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Hi, I'm Samnell and I study middle nineteenth century US history.
I'm here to correct some frequent errors in the pop culture-oriented understanding of the Civil War. In most cases, seeing through them requires no more than an exercise of the dark arts of reading. I think this covers everything in the late eruption, but let me know if I forgot something. I tried to be thorough, which necessarily makes this long. I've culled the misinformation from a recent post and years of rather tedious experience, but it was asked that this be taken to another thread. So here we are.
Claim: The war wasn't about slavery at all!
Answer: It would be dishonest to call this anything short of a lie, whether spoken consciously or repeated unwittingly.
If the war wasn't about slavery then nobody ever told the Confederates. Four rebel states passed official statements of their causes when they passed their ordinances of secession. Each one was drafted by the body authorized by the voters of the state to decide whether or not they would attempt to leave the United States, voted on by that body, and published as a public statement of their reasons. These documents are revealing and ought to be read in full. I'll link to each in turn. Here they are in order of secession ordinance:
South Carolina noted that in ratifying the Constitution, the states placed themselves under various obligations.
The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: "No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."
Without this, the Fugitive Slave Clause, South Carolina held that it would not have ratified. And for a while, the system worked. If your slave ran off, you could go and get your slave back from another state. But the times? They were a-changing:
The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.
I don't know how much more plainly one can say this. There's a great deal of throat clearing about the nature of the nation as understood by South Carolina as of December, 1860, but it says in black and white that the free states are increasingly hostile to slavery and have disregarded their obligation to aid in the return of fugitive slaves, therefore South Carolina is free to secede. This isn't something that the secession convention made up after a really epic bender down in Charleston, but rather a straight out fact. Back in the 1840s, the Taney Court ruled in Prigg v. Pennsylvania that while enslavers had a right to cross state lines and seize the human property that dared steal itself from them, the states did not have an affirmative duty to facilitate that. They could pass laws barring the use of state facilities or the cooperation of state law enforcement in the recovery and rendition of slaves. These laws are usually referred to collectively as Personal Liberty Laws. The states that SC names did just that.
The slave states, always and only exponents of states rights when the right was slavery and always and defenders of the unlimited power of the federal government to suppress any species of state sovereignty employed to impede slavery or in any way threaten the right to hold slave property, had in fact demanded the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to overrule all of those laws, expanding the power of the national government to the degree that refusal to cooperate in slave renditions became a crime and providing the power for a slave catching expedition to deputize you on the spot to help. If you refused, you were guilty of that crime. This is a slave patrol draft.
But South Carolina had more sweeping grievances than Personal Liberty Laws ten years dead, or even the fact that after several high profile renditions and a few dramatic rescues had practically nullified the Fugitive Slave Act by 1854. (The last major rendition, that of Anthony Burns from Boston, literally required the Pierce administration to call out the Army and Navy.)
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
Let me break those out for you:1) the free states assumed that they had a say in whether or not slave states should have slaves
2) the free states deny that a right to property in slaves exists
3) the free states denounce slavery as sinful
4) the free states have permitted societies that condemn slavery, encouraging slave revolt and absconding
5) those socieities have gone and done just that, to the tune of thousands of slaves, and distributed antislavery materials which prompt slaves to revolt
Furthermore, South Carolina held that the free states in their perfidy elected an antislavery president:
Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
This deed, South Carolina insisted, was done
in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
They let black people vote, even!
I've handled South Carolina's declaration in some detail. I don't intend to replicate this with the others because the grievances are largely the same.
Mississippi acted next
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
That's the opening paragraph, incidentally.
Florida and Alabama came next, but neither published a declaration like the first two did. A document exists for Florida, but it's not clear if it was ever officially approved and so we can't ascribe to it the same imprimatur we would to the others.
This brings us to Georgia
For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. This hostile policy of our confederates has been pursued with every circumstance of aggravation which could arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people, and has placed the two sections of the Union for many years past in the condition of virtual civil war. Our people, still attached to the Union from habit and national traditions, and averse to change, hoped that time, reason, and argument would bring, if not redress, at least exemption from further insults, injuries, and dangers. Recent events have fully dissipated all such hopes and demonstrated the necessity of separation. Our Northern confederates, after a full and calm hearing of all the facts, after a fair warning of our purpose not to submit to the rule of the authors of all these wrongs and injuries, have by a large majority committed the Government of the United States into their hands. The people of Georgia, after an equally full and fair and deliberate hearing of the case, have declared with equal firmness that they shall not rule over them
The reference to equal enjoyment of the territories refers most explicitly to the matter of Kansas, where a proslavery government elected by massive fraud abetted by lynching, tarring and feathering, and all manner of other violence and threats of the same, contended with a free state government that seeing actual Kansans virtually written out of their own governance, established their own. But territorial grievances go all the way back to the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery from the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a corner of Minnesota. They continued in the Missouri Controversy, which was settled by letting Missouri have slavery essentially in perpetuity but excluding it from all other states formed from the Louisiana Purchase south of its southern border.
The subject erupted again during the debates over the annexation of Texas, which was not done by treaty in part because Texas claimed a vast swath of territory (most of which it had never exercised any control over) and practiced slavery. This would include land north of the Missouri Compromise line. Texas annexation brought the Mexican War in due course, which resulted in more territory. Most of that territory ran below the Missouri Compromise line. But remember what I said about the Lousiana Purchase? The Mexican Cession was not that and slavery had been abolished in Mexico decades before. So David Wilmot (D-PA) proposed, in the famous Wilmot Proviso, that the same language that kept slavery form the Northwest Territory be applied to the Mexican Cession. The South was outraged and the outrage got worse when they found gold in California and consequently it had sufficient population for statehood almost overnight. The Californians voted overwhelmingly not to have slavery. The eventual settlement for all of this brought the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, let California come in undivided and free rather than split or with slavery imposed upon it, and left the status of New Mexico and Utah carefully ambiguous. Both territories instituted slavery in the late 1850s.
Which brings us to 1854 and Kansas. I'll spare you the really interesting and somewhat complicated story unless someone wants to know, but the short version is that as the price for opening up Kansas to white settlement a collection of Southern politicians demanded that the Missouri Compromise be struck down and slavery permitted everywhere not yet a state. They go their way, under the fig leaf of "popular sovereignty". The argument was that the people of the territory would decide one way or another, but this was instituted to and understood by all parties as meaning that the people, who already had the power to vote slavery in when they became states, would now have the power to also vote it in earlier. It was ambiguous as to whether or not slavery existed in a jurisdiction by default and freedom had to be voted in, or the other way around. In actual practice, slavery was a creature of state law that national law recognized somewhat inconsistently, but Southerners routinely maintained that slaves were property and like all other property was guaranteed by the Constitution.
In overthrowing thirty years settled law, a sectional compromise that most understood as absolutely fixed and inviolate, the South and its northern allies outraged even men in the North who had rarely ever given slavery a thought before. They instituted a party to redress this, the Republicans. They came close to winning the 1856 election and did win in 1860.
This brings us to Texas, the last Lower South state to act.
Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.
The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the 3rd clause of the 2nd section of the 4th article [the fugitive slave clause] of the federal constitution, and laws passed in pursuance thereof; thereby annulling a material provision of the compact, designed by its framers to perpetuate the amity between the members of the confederacy and to secure the rights of the slave-holding States in their domestic institutions-- a provision founded in justice and wisdom, and without the enforcement of which the compact fails to accomplish the object of its creation. Some of those States have imposed high fines and degrading penalties upon any of their citizens or officers who may carry out in good faith that provision of the compact, or the federal laws enacted in accordance therewith.
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
Does this all adequately speak for itself yet? Possibly not. Let's hear the Vice-President of the Confederacy on the issue.
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Don't believe him? He was there. But I sense you want more data. The states trying to bolt the United States send commissioners to other state states to try to convince them to join the party. These men made speeches and wrote letters that, as official communications from states lobbying other states, we should understand as similarly expressions of reasons why states would wished to quit the nation. Even when they address states that did not ultimately secede, their appeals inherently reflect what they think should induce a state to follow their lead and why the states appointing them took chose the course they did.
This is from JLM Curry (Alabama) to the governor of Maryland:
Having watched with painful anxiety the growth, power, and encroachments of anti-slaveryism, and anticipating for the party held together by this sentiment of hostility to the rights and institutions of the Southern people a probable success, too fatally realized, in the recent Presidential election, the General Assembly of Alabama, on the 24th of February, 1860, adopted joint resolutions providing, on the happening of such a contingency, for a convention of the State "to consider, determine, and do whatever the rights, interests, and honor of Alabama require to be done for their protection."
The bare fact that the party is sectional and hostile to the South is a full justification for the precautionary steps taken by Alabama to provide for the escape of her citizens from the peril and dishonor of submission to its rule. Superadded to the sectional hostility the fanaticism of a sentiment which has become a controlling political force, giving ascendancy in every Northern State, and the avowed purpose, as disclosed in party creeds, declarations of editors, and utterances of representative men, of securing the diminution of slavery in the States and placing it in the course of ultimate extinction, and the South would merit the punishment of the simple if she passed on and provided no security against the imminent danger.
They [Republicans] refuse to recognize our rights of property in slaves, to make a division of the territory, to deprive themselves of their assumed constitutional power to abolish slavery in the Territories or District of Columbia, to increase the efficiency of the fugitive slave law, or make provision for the compensation of the owners of runaway or stolen slaves, or place in the hands of the South any protection against the rapacity of an unscrupulous majority.
The sentiment of the sinfulness of slavery seems to be embedded in the Northern conscience. An infidel theory has corrupted the Northern heart. A French orator said the people of England once changed their religion by act of Parliament. Whether true or not, it is not probable that the settled convictions at the North, intensely adverse to slavery, can be changed by Congressional resolutions or constitutional amendments.
Have you noticed any common themes yet?
Claim: Lincoln fought to return fugitive slaves to the South.
Answer: Untrue. Lincoln declared in his first inaugural, addressing himself to the South and hoping to avoid bloodshed, pledged that while he personally objectived to the Fugitive Slave Act, he understood it as his duty as president to enforce it. He did this as an olive branch to forstall violence among whites, not because he thought slavery was totally awesome and it was right for slaves to be with their enslavers.
He said so:
I take the official oath to-day with no mental reservations and with no purpose to construe the Constitution or laws by any hypercritical rules; and while I do not choose now to specify particular acts of Congress as proper to be enforced, I do suggest that it will be much safer for all, both in official and private stations, to conform to and abide by all those acts which stand unrepealed than to violate any of them trusting to find impunity in having them held to be unconstitutional.
Furthermore, when slaves did arrive at United States lines and owners sought to recover them, no clear policy at first existed. Some were returned on the authority of officers on hand, but Benjamin Butler declared absconded slaves contraband of war as their labor would be used to support the rebellion. Therefore, the Army had the power in time of war to seize them and hold them without compensation to deny their labor to the enemy. This soon became official policy and thereafter the advance of US Armies routinely resulted in slaves coming to those lines to seek their freedom, however tenuous it might then be.
Claim: Lincoln fought to keep slavery as is.
Answer: Misleading. Lincoln declared that he had no intention to meddle with slavery where it already existed. This was the standard position of the Republican party, which was not an abolitionist outfit demanding the immediate end of slavery and, often, some kind of racial equality. It was an antislavery party interested in the limiting and ultimate extinction of slavery, something which they estimated may take a century or more. They proposed to do this in chief by restricting slavery in the territories, where Republicans believed that the national government had the power to do so, which would confine the institution to slowly wither and die away in the South as it had in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Southerners understood this and repeatedly identified the restriction on slavery in the territories as pernicious to their section's future. This led to demands for a federal slave code to institute bondage officially in every territory in the nation, which hit the Democratic convention of 1860 and split it in half. Twice. Thus Stephen A. Douglas ran for president as a Democrat and got the support of a state and a half (Missouri and part of New Jersey) while John Breckinridge ran as a Democrat in the South and swept the Lower South cotton states.
Claim: Lincoln suppressed the Maryland legislature, preventing them from meeting.
Answer: Untrue. The security of Maryland is obviously vital to the integrity of the nation, as it surrounds Washington on three sides, with Virginia over the Potomac on the fourth. Virginia's fate was already decided, but Maryland's was not. However, the governor had not called the Maryland legislature into session and the legislature was not then sitting.
However, it appeared in the spring of 1861 that Maryland might have an active insurrection. It included tobacco country on the east side of the Chesapeake and in the state's southern reaches that was pro-Confederate. The loyalty of Baltimore was suspect as well, and there we soon had a problem. The railroads leading to washington went through Baltimore, but did not connect directly. The first armed units answering Lincoln's call to put down the insurrection had to disembark and march through town to board a second train. A mob shadowed the 6th Massachusetts on that path and eventually attacked it. They threw stones, bricks, and eventually drew guns. Under apparent attack, some of the soldiers opened fire without orders. Four of them and twelve Baltimore residents didn't make it out alive. The four soldiers were not the first deaths of the war, technically. During the surrender of Fort Sumter, a cannon exploded during a salute and killed a man. But these were the first combat deaths of the war.
It looked like this was going to happen again and again. Baltimore's mayor and chief of police, both Confederate sympathizers, applead to Maryland's governor for permission to destroy the rail bridges that carried soldiers in from Philadelphia and Harrisburg. He reluctantly agreed. Secessionists tore town telegraph lines linking the capital with the rest of the nation as well. For days, no news could get through and it looked in Washington like they had an enemy army active to their north. Public buildings were fortified in expectation of attack.
A few tense days passed, but then the 7th New York arrived, with more trains behind it. They took a long route, via Annapolis, and only arrived because Benjamin Butler (the contraband guy) got word of the bridges being out and disembarked his troops ahead of the break in the line. He seized a steamboat, landed his men at Annapolis, and railway workers in his ranks repaired the damaged tracks.
Martial law was imposed on Baltimore, but given all this you can hardly blame anyone but the secessionists for it. At this point, the governor finally called the legislature. He expected bad news, but the legislature contented itself with a pro forma denunciation of war, a claim of state neutrality, and outright refused to either debate an ordinance of secession or to call a secession convention for the job.
So first off there's nothing to suppress, since no legislature in session. Then when one gets into session in mid-May, it doesn't consider any such thing as rebellion.
I realize that this isn't the actual claim most recently offered up on the Paizo boards, but it's a common one so I wanted to address it before and as context for getting into the next. It seems our resident neo-Confederates can't even get their bad history correctly bad.
Claim: The Maryland legislature was going to revoke Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus.
Answer: Garbled nonsense. Whatever you think of Lincoln's suspension of the Great Writ, the Maryland legislature had no such power and, at any rate, do not appear to have tried to assert one. At least the dates are right. Lincoln suspended the writ on April 27. I must note, however, that Lincoln did not suspend the writ everywhere, or even everywhere in Maryland. He did so in response to news that pro-Confederate Marylanders were going to burn railroad bridges and tear up tracks connecting Washington to the rest of the North, thereby obstructing troop movement into the capital. Since they did just that, one can see where he's coming from.
One of those guys, John Merryman, was arrested for his involvement in wrecking transport and communications. He had the cash for a lawyer, as well as serving as a lieutenant in a Confederate cavalry unit. (They helped him burn the bridges.) Merryman's lawyer got a writ of habeas corpus from Roger Taney, of Dred Scott fame. This was not a Supreme Court decision. Taney acted in his capacity as a circuit court judge. Back in the day, Supreme Court justices spent most of the year doing that duty.
Taney denied that Lincoln had the right to suspend the writ at all, noting the provision that authorized it in cases of rebellion was in the article on the Congress. No Congress was then in session. (The 37th Congress met in special session from March 4 until March 28, but then adjourned until July 4.) Furthermore, the line is a clear emergency power and does not in itself specify that Congress must suspend the writ to suspend it, only that it may be suspended.
Lincoln refused to comply with Taney's ruling, arguing when Congress got back that he had a real emergency on his hands and could not afford to wait a few months for Congress to get back together given the situation he faced in April. Was he supposed to let the entire government fall to an insurrection to secure a single provision of its constitution? Merryman was released seven weeks later, incidentally.
There's a bit more going on here, but this is the essential nut of the case. I'm already seven pages in, so I've got to cut details somewhere.
Claim: Lincoln didn't emancipate any slaves for two years. Obviously it wasn't that important to him.
Answer: Misleading. Lincoln did not believe that he had the unilateral power to abolish slavery. He also hoped that the war could be quickly ended and the South reintegrated with a minimum of fuss. Abolishing slavery, the very thing which they fought to save, would hardly facilitate that. He was also keenly aware that most US soldiers had not signed on to free the slaves, any more than Lincoln prosecuted the war to free them. They alike viewed preservation of the nation as paramount. Of course, if waging a war against the slave states greatly harmed slavery, then Lincoln was going to take the twofer with a smile.
When it became clear that the war would not be over by Christmas, or in a single decisive battle, things changed and Lincoln changed strategy with them. The South relied on slave labor. By taking it away and making every advance of the Army into an advance of freedom, he could deny the rebellion that labor source and simultaneously make it available to the United States. He justifed this under his war powers as commander-in-chief, not under ordinary powers that any old president possessed whenever he felt like using them.
Furthermore, Lincoln supported previous emancipation efforts. The First Confiscation Act implicitly gave Congressional imprimatur to Butler's contraband argument, allowing the seizing of slaves being used by the Confederacy. The Second Confiscation Act specifically authorized the freeing of the slaves of any Confederate who refused to surrender within 60 days. Lincoln signed both acts, which is a damned strange thing for him to do if he only magically started caring about slavery two years into the war.
Claim: The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves, but only to draft them.
Answer: Nonsense. The Emancipation Proclamation permitted freedpeople to enlist in the US Army. It did not require them to do so. They remained "thenceforward and forever free" and pledged the United States and its military to defend that freedom regardless of whether or not they chose military service. While some of them were undoubtedly compelled on the ground to sign up, the United States had no particular difficulty finding volunteers. Furthermore, the Emancipation Proclamation entered into effect on the first day of 1863. The first actual United States draft did not begin until the Enrollment Act came into force on March 3 of the same year. The draft applied to, and I quote:
able-boded male citizens of the United States, and persons of foreign birth who shall have declared on oath their intention to become citizens
From the Naturalization Act of 1790 onward, citizenship was limited to "free white persons." A freedperson, or even a black American born free, could not be a citizen. This changed with the Fourteenth Amendment.
Because the proclamation was an expression of Lincoln's war powers, he did not consider himself to have the authority to emancipate slaves in areas not in rebellion and where the United States government had something resembling ordinary functions. Thus Lincoln exempted the loyal slave states, but notably he declined to exempt from its effect many areas under United States control where civilian governemnt was not then functioning.
Was the Emancipation Proclamation a military act? You bet. There was, after all, a bigass war on. Was it limited? Yes. Did the United States do nothing for the slaves beyond its reach? Well, what could it do? They were out of its practical power, it was capable of doing nothing. But per its own terms, as soon as the slaves came within the ability of the United States to do something, they became free. Did it only apply during the war and do nothing thereafter? Nonsense. Go read it. The words are "forever free" not "free until the war ends, then good luck". If that doesn't suffice for you, then know that Lincoln was anxious that some peacetime court might overrule the proclamation and put the freedpeople back into slavery. Thus he spent months lobbying intensely for the Thirteenth Amendment. You can see a version of that in the Spielberg movie.