George Eggleston.

The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2

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The Struggle for Emancipation

In the meantime great events were occurring which were in some respects more important in their bearing on the war than battles would have been. In these events the war recognized itself and adapted itself to its conditions.

From the beginning the abolitionists had clamorously and ceaselessly demanded of Mr. Lincoln that he should recognize the actual cause of the war by proclaiming freedom for the slaves at the South. There was no doubt in anybody's mind that the war was simply the culmination of that "irrepressible conflict" between the systems and sentiments of free and slave labor which had constituted the burden of the country's history for nearly half a century. If there had been no slavery there would have been no war.

It is true that a very large proportion of the Southern people regretted slavery, deprecated its existence, and earnestly desired to be rid of it. It is also true that the great mass of the Southerners were non-slaveholders, and that their fighting was done not for the perpetuation of that institution, in which they had no interest, but in assertion of those reserved rights of the individual states upon the maintenance of which they sincerely believed that the liberty of the people depended. These people desired to take their states out of the Union, not for the sake of slavery, but for the sake of that right of local self-government which they regarded as the fundamental condition of liberty among men.

On the other hand a large proportion of the Northern people cared little or nothing about slavery – many of them even approving the institution as the only practicable arrangement under which blacks and whites could live peaceably together, and as a condition eminently proper for the incapable black man. But these believed in the maintenance of the Union as a condition of liberty and progress, and were ready to sacrifice their lives and their possessions in behalf of that end.

Nevertheless it was clear from the beginning that in the last analysis, the war involved as its issue the maintenance of slavery, or the destruction of that system root and branch.

Personally Mr. Lincoln hated slavery and very earnestly desired its extermination. But, as he reminded those who beset him with unsolicited advice, he was restrained by his oath of office while they were free to advocate any principle or policy that might seem good in their eyes.

Moreover, he had upon him the tremendous task of preserving the Union and in aid of that supreme purpose he was ready to sacrifice all other considerations of what kind soever. In answer to an impassioned appeal from Horace Greeley in August, 1862, Mr. Lincoln set forth his attitude in these words:

"My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery.

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it. If I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. And if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."

At the beginning Mr. Lincoln had clearly seen the necessity of winning all the support he could to his war measures. He had seen that while practically the whole population of the North would stand by him in a war for the preservation of the Union, there must be a very great and dangerous defection, should he make the war one for the extirpation of slavery in those states in which the institution existed under protection of the Federal Constitution. By thus resolutely refusing to make the war a crusade against slavery, and declaring – as he did in his official utterances – that it was no part of his purpose to interfere with the domestic institutions of any state, Mr. Lincoln had drawn to his support a vast body of influential citizens who would otherwise have opposed, and whose influence was great enough perhaps, if it had been offended, to have robbed him of the means of restoring the disrupted Union. Had he adopted the policy of the extremists at the North, had he begun by declaring war upon slavery rather than upon disunion, there is little doubt that Maryland, Kentucky and the whole strength of Missouri would have been thrown into the Confederate side of the scale with disastrous effect. Even New York, the financially and otherwise dominant Northern state, would have given him at best only a divided and ineffective allegiance, while in all the other states of the North, heavy minorities, and in some cases perhaps commanding majorities, would have opposed his measures and deprived him of that support in Congress and the country upon which depended his success in his effort to restore and perpetuate the Union.

By his policy of waging war at the outset only for the salvation of the nation's integrity he won to his measures the support of hundreds of thousands whose antagonism, or whose dissatisfied inactivity, would have threatened the National arms with defeat and disaster. So far-reaching indeed was the effect of his wiser policy that it gave to the country in its hour of sorest need the services of the great War Minister, Edwin M. Stanton, with all that his inclusion in the cabinet implied.

Mr. Stanton and Mr. Lincoln were not friends. They were very nearly enemies. Stanton was a Democrat of very pronounced views; Mr. Lincoln represented a party which Stanton had strongly and even bitterly assailed, holding it to be sectional in origin, impulse and purpose, and therefore scarcely less than a treasonable conspiracy against the Nation. But when Mr. Lincoln resolutely formulated his policy, as one that had for its sole object the restoration of the American Union of States and the preservation of the Nation from disruption, Mr. Stanton gladly consented to bear his share in the conduct of affairs with that end in view.

It was a daring thing for Mr. Lincoln to do, thus to place at the head of the War Department when actual war was on, a Democrat whose Democracy was everywhere known to be pronounced and aggressive. Mr. Lincoln foresaw that such an appointment would inevitably invite hostile criticism and probably active opposition. But Mr. Lincoln was a man of exalted moral courage. He needed the peculiar abilities of Edwin M. Stanton at the head of the War Department at a time when the war seemed almost everywhere to be going against the Union cause, and he needed Stanton's influence in the country. He therefore risked criticism and made the appointment as one that would tend better than any other to marshal the Federal strength into an effective force and perhaps extort victory at the last from a situation which had thus far brought mainly disappointment.

Perhaps the sagacity of the President had still another object in view in the appointment of Stanton. Mr. Lincoln was a shrewd and far-seeing politician. By appointing Stanton, his personal enemy and a distinguished Democrat, to the second most important place among his Constitutional advisers, he did more than in any other way he could have done, to reconcile Northern Democrats to his administration and to make of them earnest supporters instead of active antagonists of his measures for the preservation of the Union.

Mr. Lincoln had several opportunities to emphasize his attitude and purpose. The best of these was furnished by Horace Greeley's article, in reply to which he wrote the passages already quoted in this chapter.

But the matter was made more emphatic in other ways. When McClellan, early in the war, advanced into Western Virginia, that general issued a proclamation to all slaveholders there assuring them that it was no part of the Government's purpose or policy to interfere with the institution of slavery; that on the contrary the Federal forces would promptly restore to their masters any fugitive slaves who might escape to the Union lines, and that the Federal armies would themselves suppress every attempt at slave insurrection which might be made in the interest of the Union cause. "Notwithstanding all that has been said by the traitors," he wrote, "to induce you to believe our advent among you will be signalized by an interference with your slaves, understand one thing clearly; not only will we abstain from all such interference, but we will, on the contrary, with an iron hand crush any attempt at insurrection on their part."

There is not the smallest doubt that McClellan issued this proclamation with Mr. Lincoln's full approval and even probably by his direction. In any case it reflected the President's attitude and purpose at that time.

At an earlier date, in May, 1861, General B. F. Butler, then commanding at Fortress Monroe, was appealed to for the return of three fugitive slaves who had escaped into his lines. He refused upon a law point of great subtlety. He contended that as negro slaves – chattels of their owners – were capable of being made useful to the Confederates, not only as producers of food for the support of the Southern armies, but also as laborers upon the fortifications and the like, they were properly "contraband of war" precisely as arms and ammunition and foodstuffs are. From that time forward an escaping slave was called a "contraband," and in view of the astonishing lies told by such "contrabands," and the errors of judgment into which those imaginary bits of information often led the Northern press and people, there was at last a general ridiculing of all statements based upon the testimony of "intelligent contrabands."

Mr. Lincoln did not interfere with General Butler's policy of holding escaped slaves as merchandise "contraband of war." But in other cases he did interfere with the strong hand. In August, 1861, General Fremont, commanding in Missouri, issued a proclamation declaring free the slaves of every Confederate engaged in war against the Union. Mr. Lincoln repudiated the proclamation and himself abrogated its terms.

Seven months later, in March, 1862, Mr. Lincoln gravely asked Congress to adopt a policy of compensated emancipation. The war had already cost about a billion dollars, and it threatened to cost twice or thrice that sum in addition, with an uncertain result as the outcome.

Accordingly, Mr. Lincoln planned to end the struggle by a business-like negotiation. He asked Congress (March 6, 1862), to authorize the Government to lend pecuniary aid to every state which should adopt measures looking to the gradual abolition of slavery. He saw and felt that it would be cheaper for the Government to buy every slave in the land at twice his market value, than to prosecute the war upon the enormously costly scale which it had assumed. Incidentally, also, the making of such an arrangement, if it had been possible to make it, would have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of men – the flower of the country's youth on both sides of the line.

It was a business-like and humane thought, and Congress assented to it. But it was based upon the mistaken notion that the Confederates were fighting primarily for their property rights in slaves. It ignored the supremely important fact that the war was costing the Southern people incalculably more than double the value of all the slaves owned in those states. It failed to recognize the equally important fact that, rightly or wrongly, the Southern people sincerely believed themselves to be contending for liberty, for the constitutional rights of the states, for the principle of local self-government; that they were contending against that basilar principle of imperialistic oppression – the government of communities by a power outside of themselves. To Mr. Lincoln's own dictum that "no man is good enough to govern any other man without that other man's consent" they had added the corollary that no community and no nation is good enough to govern any other community without that other's consent. They were fighting, as they confidently believed, for the fundamental principle of self-government among men, and to that cause they were ready to make sacrifice of slavery as cheerfully and as heroically as they were already making sacrifice of all else that they held dear.

Mr. Lincoln misunderstood them and misinterpreted their attitude and their condition of mind. If they had been offered ten thousand dollars apiece for all their slaves – worth on the average only a few hundreds at most – they would have rejected the offer angrily as a tendered bribe to induce them to give up and betray that cause of human liberty, states' rights, and the right of local self-government, in behalf of which they had taken up arms.

To such men, inspired by such beliefs and engaged in such a cause, no price could offer the smallest temptation. Mr. Lincoln had misunderstood the Southern people, as they had misunderstood him. Their warfare had no element of commercialism or of greed in it, precisely as his was directed not, as they supposed, to the destruction of State autonomy, but to the sole object of restoring and perpetuating the American Union. As fanaticism in antagonism to slavery could not swerve him, so considerations of merely pecuniary advantage did not and could not influence them. His proposal, which was in effect, to buy all the negroes in the South, made no more impression upon the Southern mind than would a proposal to purchase their wives and children, or their right to sign their own names.

It was under this misapprehension of Southern sentiment that Mr. Lincoln for a space rejected every suggestion of negro emancipation and sought to hold his generals in the field to a policy of complete non-interference with slavery in the Southern States.

We have seen in what fashion he dealt with General Fremont's proclamation of emancipation in Missouri. On the twelfth of April, 1862, General David Hunter, in command of the forces on the South Carolina coast, issued a general order to the effect that all slaves within his immediate jurisdiction should be confiscated as contraband of war, and instantly set free. On the ninth of May he issued another general order in which he declared all negroes resident in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to be free men.

Ten days later Mr. Lincoln annulled these orders absolutely by executive command, declaring that the question of the emancipation of slaves was one which he reserved to himself, and forbidding all generals in the field to deal with it in any way, direct or indirect.

Congress had legislated on the subject in a very cautious and hesitating fashion. In August, 1861, it had passed an act authorizing military commanders to seize and hold all negro slaves found actually employed in the military service of the Confederacy with the knowledge and consent of their owners. But the act stipulated that slaves so confiscated, should not be set free but should be held subject to the future disposal of the Federal courts.

The proceedings of military officers in the field with respect to this matter varied according to the views and temper of each. Mr. Lincoln's revocation of Fremont's orders led to that General's resignation. General Hunter's act in enlisting a regiment of fugitive slaves who had fled into his lines, gave great alarm in Congress and in the country, lest the war should be diverted from its Union-saving purpose and converted into a crusade for the forcible abolition of slavery, involving all the horrors of a servile insurrection on the part of slaves who, in many parts of the South, were scarcely better than half savages.

General Williams, commanding the Department of the Gulf, sought to solve the difficulty by the simple process of turning all fugitive slaves out of his camps, thus avoiding the necessity of deciding whether or not he would permit masters to come within his lines for the purpose of recapturing their slaves. Two colonels refused to obey this order, and were promptly removed from their commands in consequence.

Thus the "irrepressible conflict" of sentiment on the subject of property in slaves divided the Federal army and sorely vexed the country as it had done for nearly half a century before.

To Mr. Lincoln it brought perplexities of the gravest sort. It embarrassed him very greatly in his effort to hold the war steadily to the purpose he had marked out for it. It defeated all his hopes of persuading the South to believe that the Government was trying to save or restore the Union, and that the administration was sincere in its declaration of a fixed purpose not to interfere with the institution of slavery in states where it constitutionally existed or to impair in any way the autonomy of those states. Such pledges could make no appeal to the minds of Southern men in face of the actual interferences attempted, often successfully, by commanders in the field.

Worse still, this irreconcilable division of opinion and diversity of action, threatened to deprive the administration of that strong support at the North which Mr. Lincoln deemed necessary to a successful prosecution of the war. It threatened to alienate that great body of men at the North who were implacably opposed to abolitionism and who held firmly to the belief that the autonomy of the States was necessary to the maintenance of liberty, but who were ready enough to make sacrifice of blood and treasure in aid of a war waged solely for the preservation of the Union.

In this embarrassing situation Mr. Lincoln made a second attempt to cripple Southern resistance by securing emancipation by purchase in the border states, thus cutting off all hope on the part of the South that those states would ever secede, and at the same time in some degree satisfying the clamor of the abolitionists. He called the border-state Congressmen about him and earnestly, even passionately urged them to vote in Congress for an act pledging the Government to pay to every state that should decree emancipation the full value of all the slaves held in such state at the time the census of 1860 was taken. He especially besought these representatives of border slave states to persuade their constituents to a willing acceptance of these terms.

Nothing of any practical value came of this effort. It resulted only in stimulating on the part of the Abolitionists that aggressive insistence upon universal emancipation by military force which was so sorely embarrassing to the President.

It was soon afterwards (August 19, 1862), that Horace Greeley published his open letter entitled "The Prayer of Twenty Millions" to which Mr. Lincoln replied, setting forth his policy and purpose, in words already quoted in this chapter: "My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it. If I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. And if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."

But all this while Mr. Lincoln contemplated the emancipation of the slaves by executive proclamation as a war measure to be resorted to whenever it should seem to him likely to be effective. In the preceding month of July he had drawn up a proclamation of emancipation, and had read it to his cabinet. But he had laid it aside, believing that the time was not yet ripe. The Confederates seemed at that time at high tide of military success. Their armies, victorious and aggressive, were overthrowing one Federal force after another, and putting Washington itself upon an uncertain defense. It was the conviction both of Mr. Lincoln and of Mr. Seward, that to issue an emancipation proclamation under such circumstances would not only seem ridiculous in the eyes of the world but would be everywhere interpreted as a despairing manifestation of conscious weakness, the futile outcry of failure. He must wait for victories before taking this step.

But when after Antietam, Lee withdrew from Maryland and abandoned his campaign against the national capital, Mr. Lincoln decided to assume the r?le of a victor, dictating terms which he held himself strong enough to enforce.

Accordingly on September 22, 1862, he issued a proclamation declaring that on the first of January, 1863, all slaves held in those states or parts of states which should at that time be still in rebellion should be then and forever afterwards free.

This was at once a threat and a promise.

It is a matter of curious speculation to consider what would have been the situation if the Southern States had submitted themselves before the beginning of 1863. In that event the proclamation of freedom to slaves within their borders would have been of no effect, inasmuch as it applied only to states remaining at war. A second executive proclamation of emancipation would have had no war necessity to justify or even to excuse it. For the Constitution conferred upon the President no power to emancipate slaves. It was only on the plea of war necessity that this power could be remotely and speculatively inferred, and that war necessity would have passed completely away had the war itself come to an end before the date set for the enforcement of the threat.

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