As the Civil War unfolded, slavery began ending. It didn’t end through a single act or pronouncement, any more than it had gotten started that way. Instead, as battle followed battle, humans began chipping away at slavery on an extemporaneous basis, as opportunities arose. White officials in the North, agents of the Union cause, did something to facilitate this process of emancipation, which yet required Southern slaves’ own determination and action to become a real thing. To become free was momentous, but it was also a curiously precarious and fearfully abstract condition. It was “nothing but freedom,” as historian Eric Foner aptly put it.
This photograph captures the momentousness and curious sameness of emancipation. In 1862, as Union and Confederate troops battled in Virginia, slaves seized the moment, leaving their putative masters and seeking refuge from bondage by crossing over into Union camps. The slaves pictured here were newly free, but their freedom was tenuous and geographic, dependent on the Northern forces’ advance onto enemy ground. Before the war, such fugitives could never rest easy, for a federal law passed in 1850 required Northerners to respect slaveholders’ rights and allow them to recapture their “property,” even if their property had fled into the North and resided on “free ground.”
All that went by the boards when the sections warred. Union strategists recognized that hastening slavery’s end was key to defeating the rebel states. Hoping to deprive the Confederates of a captive labor force and to disrupt slave-master relationships, Northerners began encouraging and harboring the freedmen, as former slaves were called. Besides, many of those leading the Union effort were abolitionists who recoiled at the inhumanity of the “peculiar institution.” To many Northerners, though by no means all, liberating and “uplifting the slave” was a principled, intrinsic part of what the war was for.
Others saw the refugee slaves as more problematic. Laws had yet to be written or passed establishing that former slaves should enjoy the status of free citizens and the attendant rights. Years would pass before the legal and civil status of former slaves was settled. In the meantime, some folk regarded the freedmen as more akin to “lost property”–chattel who fell short of being truly human and free. White ambivalence toward the freedmen was reflected in the word they used initially to define them: “contraband,” a word for forbidden or illicitly held property.
The Union army, willing to facilitate the former slaves in their passage to freedom, hastily staked out and ran provisional “contraband camps.” The refugees pictured above had been assigned an outbuilding on a farm in Cumberland Landing, Virginia, where Union officers were also headquartered. Eventually, the Union army would shelter a population of contraband estimated at as many as one million souls. In 1862, though, when this picture was taken, fleeing slaves were a novelty: they were the emissaries of a race of people white northerners were unfamiliar with, whom they would previously have had little chance to see or know.
The strangeness of this historic moment lives on in the photograph, in the stances and facial expressions of the newly free, whose difference from the photographer and the army around them is registered in expressions of watchful gravity. Only one woman in the center is smiling, and no wonder. Despite having survived their first flight to “freedom,” these intrepid souls were right to doubt whether they had truly arrived. They needed to keep the army between themselves and the Southern rebels, or else face the awful risk of being re-enslaved.
Every Civil War battlefield is poignant, preserving within itself a base, murderous vibe. Each speaks to us in its own way of American folly. Nowhere is the vibe more toxic than at Antietam.
What led Americans to murder one another there in record numbers? They had lost patience over a complex problem that they failed to solve politically, and each set of murderers would be damned before they would see their opponents prevail. And so they were.
In a quiet corner of rural Maryland just off the Potomac River, legions of Union and Confederate soldiers—Americans all—converged in cornfields and country lanes outside Sharpsburg, shooting, bombing, and bayoneting one another in a merciless bloodbath. It was just one day in a civil war that lasted four years and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men, scarring their families and traumatizing a proud, optimistic nation. There in the vicinity of Antietam Creek, on September 17, 1862, some 23,000 Americans were wounded or killed.
They were the victims of party politics. The lofty language Lincoln and others used to give meaning to the Civil War tends to obscure the truth that the war was a travesty, a rebuke to the pretensions of republican government. The Civil War was the nasty afterbirth of a colossal political deadlock that upended the political system and plunged the nation into catastrophe. We rarely acknowledge the deeply shameful character of this domestic rumble. The nation’s leadership class so failed the people that at last they and their states lost patience, gave up negotiating, and gambled on settling their differences by force.
When the Civil War broke out, the United States was a young, forward-looking nation. Its people were migratory and accustomed to risk. They were experimental, improvisational, adept at breaking with established ways. Yet, when it came to slavery, their leaders were blinkered. They were irresponsible and cowardly. (Historian James G. Randall once dubbed them “the blundering generation.”) In the first half of the 19th century, when other countries were advancing toward the gradual abolition of slavery (often in their colonial possessions), a generation of American leaders proved incapable of finding a peaceful way past white Southerners’ longstanding reliance on negro slaves.
An enormous literature catalogs the reasons these “antebellum” statesmen failed. Slavery was deeply rooted in the South’s colonial past. The slaveholding class perceived owning “property” in slaves as vital to Southern prosperity, which was based on export commodities (chiefly tobacco and cotton). White Southerners also enjoyed more than their fair share of representation in Congress, thanks to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution.
Northern politicians meanwhile turned a blind eye to slavery (the “peculiar” institution), in part because of the North’s own variety of anti-black feeling, but also because agitating for change with respect to slavery threatened the solidarity of the political class across the North-South divide. No one in power could envision the US with a large free black population.
Northern Democrats, whose party was pro-slavery, were keen to steer clear of the slavery issue because they wanted to remain in power. They wanted their party to remain dominant and keep control of the White House. They were committed to preventing the federal government from infringing on the rights of slave-holding states or individual slaveholders.
In short, until the rise of the Republican Party in the late 1850s, slavery was an uncomfortable issue that no mainstream politician wanted to face. Slavery, that “fire bell in the night,” as Jefferson memorably described it circa 1820, was so potentially divisive a matter that, for many decades, American statesmen conspired to keep it from interfering in national life.
Politically, this strategy of avoidance allowed northern and southern states to enjoy a balance of power. As territories were settled and new states admitted to the Union, Congress passed various measures in an attempt to ensure that the number of free and slave states would remain equal. The Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 were all constructed along these lines.
When an initially tiny group of antislavery politicians succeeded in organizing the new Republican Party and putting their candidate Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1860, Southern legislators were certain they knew what the future held. They were convinced that the Republicans’ success (though attained solely with the support of Northern states) presaged slavery’s doom—and their own. Southern leaders who might have stayed in power to mitigate the effects of this untoward political development, recoiled against their minority status. Fearful and defiant, they withdrew from national politics. Then they went home and convinced their states to withdraw from the Union. In doing so, they placed themselves on the wrong side of history, failing their states and fellow-citizens, and spinning a narrative of bitterness and alienation that some Southerners continue to lean on today.
Suddenly, because of all that, the residents who had heretofore ferried back and forth across the Potomac on their daily errands became mortal enemies. Confederates blew up the bridge at Shepherdstown, Virginia, that was normally used to get to the Maryland side. Then, after the bridge was gone, tens of thousands of troops who were part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia waded across the river at night to wage war in what was called the Maryland Campaign.
Lee sought to attack and defeat the Union Army on northern soil, but, even at this early point in the war, his soldiers and he may well have sensed the terrible futility and shamefulness of their resort to violence—the civic degeneration that “freed” them to attack their erstwhile compatriots, whose ancestors had fought with theirs to attain independence in the American Revolution. Having disavowed their faith in federal politics and the Constitution, Southern “rebels” now poured their energies into slaughtering whomever they encountered in the “bloody cornfield.”
After both sides sickened from their atrocious duties, Lee’s forces retreated back across the river into rebel territory, an admission that their aggressive foray against the defenders of federalism had failed.
In retrospect, we can see how the visceral drama and valor of the Civil War took the heat off “the blundering generation.” We do not excoriate the political establishment of that time for failing to hang together, for their cowardly abandonment of the federal system.
Because the Civil War at last secured the great goal of emancipation, we can easily be fooled into thinking of it as a noble, progressive event. It’s blasphemy to admit the war was a terrible disservice to the nation, which would have been better off abolishing slavery by consensual means. The partisan and sectional conflict leading up to the Civil War exposed frightening vulnerabilities in our Constitutional system, vulnerabilities that are still there, waiting for a freak combination of circumstances to exploit them again.
Sadly, the resort to force did not “settle our differences.” A vast change in our internal relations occurred when slavery ended, but, as for the necessary change of heart, we’re waiting for it still. Southern slaveholders never assented to slavery’s end. Northerners never got serious about the concessions that might have induced the South to give up an immoral labor practice at odds with the nation’s ideals. Ultimately, enslaved blacks attained freedom despite violent Southern opposition, engendering animosities that confound Americans still. Still, America lacks consensus on racial equality as a fact and a blessing; still retrograde elements valorize their resistance to modern popular will.
All the fervent hopes associated with the end of American slavery animate this colored engraving of Thomas Nast’s “Emancipation: The Past and the Future,” published in 1865.
Better than pages upon pages of tracts and editorials, this vivid artwork expresses the moral convictions and sentiments that led Americans of 150 years ago to get rid of slavery, and, beyond that, to envision a society in which all people would equally enjoy certain basic rights.
Freeing the slaves was one thing: it was quite another for white America to embrace a vision of political equality that would extend to Americans of another color. Yet this northern Americans did right after the Civil War (1861-65), amending the Constitution to secure positive legal equality for former slaves and all persons of color. Proponents of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—which abolished slavery, promised citizens equal protection under the law, and extended voting rights to blacks—believed that these measures would guarantee the liberty of former slaves and their descendants, opening the way for their sharing in the blessings of prosperity and peace.
In that sense, the so-called Reconstruction Amendments, passed between 1865 and 1870, represent the high-water mark of nineteenth-century America’s quest for racial equality. That quest, which had begun in earnest in the 1830s, was an essentially moral and intellectual movement, a movement that a generation of writers, moralists, orators, newspaper publishers, and outspoken clergymen advanced. For many decades they labored hopelessly and alone. Abolitionists were marginal and dangerous figures. Politicians wanted nothing to do with their cause. Statesmen were uniformly loathe to disturb slavery: it was essential to the US economy; therefore, it was far better to let it be.
Only the abolitionists persistently and inconveniently refused to be silent. For decades, their cause, their dream of banishing slavery once and for all, was a fringe movement, something entertained only in truly radical minds. Those who demanded abolition were literally playing with fire, and sometimes the fire found them, as when their offices were burned, or when their efforts to keep the courts from returning fugitives slaves to their masters caused riots.
The belief that slavery had to end and that, once it did, the only proper course was to recognize black Americans as citizens, gradually gained some political traction, though it remained a minority view. Radical Republicans like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts would not rest until they had expunged slavery from the Constitution and enshrined the principle of racial equality in its place. After the war, Northerners succeeded in amending the Constitution as they did only because the South was relatively disenfranchised and in a state of social and economic disarray.
The amendments were right, but they remained radical: like many of our nation’s founding principles, the Reconstruction amendments spelled out an ideal, one that has proved elusive, for decades more inspirational than real.
But the dream of it, the dream of racial inclusion and equality: that dream has made all the difference, both during Reconstruction and subsequently. The Americans who struggled, 150 years ago, to codify this radical vision and make it more real were the forerunners of modern civil-rights heroes like Martin Luther King. That dream continues to inspire all people of conscience to practice mutual respect, and to be true to the radical principle of equality that ennobles us all.
Nast’s drawing telescopes all the horrifying aspects of slavery. At left, the capture and abduction of Africans from their native lands; the break-up of their families; their sale on the auction block to American owners;
the powerlessness of male and female slaves in the face of their owners’ will;
their forced labor, the fruits of which now belonged to their owner;
and the absence of any recourse except to the ear of God,
to end the injustices and torment of being enslaved.
Only Liberty (at the top of the print) could dispel these grave moral and social sins.
Nast imagined a future in which newly freed people would enjoy everyday blessings,
such as (at right) having intact families, sending their children to school,
being paid wages for labor performed,
and owning something themselves instead of being owned.