Effects of the War on Slaves and Freedpeople Overview

views updated

Effects of the War on Slaves and Freedpeople Overview

In no respect was the complexity of the Civil War more apparent than in the experiences of African Americans. Their status as slaves was the war's only significant cause, but their welfare was far from being the chief concern of the majority in either North or South. Nor was it clear what their status would or should be if they were no longer to be slaves. In a complex interplay of their own actions with the actions of whites who supported their rights, opposed them, or just did not care, the war brought about their freedom but did not finally secure for them the full rights of citizenship.

The stage was set for the complexity of the Civil War's effects on African Americans by the multiplicity of attitudes toward them among whites in both sections of the country. In the South, about one-fourth of white families owned slaves at any given time, and about half of southern heads of household would do so at some time during their lives. Those who owned slaves and those who had an expectation of doing so obviously wished to preserve the institution of slavery because of the economics benefits they gained or hoped to gain by it. The vast majority of the South's capital was invested in human chattels and would be lost if slavery were ended.

Southern whites with no direct economic interest in slavery might have been expected to oppose the institution, since it constituted economic competition for their own labors. This was the argument of Hinton Rowan Helper, a North Carolinian who in 1857 published The Impending Crisis of the South, in which he urged his fellow non-slaveholding white Southerners to oppose slavery for just that reason. Unfortunately, Helper's own racism was as virulent as that of any slaveholding planter, and his concern was solely for the good of his fellow non-slaveholding Southern whites. They shared his racism but not the conclusion he drew from it. For them, slavery was to be preserved as the best way to maintain white supremacy. It was an attitude the planters assiduously cultivated: the curious belief that all whites were elevated to a level of equality by the fact that most blacks were held in slavery.

Northern whites were even more divided in their views about African Americans. Abolitionists generally favored full civil rights for the newly freed or soon-to-be-freed slaves and substantial racial equality, but abolitionists did not comprise a majority in most parts of the North. Moderate antislavery men like Abraham Lincoln were still contemplating colonization of the freedpeople to Central America or the Caribbean as late as 1863 and were moving only slowly toward positions such as advocacy of voting rights for the former slaves. Some of the "Free Soil" support for the Republican Party before the war had come from Northerners who were as committed to racism as any of their Southern brethren and simply wanted the western territories reserved for white settlers with no blacks present. And of course a large minority of the Northern electorate was comprised of Democrats, who had voted against even the limitation of slavery's spread. Many of them had as their wartime slogan: "The Union as it was. The Constitution as it is. The Slaves where they are"—in which they often substituted a racial epithet for the word "Slaves." The war itself transformed some Northerners' attitudes about slavery and race. Even Democrats or racist-minded Republicans might come to the view that if slavery was trying to destroy the Union, then the institution of slavery must die. What status that meant for those who had once been slaves, was a very confused question.

Beyond all this, African Americans in a number of ways were participants in the struggle that brought such momentous change to their role in American society. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, more than almost any other single element, helped turn Northerners against slavery, and it was the persistence of a small minority of slaves in escaping and seeking refuge in the North (or passage across the North to ultimate safety in Canada) that kept bringing the act's onerous provisions before the eyes of Northerners, making slavery real to them in all of its ugliness.

Once the war started, slaves were not slow to seize the chances for escape presented to them by the presence of Union armies. Their appearance in Federal camps forced Northern soldiers to make decisions that many of them would rather have avoided. Official Union policy early in the war, driven by the desire to maintain the allegiance of proslavery Northerners or citizens of such Union-loyal slave states as Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, was that runaways who entered Union lines should be returned to their owners. Regiments with abolitionist leanings frequently defied such orders, harbored escaped slaves, and forwarded them to freedom farther north. Even Federals of a more racist bent often found that an escaped slave made a handy personal servant to cook, wash clothes, or perform other menial functions that helped make soldiering tedious. The slaves, for their part, seemed eager to help the cause that they correctly sensed was ultimately fighting for their freedom.

It was Union Major General Benjamin Butler, a pre-war Massachusetts lawyer and politician, who found a legal solution to the demands of proslavery persons, even those loyal to the enemy, that the U.S. forces were bound by the Fugitive Slave Law to return escaping slaves to Rebel owners. When a pro-Confederate slaveholder came to his headquarters demanding the return of escapees believed to have entered Butler's lines, the general replied that the slaves had no doubt previously been used for the benefit of the Confederacy and were therefore, like any property in the use of the enemy, subject to military confiscation as contraband of war. Thereafter few slaves were ever returned to Rebel masters, and all escaped slaves within Union lines came to be referred to as contrabands. With the issuance of the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the Union army became explicitly the force for liberating the slaves, but the name "contraband" stuck throughout the rest of the war.

The life of the contrabands varied a great deal. In a Union-controlled enclave on the South Carolina coast and in the Federal-held Mississippi Delta country below Memphis, Union commanders set up various arrangements for the former slaves to work abandoned plantations for wages, but these success stories came to an end when the war ended and the absconded erstwhile Rebel owners of the lands returned and were permitted by federal authorities to reclaim their acres. In many cases, former slaves who fled to Union lines had nowhere to go but the squalid contraband camps set up behind the lines by a Union army that was much at a loss to know how to handle its new charges. Life could be hard in the contraband camps, disease rampant and deaths frequent. This situation was ameliorated somewhat when Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau for the care and supervision of the former slaves.

Sometimes the army's need to fight the war and inability to serve as a refugee-aid organization was brought into conflict with blacks' desire to escape from slavery as soon as possible at almost any price. Fast-moving Union expeditions that penetrated deep into Southern territory quickly gained long tails of escaping slaves—thousands of men, women, and children that might string out for miles behind the Federal rearguard. They included both the very young and the very old, and they came on foot and on every kind of beast or conveyance they could lay hold of on the plantations from which they were fleeing. Their presence could be a nuisance to Union commanders, who often lacked the means of feeding their new followers or of protecting them from re-capture by marauding Confederate cavalry. Yet the blacks could not be dissuaded from following the army, despite the Union officers' advice that they would be better off patiently awaiting their liberation on their plantations. Conditions for the freedpeo-ple in the wake of the army could be very hard; they lacked adequate food and shelter and were sometimes left entirely behind by troop columns who could not afford to wait for them.

By the end of the war it was clear that slavery was finished in the states that had comprised the Confederacy. A few months later the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the remaining slave states. The status of the former slaves remained to be fought out in the long, twilight conflict of the Reconstruction Era, however. White Southerners were united in their continued determination to maintain white supremacy in the South, despite their defeat on the battlefield. A U.S. Congress dominated by Republicans, and especially those of a fairly radical stripe, desired to see the freedpeople accorded substantial civil rights and full citizenship. They worked toward that end, despite an uncooperative President Andrew Johnson and, later, with the aid of a like-minded President Ulysses S. Grant. Ultimately they fell short. America has never excelled at waging low-intensity wars or at persevering in conflicts that last more than four or five years. More than eleven years after Appomattox—and more than fifteen years after Fort Sumter—the remaining pro-civil rights contingent in the North had grown weary of the long battle, while white Southerners, increasingly seconded by the more racist elements in the North, stood as staunchly as ever for white supremacy. The result was that when Reconstruction ended in 1877, African Americans were left in a sort of limbo. The war had brought them freedom, which was an accomplishment that would have seemed almost impossible a quarter-century before, yet they were consigned for the most part to a status of peonage that would continue for another three-quarters of a century.

Steven E. Woodworth