The Destruction of Slavery Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Though it seemed fairly straightforward for President Lincoln and many Americans to declare that slavery was a moral wrong, its abolition proved a much more complicated and perilous process. The Civil War was not begun to free the slaves, but to save the Union, a distinction that began to lose its meaning when slaves were freed as a matter of circumstance or necessity, or freed themselves when the Union Army came marching through. Though repeatedly protesting that the end of slavery, though much to be desired, was not the issue at hand, Northern political and military leaders quickly saw the need to clarify and then regulate the status of current and former slaves, and seek to provide a sustainable future for them.

Though it seemed fairly straightforward for President Lincoln and many Americans to declare that slavery was a moral wrong, its abolition proved a much more complicated and perilous process. The Civil War was not begun to free the slaves, but to save the Union, a distinction that began to lose its meaning when slaves were freed as a matter of circumstance or necessity, or freed themselves when the Union Army came marching through. Though repeatedly protesting that the end of slavery, though much to be desired, was not the issue at hand, Northern political and military leaders quickly saw the need to clarify and then regulate the status of current and former slaves, and seek to provide a sustainable future for them.

The Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862 provided specific circumstances in which slaves were declared free, and these circumstances depended exclusively on military necessity (slaves were helping to free up more soldiers by keeping farms and businesses running in their absence) and property law (slaves, like cattle or horses, were forfeit if they were used in the service of the rebellion, or if it could be proven that they were owned by anyone in open rebellion). The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, commonly perceived as the definitive moment when all slaves were free, was actually only a broadening of this–declaring that slaves only in rebellious states were free; border states where slavery was permitted, but which had not left the Union, were exempt. Their residents were loyal citizens, and so could not be deprived of their property rights.

As the war neared its end, discussions about slaves and former slaves broadened to include, first, the need for former slaves to serve in the Union Army, and the need to settle freed slaves who were attached to and relied on the army. In 1865, General William Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton met with a group of black leaders, all of them either ministers or connected to a church, and asked them what should be done. They were ready to be loyal citizens of the United States, they said, and ready to fight the Confederacy, but they needed land and they needed to be able to use their own labor for their own purposes. Grant’s courtesy to this group is commented on, and soon after, he reallocated nearly 400,000 acres of land seized from Confederates to freed slaves, encouraging them to work up to forty acres, and to engage in trade under some level of protection by the military, if needed. Sadly, with the assassination of President Lincoln, the order was rescinded, returning many freed slaves to a landless, powerless status in former Confederate states. Indeed, Sherman himself, whom black leaders had called a gift from God, later stated that his order was only military, and did not apply in peacetime.

Lithograph print of the Emancipation Proclamation. Document on the Emancipation Proclamation appears on page 447.Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-pga-02040

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