve hours.
Union General George B. McClellan’s success at Antietam in September 1862 had finally given President Abraham Lincoln the battlefield victory he wanted. Lincoln was ready that July to change the face of the war. He knew that the increasingly long casualty lists must come to mean more than a simple reunion of the states that existed before his election. Lincoln knew, finally, once and for all, there was an opportunity that summer of 1862 to bring to an end 86 years of argument, compromise and delay on the issue of slavery in the United States. The time was now, not just militarily but morally, to emancipate the slaves in areas in rebellion against the government. With victory finally in hand, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, five days after Antietam. Almost as an afterthought, the last clause of the final version of the Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, provided also that “such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States”. This would effectively double the offensive punch of the Proclamation: not only would the freed slaves and their labor be subtracted from the southern war effort, but they would also be armed and added to the Union ranks to fight rebel armies. How, or whether at all, the Union armies that year would welcome African American soldiers would be critical to the winning of the war to preserve Lincoln’s new United States.
In Army Life in a Black Regiment, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the commander of the colored 1st South Carolina Infantry regiment, the first all-black unit mustered into Union Army service, lamented the intense public focus his new command had generated. The “constant surveillance”, he wrote, “guaranteed the honesty of any success, while fearfully multiplying the penalties had there been a failure.” A single mutiny, he continued, “a single Bull Run, a stampede of desertions, and it would have been all over for us; the party of distrust would have got the upper hand, and there might not have been, during the whole contest, another effort to arm the negro.”1 Higginson was right to be concerned. For the first time, free African-Americans were being armed, equipped and trained as soldiers in the U. S. Army. Black leaders, abolitionists and radical Republicans had pushed since the beginning of the war for the enlistment of black soldiers, and Higginson’s regiment was the vanguard of what would ultimately be over 180,000 free blacks and former slaves serving in Union blue. Not everyone approved of the initiative; bigotry and racial undertones ran strong through the country in the mid-19th century. Some of the most important members of the “party of distrust” Higginson referred to were white Union soldiers.
In April 1861, immediately after the shelling of Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion by the southern states. Some men joined to fight the Rebels, some men joined to fight for the Union, some joined just to fight. Songs, posters, parades and newspaper broadsides celebrated patriotism, the Constitution and the founding fathers. Few, if any, of these calls to action mentioned freeing slaves. In the early days of the war, most men of the Union armies were ambivalent on the issue of slavery. Some, however, were aware of the importance of the issue as the cause of the conflict. Sergeant Andrew Walker, a schoolteacher from Illinois, enlisted after Fort Sumter to help the north “forever set aside Slavery.”2 A private in the 2nd Vermont wrote his fiance’ in late 1861, that “slavery was the cause of all our animosities and wranglings and this accursed rebellion… I hope the dark stigma upon our nation may be wiped out.”3 Some believed pre-war North-South political compromise should continue. Captain Henry Potter, a schoolteacher before joining the 4th Michigan Cavalry, wrote home “I am not willing to fight one moment for Slavery. Whenever [the rebels] are ready to come back, then I say stop fighting, for God’s sake, and let reason once more be heard on both sides.”4 Some, perhaps a majority, openly opposed freedom. Private Edward H. C. Taylor of the 4th Michigan Infantry wrote home to his family: “When we cease to fight for the Union and begin to fight for Negro equality, I am ready to lay down my arms and will.” True to his word, Taylor did not reenlist when his 3-year term of enlistment was up.5
Like nothing else could, first-hand exposure to the southern slave-holding aristocracy changed minds. For many Union soldiers, the fiction of slavery that they had only heard and read about became fact and took on life as the armies moved south. In a letter home to his family in Buffalo County, Private Chauncey Cook in the 25th Wisconsin Infantry described his interaction with slaves in Union-occupied Kentucky:
I listened for two hours this morning to the stories of a toothless old slave with one blind eye who had come up the river from near Memphis. He told me a lot of stuff. He said his master sold his wife and children to a cotton planter in Alabama to pay his gambling debts, and when he told his master he couldn’t stand it, he was tied to the whipping post, stripped, and given 40 lashes. The next night he ran into the swamps. The bloodhounds were put on his track and caught him and pulled him down. They bit him in the face and put out his eye and crushed one of his hands. He stripped down his pants and showed me a gash on one of his hips where the hounds dug into him until he nearly bled to death… I told this to some of the boys and they said it was all bosh, that [they] were lying to me. But this story was just like the ones in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I believe them.6
By early 1862, as Union armies moved south into the slave states, most soldiers realized that slavery was supporting the southern army’s war effort, and took efforts to stop it where they could. Union Major General John C. Fremont, on his own initiative, freed the slaves of Missouri secessionists in the Western Division where he commanded. His order was rescinded as premature, and when he was removed from command, Private Adam Marty of the 1st Minnesota Infantry wondered why the administration had “interfered” with an action that “would soon end this war by removing the cause of it.”7 Lieutenant Evan Woodward of the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves observed up close slaveholders who “preferred a system of labor that gave wealth and luxuriant ease to the few, at the expense of the prosperity and elevation of the masses and the degradation of labor.”8 In some cases, the soldier’s views changed over time. When he enlisted, Jasper Barney and his brother-in-law were both ambivalent about slavery. Two years into the war, after campaigns in Missouri and Tennessee with the 16th Illinois, Barney wrote his relative: “I was of the same opinion as yourself when I first came in service, but I have learned better. The war will never come to a close while the Negro is left where they are…. But if we take away the main root of evil and confiscate all their property they will have nothing to fight for.”9
Jasper Barney and Abraham Lincoln were thinking the same thing. The Emancipation Proclamation later that fall would change everything.
1. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment, reprint ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 4.
2. Andrew J. Walker, to parents, April 1861, Henderson IL, Andrew J. Walker Papers, Library of Congress.
3. Jerome Cutler, to fiance’ Emily, November 11 1861, Camp Griffin, Fairfax County VA, Jerome Cutler Letters, Vermont Historical Society.
4. Richard Bak, A Distant Thunder: Michigan in the Civil War (Huron River Press, 2004), 49.
5. Bak, Distant Thunder, 47.
6. Chauncey H. Cook, “Letters of a Badger Boy in Blue: Into the Southland,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, IV (1920-1921), 328-329.
7. Chandra Manning, A Vexed Question: White Union Soldiers on Slavery and Race (University Press of Kentucky: 2007), 35.
8. Evan M. Woodward, Our Campaigns (Philadelphia: John E. Potter, 1865), 14.
9. Jasper Barney, to brother-in-law John Dinsmore, October 24, 1862, Mound City Hospital, KS, John C. Dinsmore Letters, Illinois State Historical Library.