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“An Example of Somebody Who’s done an Amazing Job” Frederick Douglass’s Immortal Words for the Church and Trump


Frederick Douglass 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A couple of weeks ago President Trump made an interesting acknowledgement of African American Abolitionist and civil rights champion, Frederick Douglass. The President said:   “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” But I really wonder if the President, and the 80% plus continent of Evangelical and other conservative Christians really understand what Douglass stood for, or have ever heard his harsh words for the church of his day, which are as applicable now as when he penned them in 1845. It is hard read if you claim to be a follower of Jesus, because while the issue of slavery has been resolved, at least officially, there are many others who reside in this country now who are with the blessing of many “Christians” are discriminated against, persecuted, and even hated. Yes, Douglass’s words still echo loudly in our land.

Anyway, have a good day.


Padre Steve+


But African Americans too had an effect on the debate. In the 1820s Black abolitionists organized with white abolitionists and of their own accord “in order to improve their lives and to attack slavery.” [1] Even before “Garrison published his famous Liberator in Boston in 1831, the first national convention of Negroes had been held, David Walker had already written his “appeal,” and a black abolitionist magazine named Freedom’s Journal had appeared.” [2] Initially most blacks that could simply desired to improve their lives and hoped that their self-improvement would result in less discrimination and more opportunity. This was known as the self-improvement doctrine. But in the face of continued discrimination in the North and in a society where slavery was expanding and slavery proponents “philosophical and political defenders became ever more in intransigent, and where racism became an increasingly rigid barrier even to the most highly talented blacks, the self-improvement doctrine lost viability.” [3]

Escaped former slaves like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and others added their voices to the debate. Unlike the white abolitionists these leaders “formative years and antislavery educations were spent on southern plantations, and not in organizations dedicated to moral suasion.” [4] Douglass became a prominent abolitionist leader and was very critical of the role of churches, especially Southern churches, in the maintenance of slavery as an institution.

However, Douglass did not spare Northern churches from criticism for buttressing the peculiar institution. Douglass’s polemics against Northern and Southern churches in the South in his autobiography reads like the preaching of an Old Testament prophet such as Amos, or Jeremiah railing against the corrupt religious institutions of their day:

“I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference‐‐so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women‐whipping, cradle‐plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

“Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.” I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fill the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, — sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, — leaving the hut vacant and the heart desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All for the glory of God and the good of souls.”

The Christianity of America is a Christianity, of whose votaries it may be as truly said, as it was of the ancient scribes and Pharisees, ʺThey bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on menʹs shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. All their works they do for to be seen of men.‐‐They love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, . . . . . . and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.‐‐But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Ye devour widowsʹ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers; therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.‐‐Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint, and anise, and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith; these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides! which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but within, they are full of extortion and excess.‐Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead menʹs bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.ʺ  Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel… They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen. They love the heathen on the other side of the globe. They can pray for him, pay money to have the Bible put into his hand, and missionaries to instruct him; while they despise and totally neglect the heathen at their own doors.

Such is, very briefly, my view of the religion of this land; and to avoid any misunderstanding, growing out of the use of general terms, I mean by the religion of this land, that which is revealed in the words, deeds, and actions, of those bodies, north and south, calling themselves Christian churches, and yet in union with slaveholders. It is against religion, as presented by these bodies, that I have felt it my duty to testify. [5]

Douglass and other African American abolitionists were cognizant of the fact that in spite of their good intentions that many Northern abolitionists were unconscious of their own racism and many black abolitionists were repelled by it. As such black abolitionists were characterized by “racial independence and pragmatism” while white abolition leaders though “still committed to antislavery principles, increasingly divided over doctrines such as political action or evangelical reform.” [6] Douglass and others realized that blacks had to take control of their own destiny and take an active role in the abolitionist movement. In 1854 Douglass declared “it is emphatically our battle; no one else can fight it for us….Our relations to the Anti-Slavery movement must be and are changed. Instead of depending on it we must lead it.”  [7] Douglass and other black abolitionist leaders found this necessary because many white abolitionists were unable to “comprehend the world in other than moral absolute, as well as their unwillingness to confront issues of racial prejudice and poverty….” [8] As a result Douglass and other black abolitionist leaders went into the critical decade before the Civil War with a clear idea that the fight would be much more difficult and complicated than many of their white counterparts could image.


[1] Blight, David W. Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War University of Massachusetts Press Amherst and Boston 2002 p.30

[2] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.23

[3] Ibid. Blight Beyond the Battlefield p.31

[4] Ibid. Blight Beyond the Battlefield p.31

[5] Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape From Bondage, and His Complete History. Anti-Slavery Office, Boston, 1845. Retrieved from http://antislavery.eserver.org/narratives/narrativeofthelife/narrativeofthelife.pdf/view February 24, 2017  copyright © 2005 by the Antislavery Literature Project.

[6] Ibid. Blight Beyond the Battlefield p.32

[7] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.24

[8] Ibid. Blight Beyond the Battlefield p.32


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Racism and the Failure of Reconstruction


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is another of my continued series of articles pulled from my various Civil War texts dealing with Emancipation and the early attempts to gain civil rights for African Americans. This section that I will cover for the next few days deals with the post-war period, a period marked by conflicting political and social desires for equality, justice, revenge, and the re-victimization of Blacks who had so recently been emancipated.

I hope that you find these helpful.


Padre Steve+

Failing to Win the Peace: Racism and the Failure of Reconstruction

Colin Gray wrote, “A successful exercise in peacemaking should persuade the defeated party to accept its defeat.” [1] This is a fact seen throughout history as the peoples of nations that have been defeated militarily rise up against their occupiers to regain some form of independence, often coupled by a desire for revenge. As Liddell-Hart wrote, “History should have taught the statesman that there is no practical halfway house between a peace of complete subjection and a peace of moderation.” [2]

When the Civil War ended the Confederacy was beaten and most people in the South would have agreed to anything that the North presented regarding peace and return to the Union. The primary political policy goal of Lincoln regarding the war was the reestablishment of the Union and one of the military measures adopted by Lincoln was the emancipation of the South’s slaves who were an important part of the Southern war economy. “During the last two years of the war the abolition of slavery evolved from a means of winning the war to a war aim – from national strategy to national policy.” [3] By Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 that policy included the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy as well as the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, while Lincoln himself advocated moderation in achieving the political and social goals of his war policy, as well as in the restoration of the Southern States to the Union, his assassination served to destroy that goal as his successor, Andrew Johnson, and the Radical Republican majority in Congress warred against each other in implementing the policy of Reconstruction.


The Unreconstructed President Andrew Johnson

That change in policy, the complete abolition of slavery necessitated a remaking of the old South, a culture where economics, social standing and even religion was linked to the “peculiar institution.” In a sense Reconstruction was “what the war was about.” [4] Had Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson desired he could have gotten the South to accept almost any demands that he decided to place upon them. A Northern correspondent who traveled throughout the South in May of 1865 and surveyed the mood of the leaders and people “concluded that any conditions for reunion specified by the President, even black suffrage, would be “promptly accepted.” [5] But that was not the way of Andrew Johnson.

Johnson set about to work with Southerners to affect a rapid reunion and to reestablish white rule in the South. He adopted a “minimalist process that would establish a mechanism by which former Confederate states could return to the Union with little or no change except for the abolition of slavery.” [6] The procedures Johnson established for the re-admission of states only allowed people who were eligible to vote in 1861 to vote. In effect this ensured a white only electorate, and excluded any free blacks. Johnson then began working to pardon former Confederates as quickly as possible to allow them to return to their political offices. Johnson would often issue hundreds of pardons a day, between June and August 1865, “the president awarded more than five thousand pardons in three states alone – Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama.” [7] These pardons ensured that the former Confederates would never again have to worry about being brought up on charges of treason or war crimes, and no “federal law permitted them from voting once their states had been readmitted to the Union” [8] which under Johnson’s plan ensured that they would have the voted before any newly freed black in the South.

Johnson countermanded the orders of Union Generals in the occupied Confederate States to protect the rights of freed blacks further strengthening and emboldening those committed to restoring white rule in the South and regulating freed blacks to a state all but in name like slavery. Relieved at Johnson’s mild terms for reunion Southerners language included “defiant talk of states’ rights and resistance to black suffrage. My midsummer, prominent whites realized that Johnson’s Reconstruction empowered them to shape the transition from slavery to freedom and to define black’s civil status.” [9] Johnson’s policy set the stage for racial strife that in some places still has fully not ended.

Just two months after Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Richard Henry Dana, a Federal District Attorney in Boston, declared that “a war is over when its purpose is secured. It is a fatal mistake to hold that this war is over because the fighting has ceased. This war is not over…” [10] As Dana so succinctly noted, and Clausewitz so well understood, was that that war is a continuation of policy and politics by other means. The failure of President Johnson and so many others in the North to fully grasp this fact led to over a century of subjugation of emancipated African Americans by whites. The confusion and lack of determined purpose has fueled a continual racial divide in the United States that is still felt today. Defeated on the battlefield Southerners and emboldened by Johnson’s leniency, Southerners soon turned to political, psychological and even violent means to reverse their losses.

Frederick Douglass understood that simple emancipation was not enough, and that the “war and its outcome demanded racial equality.” [11] Despite the that efforts of many in the North this would not happen during Reconstruction and Douglass knew that the failure to accomplish this would be disastrous, “Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought…shall pass into history a miserable failure…or whether on the other hand, we shall, as the rightful reward of victory over treason have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms, must be determined one way or another.” [12]

Other Northern leaders, political and military harbored deep seated illusions about the willingness of Southerners to change their way of life simply because they had lost the war, but with Johnson’s blessing seemed to be winning the peace. Major General Oliver O. Howard, a convinced and longtime abolitionist who believed that it was God’s will for the North to liberate African Americans who was appointed by Lincoln to head the new Freedman’s Bureau “believed that the Southern whites, or at least a sufficient number of them, through their humanitarian instincts and sense of fair play, or if not that, through enlightened self-interest, would deal fairly and justly with the freedmen, would aid in his education, and would give him the same civil and legal rights as the white man.” [13] Likewise, Major General Henry Slocum, who served with Howard at Gettysburg and in the West was appointed military commander of the District of Mississippi. Slocum, like many others entered his duties and “did not fathom the depth of anger and loathing many white Southerners harbored toward blacks, and to the new system in general.” [14]

There was a problem with implementing Reconstruction; when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the political leaders of the North could not agree on how to do this. The new President, Andrew Johnson was probably the worst possible leader to lead the country in the aftermath of war for all practical purposes Johnson was a Democrat who believed in white supremacy, he had been brought onto the ticket for his efforts to keep Kentucky in the Union and to support Unionist elements in Tennessee. While his selection helped Lincoln in parts of the North and the Border States it was a disaster for the post-war era.

Johnson’s approach to reconstruction was very simply to “impose minimal demands on the South. He required only minor concessions from the former Confederates before allowing them to resume their political rights and retain their land. As for freedmen, he seemed to think that the needed no further protection beyond the fact of their emancipation.”  [15] Johnson’s attitude regarding freedmen was quite common, even men like William Lloyd Garrison who had spent his life in the cause of abolitionism believed that emancipation and abolition and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was the end of his work. He urged the dissolution of the American Anti-Slavery Society in May of 1865 declaring, “My vocation, as an Abolitionist, thank God, is ended.” [16] His suggestion was rejected by the membership, but it was a harbinger of things to come.

Johnson was “a lonely stubborn man with few confidants, who seemed to develop his policies without consulting anyone, then stuck to them inflexibly in the face of any and all criticism. He lacked Lincoln’s ability to conciliate his foes and his capacity for growth, which was best illustrated by Lincoln’s evolving attitude to black suffrage during the Civil War.” [17] In the months after his unexpected accession to the presidency Johnson demonstrated that he had no understanding of Lincoln’s political goals for the South and the desires of the Republican dominated Congress.

By the summer of 1865 Johnson was already demonstrating “that his sympathies were with the Southern white population and that he believed that their interests should be cared for even at the expense of freedmen.” [18] Johnson’s approach to reconstruction was very simply to “impose minimal demands on the South. He required only minor concessions from the former Confederates before allowing them to resume their political rights and retain their land. As for freedmen, he seemed to think that the needed no further protection beyond the fact of their emancipation.”  [19] Johnson gave individual pardons to more than thirteen thousand “high-ranking Confederate civil and military officers and wealthy Southerners.” [20] While doing this he minimized political influence the Southern Unionists who had not supported the Confederacy and ensured that freed slaves were excluded from the political process.  He issued a number of orders “appointing interim provisional governors and urging the writing of new state constitutions based upon the voter qualifications in force at the time of secession in 1861 – which meant, in large but invisible letters, no blacks.” [21]

When Frederick Douglass led a delegation of blacks to meet with Johnson in February 1865 Johnson preached that it was impossible to give political freedom to blacks. When Douglass attempted to object Johnson became angry and told Douglass “I do not like to be arraigned by some who can get up handsomely-rounded periods and rhetoric, and talk about abstract ideas of liberty, who never periled life, liberty, or property.” [22] When Douglass took his objections to Johnson’s harangue to a Washington newspaper, Johnson railed against Douglass “I know that d—–d Douglass…he’s just like any other nigger & would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” [23]


[1] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.14

[2] Ibid. Liddell- Hart Why Don’t We Learn From History? p.86

[3] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 132

[4] Perman, Michael and Murrell Taylor, Amy editors The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.323

[5] Foner, Eric A Short History of Reconstruction Harper and Row, New York 1990 p.89

[6] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 177

[7] Langguth, A.J. After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace Simon and Schuster, New York 2014 p.119

[8] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.319

[9] Ibid. Foner A Short History of Reconstruction p.89

[10] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 175

[11] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.407

[12] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.407

[13] Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard Fordham University Press, New York 1999 p.93

[14] Melton, Brian C. Sherman’s Forgotten General: Henry W. Slocum University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London 2007

[15] Ibid. Perman and Taylor The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition p.323

[16] Ibid. Foner A Short History of Reconstruction p.30

[17] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.108

[18] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard  New York 1999 p.109

[19] Ibid. Perman and Taylor The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition p.323

[20] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 177

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.490

[22] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.494

[23] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.494

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“I Knew What I Was Fighting For” The Social Revolution of the Civil War: Emancipation Part 1


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am continuing my foray into African American History which for those that don’t know is really a key and often neglected part of American History. This is a several part series dealing with Emancipation, and the social revolution that it brought about in the United States Military. The process that began in 1862 has taken another century and a half to come to a much better state, and the men who pioneered the way deserve the credit for persevering in spite of prejudice, in spite of discrimination, and in spite of a country not appreciating them as they should have been. Their sacrifice not only pioneered the way for African Americans, but women, other minorities, and LGBTQ people. As a nation we are indebted to them.

Please enjoy,


Padre Steve+

Emancipation and the U.S. Military


Men of the 4th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops

The war brought about another change to warfare in America. This was a societal and political change that has shaped American military history, culture and life ever since. The Emancipation Proclamation gave African Americans, both Freedmen and recently freed slaves the opportunity to serve in the Union Army. The change of policy instituted by Lincoln was revolutionary as well as controversial and it had strategic implications for the war effort. There were many doubters in the north whose attitudes towards African Americans were not much different than Southerners, especially among the Copperheads.

Prior to the Emancipation some Union commanders in occupied Confederate territory “had unofficially recruited black soldiers in Kansas and in occupied portions of South Carolina and Louisiana in 1862. But the administration had not sanctioned these activities.” [1] The issue for Lincoln in 1861 and 1862 was the necessity of keeping the Border-Slave Sates of Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland, which had not seceded from the Union. Lincoln repudiated the orders of General John Fremont, in Missouri, and his friend General David Hunter, who commanded the Department of the South regarding emancipation, not because he was in complete disagreement, but because he felt that the officers had overstepped their authority.

Lincoln understood that this might hurt him with the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party. While Lincoln was certainly sympathetic to their cause, he insisted that such decisions were not within the prevue of local commanders, but that any such proclamations had to come from him, as Commander-in-Chief. He told Treasure Secretary Salmon Chase, who supported the measures of Hunter and Fremont, “No commanding general shall do such a thing, upon my responsibility, without consulting me.” [2] Lincoln’s decision to reverse and repudiate the decisions of local commanders infuriated some in his cabinet and in the Congress. But Lincoln remained firm in that conviction due to the need to ensure the cooperation of the Border States the continued loyalty of which were absolutely vital to winning the war, without which no meaningful emancipation would be possible.

However, Lincoln did support the efforts of General Benjamin Butler. Butler commanded the Federal forces at Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads. Butler had been a former pro-slavery Democrat who learned that the Confederates were using slaves to construct fortifications and to support their army on the Peninsula. In May 1862 twenty-three slaves escaped to his lines and their owner, a Confederate Colonel, “demanded the return of his property under the Fugitive Slave Law! With as deadpan expression as possible (given his cocked eye), Butler informed him that since Virginia claimed to have left the Union, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied.” [3] Butler then declared that since the escaped slaves had worked for the Confederate Army that they were “contraband of war – enemy property subject to seizure.” [4] It was a solid argument, since Southerners themselves referred to African American slaves as property was subject to seizure. Lincoln and Secretary of War Cameron approved of Butler’s action and “eventually, the Congress passed a confiscation law ending the rights of masters over fugitive slaves used to support Confederate troops.” [5]

Salmon Chase and other strong abolitionists opposed Lincoln vehemently for this, but it would not be long until Lincoln made the decision for full emancipation. This was first accomplished by the Emancipation Proclamation, a military order that only applied to the states that had seceded. However, Lincoln would follow this by pushing for a constitutional amendment to end slavery.   The latter occurred when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in January 1865. This amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

Lincoln had already decided upon emancipation in the spring of 1862, however, following the defeat of McClellan on the Peninsula he decided to postpone announcing it, Secretary of State Seward recommended against it until “until you can give it to the country supported by military success.” Otherwise the world might view it as an incitement for slave insurrections, “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help…our last shriek, on the retreat.” [6] The wisdom of Seward’s advice was profound, and Lincoln put off the announcement until after the Battle of Antietam.

McClellan, true to form opposed any such policy. When Lincoln visited him after his withdraw from the Peninsula, the defeated but still arrogant General handed Lincoln a memorandum on what McClellan viewed as the “proper conduct of the war.” McClellan advised Lincoln that the war “should not be a war looking to the subjugation of any State in any event…but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, the territorial organization of States, or the forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” [7]

Lincoln was not seeking advice from his recalcitrant commander and put the letter in his pocket and simply told McClellan, “All right.” Interestingly enough just a few months earlier Lincoln would have agreed with McClellan’s views on the conduct of the war. However, with the passage of time and the realization that the Confederacy was fully committed to its independence as well as the continuance and even the expansion of slavery had come to the view that fighting a limited war with limited aims was foolish. He told another Unionist Democrat a few days after McClellan offered his advice that the war could not be fought:

“with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water….This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy this government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt.” [8]

From Slavery to Soldiering


Gun Crew of 2nd Colored Light Artillery 

But as the war continued on, consuming vast numbers of lives the attitude of Lincoln and his administration began to change. After a year and a half of war, Lincoln and the closest members of his cabinet were beginning to understand that the “North could not win the war without mobilizing all of its resources and striking against Southern resources used to sustain the Confederate war effort.” [9] Slave labor was essential to the Confederate war effort, not only did slaves still work the plantations, they were impressed into service in war industries as well as in the Confederate Army.

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Freemantle, a British observer who was with Lee’s army at Gettysburg noted, “in the rear of each regiment were from twenty to thirty negro slaves.” [10] The fact is that the slaves who accompanied the army remained slaves, they were not the mythical thousands of black soldiers who rallied to the Confederate cause, nor were they employees. “Tens of thousands of slaves accompanied their owners to army camps as servants or were impressed into service to construct fortifications and do other work for the Confederate army.” [11] This fact attested to by Colonel William Allan, one of Stonewall Jackson’s staff members who wrote “there were no employees in the Confederate army.” [12] slaves served in a number of capacities to free up white soldiers for combat duties, “from driving wagons to unloading trains and other conveyances. In hospitals they could perform work as nurses and laborers to ease the burdens of patients.” [13] An English-born artilleryman in Lee’s army wrote in 1863 that “in our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants….” [14] When Lee marched to Gettysburg he did so with somewhere between ten and thirty-thousand slaves in support roles and during the advance into Virginia Confederate troops rounded up and re-enslaved as many blacks as they could, including Freedmen.


Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton; who was a passionate believer in the justice of emancipation, was one of the first to grasp the importance of slave labor to the Confederate armies and how emancipation was of decided military necessity. Stanton, “Instantly grasped the military value of the proclamation. Having spent more time than any of his colleagues contemplating the logistical problems facing the army, he understood the tremendous advantage to be gained if the massive workforce of slaves could be transferred from the Confederacy to the Union.” [15]

Lincoln emphasized the “military necessity” of emancipation and “justified the step as a “fit and necessary war measure for suppressing the rebellion.” [16] The process of emancipation now became not only a moral crusade, but now became a key part of national strategy, not just in a military means, but politically, economically and diplomatically as Lincoln “also calculated that making slavery a target of the war would counteract the rising clamor in Britain for recognition of the Confederacy.”  [17]

Lincoln wrote to his future Vice President, Andrew Johnson, then the military governor of occupied Tennessee that “The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of, force for restoration of the Union.” [18] The idea of simply mollifying the border states was dropped and policy changed that of “depriving the Confederacy of slave labor. Mobilizing that manpower for the Union – as soldiers as well as laborers – was a natural corollary.” [19] Reflecting President Lincoln’s and Stanton’s argument for the military necessity of emancipation, General Henry Halleck wrote to Ulysses Grant:

“the character of the war has very much changed within the past year. There is now no possibility of reconciliation with the rebels… We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them….Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is the equivalent of a white man put hors de combat.” [20]


Ulysses Grant concurred with Lincoln’s decision. Grant wrote to in a letter to Lincoln after the assault on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts, “by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion as it strengthens us.” [21] William Tecumseh Sherman was supportive but also noted some facts that some radical abolitionists did not understand. He noted in his correspondence that, “The first step in the liberation of the Negro from bondage will be to get him and his family to a place of safety… then to afford him the means of providing for his family,… then gradually use a proportion – greater and greater each year – as sailors and soldiers.” [22] Lincoln wrote after the Emancipation Proclamation that “the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.” [23] The change was a watershed in both American history as well as for the future of the U.S. Military services.

In conjunction with the Emancipation Proclamation Secretary of War Stanton “authorized General Rufus Saxton to “arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding 5,000, and [you] may detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them.”  [24] The initial regiments of African Americans were formed by Union commanders in liberated areas of Louisiana and South Carolina, and most were composed of newly freed slaves. Others like the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiments were raised from free black men in the north. Stanton’s authorization was followed by the Enrollment Act passed by Congress in March of 1863 which established the draft also allowed blacks to serve. By March Stanton was working with state governors to establish more black regiments. The units became known as United States Colored Troops, or U.S.C.T. and were commanded by white officers and organized into the infantry, cavalry and, artillery regiments organized on the model of white regiments. The U.S.C.T. “grew to include seven regiments of cavalry, more than a dozen of artillery, and well over one hundred of infantry.” [25]

Some Union soldiers and officers initially opposed enlisting blacks at all, and some “charged that making soldiers of blacks would be a threat to white supremacy, and hundreds of Billy Yanks wrote home that they would no serve alongside blacks.” [26]  But most common soldiers accepted emancipation, especially those who had served in the South and seen the misery that many salves endured, one Illinois soldier, stationed who served in the Western Theater of war wrote, “the necessity of emancipation is forced upon us by the inevitable events of the war… and the only road out of this war is by blows aimed at the heart of the Rebellion…. If slavery should be left undisturbed the war would be protracted until the loss of life and national bankruptcy would make peace desirable on any terms.” [27]

Another soldier’s letters home show his conversion from being against emancipation to being fully for it. Corporal Chauncey B. Welton from Ohio wrote to his father after the Emancipation proclamation:

“Father I want you to write and tell me what you think of Lincoln’s proclamation of setting all the negroes free. I can tell you we don’t think much of it hear in the army for we did not enlist to fight for the negro and I can tell you that we never shall or many of us any how[.] no never.” Following over two years of service in which he served with Sherman’s army he became a critic of the anti-abolitionist Copperheads in the North, especially former Clement Vallandigham, and finally wrote in February 1865, “dear parents let us trust in Him that never forsakes the faithful, and never cease to pray… that soon we may look upon an undivided Country and that Country free free free yes free from that blighting curs[e] Slavery the cause of four years of Bloody warfare.” [28]

Even so racial prejudice in the Union ranks never went away and sometimes was accompanied by violence. It remained a part and parcel of life in and outside of the army, even though many Union soldiers would come to praise the soldierly accomplishments and bravery of African American Soldiers. An officer who had refused a commission to serve with a U.S.C.T. regiment watched as black troops attacked the defenses of Richmond in September 1864:

“The darkies rushed across the open space fronting the work, under a fire which caused them loss, into the abattis… down into the ditch with ladders, up and over the parapet with flying flags, and down among, and on top of, the astonished enemy, who left in utmost haste…. Then and there I decided that ‘the black man could fight’ for his freedom, and that I had made a mistake in not commanding them.” [29] Likewise, “Once the Lincoln administration broke the color barrier of the army, blacks stepped forward in large numbers. Service in the army offered to blacks the opportunity to strike a decisive blow for freedom….” [30]


The Defense of Milliken’s Bend 

Emancipation allowed for the formation of regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT), which were mustered directly into Federal service. In sheer numbers the U.S.C.T. formations soon dwarfed the few state raised Black Regiments.  However, it was the inspiration provided by those first state raised regiments, the heroic accounts of those units reported in Northern newspapers, as well as the unprovoked violence directed against Blacks in the 1863 New York draft riots that helped to provoke “many northerners into a backlash against the consequences of violent racism.” [31]

Despite the hurdles and prejudices that blacks faced even in the North, many African Americans urged others to enlist, self-help mattered more than self-preservation. Henry Gooding, an black sergeant from Massachusetts wrote the editor of the New Bedford Mercury urging fellow blacks to enlist despite the dangers, “As one of the race, I beseech you not to trust a fancied security, laying in your minds, that our condition will be bettered because slavery must die…[If we] allow that slavery will die without the aid of our race to kill it – language cannot depict the indignity, the scorn, and perhaps the violence that will be heaped upon us.” [32]

The valor of the state regiments, as well as the USCT units that managed to get into action was remarkable, especially in regard to the amount of discrimination levied at them by some northerners, including white Northern soldiers, and the very real threat of death that they faced if captured by Confederates. In response to the Emancipation Proclamation and to the formation of African American regiments the Confederate Congress passed measures that would make Union officers who commanded African American troops as war criminals and return any black soldier captured by Confederate forces return to slavery, if those blacks captured in battle were not summarily tortured by their captors or executed as happened at Fort Wagner, Petersburg, and at Fort Pillow.

In late 1862 Major General Nathaniel Banks was in desperate need of soldiers and received permission to form a number of regiments of free blacks. Known as the First, Second and Third Regiments of the Louisiana Native Guards they were primarily composed of former slaves who had escaped to Union lines, as well as some mulattos who were the children of prominent white citizens of the city. During an inspection, the white Colonel of the Guards told another officer:

“Sir, the best blood of Louisiana is in that regiment! Do you see that tall, slim fellow, third file from the right of the second company? One of the ex-governors of the state is his father. That orderly sergeant in the next company is the son of a man who has been six years in the United States Senate. Just beyond him is the grandson of Judge ______ …; and through all the ranks you will find the same state of facts…. Their fathers are disloyal; [but] these black Ishmaels will more than compensate for their treason by fighting in the field.” [33]

In May of 1863 Banks dared to send the First and Third Regiments of “Louisiana Native Home Guard regiments on a series of attacks on Confederate positions at Port Hudson, Louisiana” [34] where they received their baptism of fire. They suffered heavy losses and “of the 1080 men in the ranks, 271 were hit, or one out of every four.” [35] A white Wisconsin soldier commented that the black soldiers “fought like devils,” while a soldier of the 156th New York wrote, “They charged and re-charged and they didn’t know what retreat meant. They lost in their two regiments some four hundred men as near as I can learn. This settles the question about niggers not fighting well. They on the contrary make splendid soldiers and are as good fighting men as we have.” [36] Banks too was caught up in the moment and said of these troops in his after action report: “They answered every expectation…In many respects their conduct was heroic…The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leave upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success.” [37]


54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner 

But the most famous African American volunteer regiment was the 54th Massachusetts, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the “North’s showcase black regiment.” [38] Raised in Boston and officered by many men who were the sons of Boston’s blue blood abolitionist elite, the regiment was authorized in March 1863. Since there was still opposition to the formation of units made up of African Americans, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew authorized the formation of the 54th under the command of white officers, a practice that with few exceptions, became standard in the U.S. military until President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948. Governor Andrew was determined to ensure that the officers of the 54th were men of “firm antislavery principles…superior to a vulgar contempt for color.” [39]

The 54th Massachusetts first saw action in early June 1863 and at Shaw’s urging were sent into battle against the Confederate positions at Fort Wagner on July 18th 1863. Leading the attack the 54th lost nearly half its men, “including Colonel Shaw with a bullet through his heart. Black soldiers gained Wagner’s parapet and held it for an hour before falling back.” [40] Though they tried to hold on they were pushed back after a stubborn fight to secure a breach in the fort’s defenses. “Sergeant William H Carney staggered back from the fort with wounds in his chest and right arm, but with the regiment’s Stars and Stripes securely in his grasp. “The old flag never touched the ground, boys,” Carney gasped as he collapsed at the first field hospital he could find.” [41] Shaw was buried with his men by the Confederates and when Union commanders asked for the return of his body were told “We have buried him with his niggers,” Shaw’s father quelled a northern effort to recover his son’s body with these words: We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen.” [42] As with so many frontal attacks on prepared positions throughout the war, valor alone could not overcome a well dug in enemy. “Negro troops proved that they could stop bullets and shell fragments as good as white men, but that was about all.” [43]

Despite the setback, the regiment went on to further actions where it continued to distinguish itself. The Northern press, particularly abolitionist newspapers brought about a change in the way that many Americans in the North, civilians as well as soldiers, saw blacks. The Atlantic Monthly noted, “Through the cannon smoke of that dark night, the manhood of the colored race shines before many eyes that would not see.”  [44]


55th Massachusetts being welcomed in Charleston SC 

In the African American 55th Massachusetts, which was recruited after the 54th, twenty-one year old Sergeant Isaiah Welch wrote a letter which was published in the Philadelphia Christian Recorder from Folly Island South Carolina:

“I will mention a little about the 55th Massachusetts Regiment. They seem to be in good health at the present and are desirous of making a bold dash upon the enemy. I pray God the time will soon come when we, as soldiers of God, and of our race and country, may face the enemy with boldness. For my part I feel willing to suffer all privations incidental to a Christian and a soldier…. In conclusion, let me say, if I fall in the battle anticipated, remember, I fall in defense of my race and country. Some of my friends thought it very wrong of me in setting aside the work of the Lord to take up arms against the enemy…. I am fully able to answer all questions pertaining to rebels. If taking lives will restore the country to what it once was, then God help me to slay them on every hand.” [45]

Like the 54th Massachusetts, the 55th would see much action. After one particularly sharp engagement in July 1864, in which numerous soldiers had demonstrated exceptional valor under fire the regiment’s commander, Colonel Alfred S. Hartwell “recommended that three of the black sergeants of the 55th be promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.” But Hartwell’s request was turned down, and a member of the regiment complained, “But the U.S. government has refused so far to must them because God did not make them White…. No other objection is, or can be offered.” [46]

Frederick Douglass, who had two sons serving in the 54th Massachusetts, understood the importance of African Americans taking up arms against those that had enslaved them in order to win their freedom:

“Once let a black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S… let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny he has won the right to citizenship in the United States.” [47]

Douglass urged African American men to enlist to secure their freedom, even while noting the inequities still prevalent in society and in the military, in which they did not receive the same pay as whites, nor could they become officers. Appealing to duty and reality Douglass noted in a speech in Philadelphia urging black men to volunteer. In it he carefully defined the real differences between the purposes of the Confederacy which was to “nothing more than to make the slavery of the African race universal and perpetual on this continent,” which was “based upon the idea that colored men are an inferior race, who may be enslaved and plundered forever.” [48]


Sergeant William Carney 54th Massachusetts, Medal of Honor

But the premier leader of the African Americans of his day, who had himself suffered as a slave, did not stop with that. Douglass understood that winning the war was more important that to what had been the attitude of the Federal government before the war and before emancipation, “Now, what is the attitude of the Washington government towards the colored race? What reasons have we to desire its triumph in the present contest? Mind, I do not ask what was its attitude towards us before the war…. I do not ask you about the dead past. I bring you to the living present.” He noted the advances that had been made in just a few months and appealed to his listeners. “Do not flatter yourselves, my friends, that you are more important to the Government than the Government to you. You stand but as the plank to the ship. This rebellion can be put down without your help. Slavery can be abolished by white men: but liberty so won for the black man, while it may leave him an object of pity, can never make him an object of respect…. Young men of Philadelphia, you are without excuse. The hour has arrived, and your place is in the Union army. Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all the mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty…” [49]

Other African American units less famous than the illustrious 54th Massachusetts distinguished themselves in action against Confederate forces. Two regiments of newly recruited blacks were encamped at Milliken’s Bend Louisiana when a Confederate brigade attempting to relieve the Vicksburg garrison attacked them. The troops were untrained and ill-armed but held on against a determined enemy:

“Untrained and armed with old muskets, most of the black troops nevertheless fought desperately. With the aid of two gunboats they finally drove off the enemy. For raw troops, wrote Grant, the freedmen “behaved well.” Assistant Secretary of War Dana, still with Grant’s army, spoke with more enthusiasm. “The bravery of the blacks,” he declared, “completely revolutionized the sentiment in the army with regard to the employment of negro troops. I heard prominent officers who had formerly in private had sneered at the idea of negroes fighting express after that as heartily in favor of it.” [50]

The actions of the black units at Milliken’s bend attracted the attention and commendation of Ulysses Grant, who wrote in his cover letter to the after action report, “In this battle most of the troops engaged were Africans, who had little experience in the use of fire-arms. Their conduct is said, however, to have been most gallant, and I doubt not but with good officers that they will make good troops.” [51] They also garnered the attention of the press. Harper’s published an illustrated account of the battle with a “double-page woodcut of the action place a black color bearer in the foreground, flanked by comrades fighting hand-to-hand with Confederates. A brief article called it a “the sharp fight at Milliken’s bend where a small body of black troops with a few whites were attacked by a large force of rebels.” [52] In the South the result was chilling and shocked whites, one woman wrote “It is hard to believe that Southern soldiers – and Texans at that – have been whipped by a mongrel crew of white and black Yankees…. There must be some mistake.” While another woman in Louisiana confided in her diary, “It is terrible to think of such a battle as this, white men and freemen fighting with their slaves, and to be killed by such a hand, the very soul revolts from it, O, may this be the last.” [53]


Louisiana Native Guards at Port Hudson 

By the end of the war over 179,000 African American Soldiers, commanded by 7,000 white officers served in the Union armies. For a number of reasons most of these units were confined to rear area duties or working with logistics and transportation operations. The policies to regulate USCT regiments to supporting tasks in non-combat roles “frustrated many African American soldiers who wanted a chance to prove themselves in battle.” [54]  Many of the soldiers and their white officers argued to be let into the fight as they felt that “only by proving themselves in combat could blacks overcome stereotypes of inferiority and prove their “manhood.” [55] Even so in many places in the army the USCT and state regiments made up of blacks were scorned:

“A young officer who left his place in a white regiment to become colonel of a colored regiment was frankly told by a staff officer that “we don’t want any nigger soldiers in the Army of the Potomac,” and his general took him aside to say: “I’m sorry to have you leave my command, and am still more sorry that you are going to serve with Negroes. I think that it is a disgrace to the army to make soldiers of them.” The general added that he felt this way because he was sure that colored soldiers just would not fight.”  [56]

The general of course, was wrong, for “Nothing eradicated the prejudices of white soldiers as effectively as black soldiers performing well under fire. And nothing inspired black soldiers to fight as desperately as the fear that capture meant certain death.” [57]  In the engagements where USCT units were allowed to fight, they did so with varying success most of which was often attributable to the direction of their senior officers and the training that they had received. As with any other unit, well led and well trained regiments performed better than those whose leaders had failed their soldiers. When given the chance they almost always fought well, even when badly commanded. This was true as well when they were thrown into hopeless situations.

One such instance was when Ferrero’s Division, comprised of colored troops were thrown into the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg when “that battle lost beyond all recall.” [58] The troops advanced in good order singing as they went, while their commander, General Ferrero took cover in a dugout and started drinking; but the Confederate defenders had been reinforced and “Unsupported, subjected to a galling fire from batteries on the flanks, and from infantry fire in front and partly on the flank,” a witness write, “they broke up in disorder and fell back into the crater.” [59] Pressed into the carnage of the crater where white troops from the three divisions already savaged by the fighting had taken cover, the “black troops fought with desperation, uncertain of their fate if captured.” [60] In the battle Ferrero’s division lost 1,327 of the approximately 4,000 men who made the attack. [61]

Major General Benjamin Butler railed to his wife in a letter against those who questioned the courage of African American soldiers seeing the gallantry of black troops assaulting the defenses of Petersburg in September 1864: The man who says that the negro will not fight is a coward….His soul is blacker than then dead faces of these dead negroes, upturned to heaven in solemn protest against him and his prejudices.” [62]

In another engagement, the 1864 Battle of Saltville in western Virginia the troops of the 5th USCT Cavalry who had been insulted, taunted, and derided by their fellow white Union soldiers went into action against Confederate troops defending the salt works in that town. The regiment’s commander, Colonel Wade, order his troops to attack. Colonel James Brisbin detailed the attack:

“the Negroes rushed upon the works with a yell and after a desperate struggle carried the line killing and wounding a large number of the enemy and capturing some prisoners…. Out of the four hundred men engaged, one hundred and fourteen men and four officers fell killed or wounded. Of this fight I can only say that men could not have behaved more bravely. I have seen white troops in twenty-seven battles and I never saw any fight better…. On the return of the forces those who had scoffed at the Colored Troops on the march out were silent.” [63]

The response of the Confederate government to Emancipation and African Americans serving as soldiers was immediate and uncompromisingly harsh. “When in the autumn of 1862 General Beauregard referred the question of a captured black soldier to Davis’s latest Secretary of War, James A. Seddon, the later replied “…my decision is that the negro is to be executed as an example.” [64] Davis approved of the summary executions of black prisoners carried out in South Carolina in November 1862, and a month later “on Christmas Eve, Davis issued a general order requiring all former slaves and their officers captured in arms to be delivered up to state officials for trial.” [65] Davis warned that “the army would consider black soldiers as “slaves captured in arms,” and therefore subject to execution.” [66] While the Confederacy never formally carried out the edict, there were numerous occasions where Confederate commanders and soldiers massacred captured African American soldiers.

The Lincoln administration responded to the Confederate threats by sending a note to Davis that threatened reprisals against Confederate troops if black soldiers suffered harm. It “was largely the threat of Union reprisals that thereafter gave African-American soldiers a modicum of humane treatment.” [67] Even so, they and their white officers were often in much more danger than the officers and soldiers of all-white regiments if captured by Confederate forces.

When captured by Confederates, black soldiers and their white officers received no quarter from many Confederate opponents. General Edmund Kirby Smith who held overall command of Confederate forces west of the Mississippi instructed General Richard Taylor to simply execute black soldiers and their white officers: “I hope…that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma.” [68] This was not only a local policy, but echoed at the highest levels of the Confederate government. In 1862 the Confederate government issued an order that threatened white officers commanding blacks: “any commissioned officer employed in the drilling, organizing or instructing slaves with their view to armed service in this war…as outlaws” would be “held in close confinement for execution as a felon.” [69] After the assault of the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner a Georgia soldier “reported with satisfaction that the prisoners were “literally shot down while on their knees begging for quarter and mercy.” [70]


Fort Pillow Massacre 

On April 12th 1864 at Fort Pillow, troops under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred the bulk of over 231 Union most of them black as they tried to surrender. While it is fairly clear that Forrest did not order the massacre and even may have attempted to stop it, it was clear that he had lost control of his troops, and “the best evidence indicates that the “massacre”…was a genuine massacre.” [71] Forrest’s soldiers fought with the fury of men possessed by hatred of an enemy that they considered ‘a lesser race’ and slaughtered the Union troops as they either tried to surrender or flee; but while Forrest did not order the massacre, he certainly was not displeased with the result. His subordinate, General James Chalmers told an officer from the gunboat Silver Cloud that he and Forrest had neither ordered the massacre and had tried to stop their soldiers but that “the men of General Forrest’s command had such a hatred toward the armed negro that they could not be restrained from killing the negroes,” and he added, “it was nothing better than we could expect so long as we persisted in arming the negro.” [72] It was a portent of what some of the same men would do to defenseless blacks and whites sympathetic to them as members of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Liners, White League, and Red Shirts, during and after Reconstruction in places like Colfax Louisiana.

Ulysses Grant was infuriated and threatened reprisals against any Confederates conducting such activities, he a later wrote:

“These troops fought bravely, but were overpowered I will leave Forrest in his dispatches to tell what he did with them.

“The river was dyed,” he says, “with the blood of the slaughtered for up to 200 years. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed; but few of the officers escaped. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” Subsequently Forrest made a report in which he left out the part that shocks humanity to read.”  [73]

The bulk of the killing was directed at the black soldiers of the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, which composed over a third of the garrison. “Of the 262 Negro members of the garrison, only 58 – just over 20 percent – were marched away as prisoners; while of the 295 whites, 168 – just under sixty percent were taken.”  [74] A white survivor of the 13th West Tennessee Cavalry, a Union unit at the fort wrote:

We all threw down our arms and gave tokens of surrender, asking for quarter…but no quarter was given….I saw 4 white men and at least 25 negroes shot while begging for mercy….These were all soldiers. There were also 2 negro women and 3 little children standing within 25 steps of me, when a rebel stepped up to them and said, “Yes, God damn you, you thought you were free, did you?” and shot them all. They all fell but one child, when he knocked it in the head with the breech of his gun.” [75]

A Confederate Sergeant who was at Fort Pillow wrote home a week after the massacre: “the poor deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but were ordered to their feet and shot down.” [76] The captain of the Union gunboat Silver Cloud was allowed by the Confederate to bring his ship to the Fort to evacuate wounded, and to bury the dead was appalled at the sight,

“All the buildings around the fort and the tents and huts in the fort had been burned by the rebels, and among the embers of the charred remains of numbers of our soldiers who had suffered terrible death in the flames could be seen. All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy…. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen, Bodies with gaping wounds,… some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that little quarter was shown…. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and the hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter…. Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate.” [77]The rabidly pro-slavery members of the Confederate press lent their propaganda to cheer the massacre of the captured blacks. John R. Eakin of the Washington (Arkansas) Washington Telegraph, who later became a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court after Reconstruction, wrote,

“The Slave Soldiers. – Amongst there are stupendous wrongs against humanity, shocking to the moral sense of the world, like Herod’s massacre of the Innocents, or the eve of St. Bartholomew, the crime of Lincoln in seducing our slaves into the ranks of his army will occupy a prominent position….

How should we treat our slaves arrayed under the banners of the invader, and marching to desolate our homes and firesides….

Meanwhile, the problem has been met our soldiers in the heat of battle, where there has been no time for discussion. They have cut the Gordian knot with the sword. They did right….

It follows that we cannot treat negroes in arms as prisoners of war without a destruction of the social system for which we contend. We must be firm, uncompromising and unfaltering. We must claim the full control of all negroes who may fall into our hands, to punish with death, or any other penalty, or remand them to their owners. If the enemy retaliate, we must do likewise; and if the black flag follows, the blood be upon their heads.” [78]

However, when African American Troops were victorious, and even after they had seen their brothers murdered by Confederate troops, that they often treated their Confederate with great kindness. Colonel Brisbin wrote that following Battle of Saltville that “Such of the Colored Soldiers who fell into the hands of the Enemy during the battle were murdered. The Negroes did not retaliate but treated the Rebel wounded with great kindness, carrying them water in their canteens and doing all they could to alleviate the sufferings of those whom the fortunes of war had placed in their hands.” [79]

African American soldiers proved themselves during the war and their efforts paved the way for Lincoln and others to begin considering the full equality of blacks as citizens. If they could fight and die for the country, how could they be denied the right to votes, be elected to office, serve on juries or go to public schools? Under political pressure to end the war during the stalemate before Petersburg and Atlanta in the summer of 1864, Lincoln reacted angrily to Copperheads as well as wavering Republicans on the issue of emancipation:

“But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done.” More than 100,000 black soldiers were fighting for the Union and their efforts were crucial to northern victory. They would not continue fighting if they thought the North intended to betray them….If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive…the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept…There have been men who proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors. “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will.”  [80]

The importance of African Americans cannot be minimized, without them the war could have dragged on much longer or even ended in stalemate, which would have been a Confederate victory. Lincoln wrote about the importance of the African American contribution to the war effort in 1864:

“Any different policy in regard to the colored man, deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We can not spare the hundred and forty or hundred and fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and Steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.” [81]

Despite this, even in the North during and after the war, blacks, including former soldiers faced discrimination, sometimes that of the white men that they served alongside, but more often from those who did not support the war effort. Lincoln wisely took note of this fact, and wrote that after the war:

“there will there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, the clenched teeth, the steady eye, the well poised bayonet, they have helped  mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” [82]


Lt Stephen Swails, First African American Officer of 54th Massachusetts 

Those rights would be fought for another century and what began in 1863 with the brave service and sacrifice of these African American soldiers began a process of increased civil rights that is still going on today. It would not be until after the war that some blacks were commissioned as officers in the Army. When Governor John Andrew, the man who had raised the 54th Massachusetts attempted to “issue a state commission to Sergeant Stephen Swails of the 54th…the Bureau of Colored Troops obstinately refused to issue Swails a discharge from his sergeant’s rank, and Swails promotion was held up until after the end of the war. “How can we hope for success to our arms or God’s blessing,” raged the white colonel of the 54th, Edward Hallowell, “while we as a people are so blind to justice?” [83]

The families of the free blacks who volunteered also suffered, especially those who still had families enslaved in Confederate occupied areas or Union States which still allowed slavery. One women in Missouri wrote her husband begging him to come home “I have had nothing but trouble since you left….They abuse me because you went & say they will not take care of our children & do nothing but quarrel with me all the time and beat me scandalously the day before yesterday.”  [84]

However, the Emancipation Proclamation transformed the war, and even jaded White Union soldiers who had been against emancipation and who were deeply prejudiced against blacks began to change their outlook as the armies marched into the South and saw the horrors of slavery, Russell Weigley wrote that Union soldiers: “confronting the scarred bodies and crippled souls of African Americans as they marched into the South experienced a strong motivation to become anti-slavery men…Men do not need to play a role long, furthermore, until the role grows to seem natural and customary to them. That of liberators was sufficiently fulfilling to their pride that soldiers found themselves growing more accustomed to it all the more readily.” [85]

A sergeant of the 19th Michigan who had already lost a stepson in the war wrote to his wife from Georgia before being killed in action during the Atlanta campaign; “the more I learn of the cursed institution of Slavery, the more I feel willing to endure, for its final destruction…. After this war is over, this whole country will undergo a change for the better…. Abolishing slavery will dignify labor; that fact will revolutionize everything…. Let Christians use all their influence to have justice done to the black man.” [86]

But even more importantly for the cause of liberty, the sight of regiments of free African Americans, marching “through the slave states wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army and carrying rifles on their shoulders was perhaps the most revolutionary event of a war turned into revolution.” [87]


At peak one in eight Union troops were African American, and Black troops made an immense contribution to the Union victory. “Black troops fought on 41 major battlefields and in 449 minor engagements. Sixteen soldiers and seven sailors received Medals of Honor for valor. 37,000 blacks in army uniform gave their lives and untold sailors did, too.” [88] To fully appreciate the measure as to the importance and significance of the numbers of African American troops serving in the Union ranks has to compare that number with the number of active Confederate troops serving toward the end of the war. The approximately 180,000 African Americans serving in Union ranks at the end of the war outnumbered the “aggregate present” in Confederate ranks on January 1st 1865 by over 20,000 men. Of these troops “134,111 were recruited in states that had stars in the Confederate battle flag, and the latter figure in turn was several thousand greater than the total of 135,994 gray-clad soldiers “present for duty” that same day.” [89]

Of the African American soldiers who faced the Confederates in combat, “deep pride was their compensation. Two black patients in an army hospital began a conversation. One of them looked at the stump of an arm he had once had and remarked: “Oh I should like to have it, but I don’t begrudge it.” His ward mate, minus a leg, replied: “Well, ‘twas [lost] in a glorious cause, and if I’d lost my life I should have been satisfied. I knew what I was fighting for.” [90]


Flags of the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops 

After the war many of the African American soldiers became leaders in the African American community and no less than 130 of these former soldiers held elected office including in the U.S. Congress and various state legislatures. The liberating aspect of “the black military experience radiated from black soldiers and their families into the larger black community, so it spread into white society as well.” [91]  Many abolitionists who had served as officers, and officers who were assigned to the USCT or volunteered to serve with state raised African American regiments became leaders continued to be voices for expanding civil rights in the years following the war.

Following war’s end, the demobilized African American troops became the target of racial discrimination and violence, but even so, “black veterans continued to play a central role in black communities, North and South. The skills and experience black men gained during the war not only propelled many of them into positions of leaders and sustained the prominence of others, but it also shaped the expectations and aspirations of all black people. The achievements and pride engendered by military service helped to make a new world of freedom.” [92]

Sadly, much of the nation has forgotten the efforts of the Free Black Soldiers and Sailors who fought for freedom, but even so their legacy remains in the “contribution of black soldiers to Union victory remained a point of pride in black communities. “They say,” an Alabama planter reported in 1867, “the Yankees never could have whipped the South without the aid of the Negroes.” Well into the twentieth century, black families throughout the United States would recall with pride that their fathers and grandfathers had fought for freedom.” [93]


[1] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

[2] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.435

[3] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.58

[4] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.58

[5] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.369

[6] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.109

[7] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.531

[8] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.503

[9] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War p.101

[10] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.160

[11] Foner, Eric Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2005 p.45

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.160

[13] Ibid. Glatthaar General Lee’s Army from Victory to Collapse p.313

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.160

[15] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.465

[16] Egnal, Marc Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War Hill and Wang a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York 2009 p.318

[17] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.48

[18] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.159

[19] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.159

[20] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.35

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.381

[22] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.10

[23] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.35

[24] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.31

[25] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.11

[26] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.31

[27] Ibid. Gallagher, Gary W. The Union War Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 2011 p.103

[28] Welton, Chauncey B. A Union Soldier’s Changing Views on Emancipation in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William Gienapp, W.W. Norton Company, New York and London 2001 pp.242 and 245

[29] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.34

[30] Glatthaar, Joseph T. Black Glory: The African American Role in Union Victory in Why the Confederacy Lost edited by Gabor S. Boritt Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1992

[31] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[32] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.282

[33] Jones, Terry L. The Free Men of Color Go to War in The new York Times Disunion: 106 Articles from the New York Times Opinionator edited by Ted Widmer with Clay Risen and George Kalogerakis, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York 2013 p.403

[34] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.379

[35] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.398

[36] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War p.44

[37] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.379

[38] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[39] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.101

[40] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[41] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening pp. 380-381

[42] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom pp.686-687

[43] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.697

[44] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[45] Welch, Isaiah H. Letter in the Christian Recorder 24 October 1863 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 pp.225-226

[46] Trudeau, Noah Andre, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York and London, 1998 p.262

[47] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 381

[48] Douglass, Frederick Philadelphia Speech of July 6th 1863 recorded in the Liberator in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 pp.220-221

[49] Ibid. Douglass Philadelphia Speech of July 6th 1863 p.221

[50] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.634

[51] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 p.58

[52] Ibid. Gallagher The Union War p.97

[53] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 p.59

[54] Ibid. Gallagher The Union War p.92

[55] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.89 p.

[56] Catton, Bruce. A Stillness at Appomattox Doubleday and Company Garden City, New York 1953 p.227

[57] Berlin, Ira, Riedy, Joseph P. and Rowland, Leslie S. editors, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York 1998 pp.133-134

[58] Ibid. Catton A Stillness at Appomattox p.249

[59] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three Red River to Appomattox Random House, New York 1974 p.537

[60] Ibid.Wert The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac pp.384-385

[61] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.537

[62] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.34

[63] Ibid. Berlin et al, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  p.135

[64] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.189

[65] Ibid. McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom p.566

[66] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p. 280

[67] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.188

[68] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 377

[69] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 377

[70] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.281

[71] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.189

[72] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.208

[73] Grant, Ulysses S. Preparing for the Campaigns of ’64 in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume IV, Retreat With Honor Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ pp.107-108

[74] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.111

[75] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 378

[76] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.112

[77] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.208

[78] Eakin, John R. The Slave Soldiers, June 8, 1864  in Loewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. editors, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about “The Lost Cause” University of Mississippi Press, Jackson 2010 pp.210 and 212

[79] Ibid. Berlin et al, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  p.47

[80] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.89

[81] Ibid. Glatthaar Black Glory: The African American Role in Union Victory p.138

[82] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 113

[83] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 376

[84] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.282

[85] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.192

[86] Ibid. McPherson For Cause and Comrades p.130

[87] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.191

[88] Gallagher, Gary, Engle, Stephen, Krick, Robert K. and Glatthaar editors The American Civil War: The Mighty Scourge of War Osprey Publishing, Oxford UK 2003 p.296

[89] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three Red River to Appomattox p.756

[90] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.36

[91] Ibid. Berlin et al, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  p.47

[92] Ibid. Berlin et al. Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War pp.49-50

[93] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.55


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“Sound the Loud Timbrel o’er Egypt’s Dark Sea, Jehovah Hath Triumphed, His People are Free.” The Emancipation Proclamation


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Another section  from one of my Civil War texts, this dealing with the Emancipation Proclamation.


Padre Steve+

From the beginning of the war many Northerners, especially abolitionists and radical Republicans believed that “as the “cornerstone” of the confederacy (the oft-cited description by the South’s vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens) slavery must become a military target.” [1] When some Union generals made their own attempts at issuing emancipation orders, Lincoln countermanded them for exceeding their authority. Lincoln resisted the early calls of the abolitionists to make that a primary war goal for very practical reasons, he had to first ensure that the Border Slave States did not secede, something that would have certainly ensured that the Union would not survived. As a result in the first year of the war, Lincoln “maneuvered to hold Border South neutrals in the Union and to lure Union supporters from the Confederacy’s Middle South white belts. He succeeded on both scores. His double success with southern whites gave the Union greater manpower, a stronger economy, and a larger domain. These slave state resources boosted free labor states’ capacity to should the Union’s heavier Civil War burden.” [2] His success in doing this was instrumental in enabling him to turn to emancipation in 1862.

Finally, some twenty months after Fort Sumter fell and after nearly two years of unrelenting slaughter culminating in the bloody battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation. Emancipation was a tricky legal issue for Lincoln as “an executive order of emancipation would be beyond the powers of the president, but not, Lincoln concluded, if such an order were issued as furtherance of the executive’s war powers.” [3] Lincoln had desired to issue the order during the summer and sounded out elected officials and soldiers as to his plan.

Lincoln discussed his views with General George McClellan during a visit to the latter’s headquarters. McClellan stated his strident opposition to them in writing. McClellan did not admire slavery but he despised abolitionists and he wrote one of his political backers “Help me to dodge the nigger – we want nothing to do with him. I am fighting for the Union…. To gain that end we cannot afford to mix up the negro question.”  [4]

Lincoln then called border state Congressmen to sound them out on the subject on July 12th 1862 only to be met with opposition. Such opposition caused Lincoln “to give up trying to conciliate conservatives. From then on the president tilted toward the radical position, though this would not become publicly apparent for more than two months.” [5]

Lincoln’s cabinet met to discuss the proclamation on July 22nd 1862 and after some debate decided that it should be issued, although it was opposed by Postmaster General Montgomery Blair who believed that “the Democrats would capitalize on the unpopularity of such a measure in the border states and parts of the North to gain control of the House in the fall elections.” [6] Wisely, Lincoln heeded the advice of Secretary of State Seward to delay the announcement until military victories ensured that people did not see it as a measure of desperation. Seward noted: “I approve of the proclamation, but I question the expediency of its issue at this juncture. The depression of the public mind, consequent on our repeated reverses, is so great I fear…it may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help…our last shriek on the retreat.” Seward suggested that Lincoln wait “until the eagle of victory takes his flight,” and buoyed by military success, “hang your proclamation about his neck.” [7]

After the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This document served as a warning to the leaders of the South, and insisted that there was much more at stake in their rebellion unless they surrendered; their slaves, the very “property” for which the seceded. The document “warned that unless the South laid down its arms by the end of 1862, he would emancipate the slaves.” [8] This was something that they could not and would not do, even as their cities burned and Confederacy collapsed around them in 1864.

The proclamation was a military order in which Lincoln ordered the emancipation of slaves located in the Rebel states and areas of those states occupied by Union troops. It was not designed to change law, which would have to wait until Lincoln felt he could have Congress amend the Constitution.  Instead of law it was “the doctrine of military necessity justified Lincoln’s action.” [9] The concept emanated from Boston lawyer William Whiting who argued “the laws of war “give the President full belligerent rights” as commander and chief to seize enemy property (in this case slaves) being used to wage war against the United States.” [10] There was a legitimate military necessity in the action as Confederate armies used slaves as teamsters, laborers, cooks, and other non-combatant roles to free up white soldiers for combat duty, and because slaves were an important part of the Southern war economy which could not function without them. The proclamation gave inspiration to many slaves throughout the South to desert to the Union cause or to labor less efficiently for their Confederate masters. A South Carolina planter wrote in 1865:

“the conduct of the Negro in the late crisis of our affairs has convinced me that we were all laboring under a delusion….I believed that these people were content, happy, and attached to their masters, But events and reflection have caused me to change these positions….If they were content, happy and attached to their masters, why did they desert him in the moment of need and flocked to the enemy, whom they did not know….” [11]

The proclamation authorized that freed blacks be recruited into the Federal army and it ensured that freed slaves would not again be surrendered back into slavery. As Montgomery Blair had warned Lincoln and the Republicans suffered sharp electoral reverses as “Democrats made opposition to emancipation the centerpiece of their campaign, warning that the North would be “Africanized” – inundated by freed slaves competing for jobs and seeking to marry white women.”  [12]

Lincoln’s response was to continue on despite the opposition and issue the Proclamation in spite of electoral reverses and political resistance. The vehemence of some Northern Democrats came close to matching that of white Southerners. The “white Southerner’s view of Lincoln as a despot, hell-bent on achieving some unnatural vision of “equality,” was shared by Northern Democrats, some of whom thought the president was now possessed by a “religious fanaticism.” [13] But Lincoln was not deterred and he understood “that he was sending the war and the country down a very different road than people thought they would go.” [14] He noted in December 1862:

“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history….This fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation….In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.” [15]

For Lincoln the Emancipation Proclamation was something that he believed was something that he had to do, and he believed that it would be the one thing that he did in life that would be remembered. He had long been convicted of the need for it, but timing mattered, even six months before it might have created a political backlash in the North which would have fractured support for the war effort, and in this case timing and how he made the proclamation mattered.

The Emancipation Proclamation had military, domestic political, and diplomatic implications, as well as moral implications for the conduct of the war.

The military implication would take some time to achieve but were twofold. First, Lincoln hoped that the Emancipation Proclamation would encourage former slaves, as well as already free blacks in the North to join the Union cause and enlist to serve in the Federal Army. The act would vest African Americans in the Union’s cause as little else could, and at the same time begin to choke-off the agricultural labor force that provided the backbone of the Confederate economy. Frederick Douglass eloquently made the case for African Americans to serve in July 1863, telling a crowd in Philadelphia, “Do not flatter yourself, my friends, that you are more important to the Government than the Government is to you. You stand but as a plank to the ship. This rebellion can be put down without your help. Slavery can be abolished by white men: but Liberty so won for the black man, while it may leave him an object of pity, can never make him an object of respect…. Young men of Philadelphia, you are without excuse. The hour has arrived, and your place is in the Union army. Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all the parchment guarantees of Liberty. In you hands the musket means Liberty…” [16] By the end of the war over 180,000 African American men would serve as volunteers in the United States Army.

Politically the proclamation would the diplomatic purpose by isolating the Confederacy from European assistance. This it did, after the proclamation public sentiment, especially among Europe’s working classes turned solidly against the Confederacy. Domestically it would break-ground for the Thirteenth Amendment, which Lincoln, the pragmatic lawyer was needed to actually abolish slavery. Morally, it  would serve as the guarantee of The United States Government’s public, irrevocable pledge of freedom to African Americans if the North won the war.

Lincoln signed the order on January 1st 1863. As he got ready to sign the document he paused and put down the pen, speaking to Seward he said “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do now in signing this paper….If my name ever goes down in history it will be for signing this act, and my whole soul is in it.” [17] The opening paragraph read:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” [18]

At the ends of the proclamation he added the words suggested by his devoutly Christian Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” [19]

The response throughout the North was euphoric as celebrations took place throughout the North. In some cities one hundred gun salutes were fired. At Boston’s Tremont Temple people broke out singing a hymn “Sound the loud timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea, Jehovah hath triumphed, his people are free.” [20] The Boston Daily Evening Telegraph predicted, “Slavery from this hour ceases to be a political power in this country…such a righteous revolution as it inaugurates never goes backward.” [21]

Frederick Douglass wrote about his reactions to the Emancipation proclamation as he had nearly despaired wondering if the Lincoln administration would actually take up the fight for emancipation:

“The fourth of July was great, but the first of January, when we consider it in all of its relations and bearings in incomparably greater. The one we respect to the mere political birth to a nation, the last concerns national life and character, and is to determine whether that life and character shall be radiantly and glorious with all high and noble virtues, or infamously blackened, forevermore, with all the hell-darkened crimes and horrors which we attach to Slavery.” [22]

The proclamation was not all some had hoped for and it was certainly provoked a negative response in the South and among many Northern Democrats. Southerners accused Lincoln of inciting racial warfare and Jefferson Davis responded “The day is not so distant when the old Union will be restored with slavery nationally declared to be the proper condition of all of African descent.” [23]

But the proclamation did something that politicians, lawyers did not comprehend, that “the details of the emancipation decree were less significant than the fact that there was an emancipation decree, and while the proclamation read like a dull legal brief, filled with qualifying clauses and exceptions, it was not language made for this, finally, a moral document. It was its existence, its title, its arrival into this world, its challenge to the accepted order, and from that there was no turning back. In this sense it was a revolutionary statement, like the Declaration itself, and nearly as significant.” [24] That the proclamation most certainly was and it was a watershed from which there was no stepping back. “It irrevocably committed the government of the United States to the termination of slavery. It was an act of political courage, take at the right time, in the right way.” [25]

However, it would take another two years, with the Confederacy crumbling under the combined Federal military onslaught before Lincoln was able to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in January 1865.  The amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the country, as well as nullified the fugitive slave clause and the Three-Fifths Compromise. It would be followed after Lincoln’s death by the Fourteenth Amendment which reversed the result of the Dred Scott decision and declared that all people born in the United States were citizens and entitled to the rights of citizenship. During the Grant administration the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, and this finally extended to African American men, the right to vote in every state.

Though limited in scope, the Emancipation Proclamation had more than a domestic military, social and political effect. It also had an effect on foreign policy which ensured that Britain, and thereby France would not intervene in the war on behalf of the Southern Confederacy. It stopped all British support for the Rebels to include seizing warships that had been contracted for by Confederate agents that were building or being fitted out in British Yards. Likewise the British rejected various proposals of Emperor Napoleon III to intervene in the war in late 1862 and during the summer of 1863.

Effects of the Emancipation Proclamation on Military Law

The Emancipation Proclamation and the elimination of slavery also impacted the Union war effort in terms of law, law that eventually had an impact around the world as nations began to adapt to the changing character of war. It was important because for the first time slavery was accounted for in the laws of war. The “Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, General Orders No. 100 by President Lincoln, April 24, 1863; Prepared by Francis Lieber, LLD noted in Article 42 of that Code:

“Slavery, complicating and confounding the ideas of property, (that is of a thing,) and of personality, (that is of humanity,) exists according to municipal or local law only. The law of nature and nations has never acknowledged it. The digest of the Roman law enacts the early dictum of the pagan jurist, that “so far as the law of nature is concerned, all men are equal.” Fugitives escaping from a country in which they were slaves, villains, or serfs, into another country, have, for centuries past, been held free and acknowledged free by judicial decisions of European countries, even though the municipal law of the country in which the slave had taken refuge acknowledged slavery within its own dominions.” [26]

It continued in Article 43:

“Therefore, in a war between the United States and a belligerent which admits of slavery, if a person held in bondage by that belligerent be captured by or come as a fugitive under the protection of the military forces of the United States, such person is immediately entitled to the rights and privileges of a freeman To return such person into slavery would amount to enslaving a free person, and neither the United States nor any officer under their authority can enslave any human being. Moreover, a person so made free by the law of war is under the shield of the law of nations, and the former owner or State can have, by the law of postliminy, no belligerent lien or claim of service.” [27]

The Continued Fight for Emancipation: Dealing with the Copperheads and the Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment

But there were still legitimate concerns that slavery might survive as the war continued. Lincoln knew that in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation raised the stakes of the war far higher than they had been. He noted, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope on earth.” [28] The threat of the destruction of the Union and the continuance of slavery in either the states of the Confederacy, the new western states, territories, or the maintenance of the Union without emancipation was too great for some; notably, the American Freedmen’s Commission to contemplate. With Grant’s army stalled outside Richmond the Copperheads and the peace party gained influence and threatened to bring about a peace that allowed Confederate independence and the continuance of slavery; members of that caucus they Edwin Stanton in the spring of 1864:

“In such a state of feeling, under such a state of things, can we doubt the inevitable results? Shall we escape border raids after fleeing fugitives? No man will expect it. Are we to suffer these? We are disgraced! Are we to repel them? It is a renewal of hostilities!…In the case of a foreign war…can we suppose that they will refrain from seeking their own advantage by an alliance with the enemy?” [29]

The effort of the Copperheads and the peace party to was soon crushed under the military successes of William Tecumseh Sherman’s armies in Georgia. This was especially true of the capture of Atlanta, which was followed by Sherman’s march to the sea and the Carolinas. Additionally the naval victory of David Farragut’s fleet at the Battle of Mobile Bay served to break the stranglehold that the Copperheads were beginning to wield in Northern politics.  These efforts helped secure Lincoln’s reelection by a large margin in the 1864 presidential election over a divided Democratic opposition, whose presidential nominee McClellan could not even endorse his party’s platform.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln discussed the issue of slavery as the chief cause of the war. In it, Lincoln noted that slavery was the chief cause of the war in no uncertain terms and talked in a language of faith that was difficult for many, especially Christians, who “believed weighty political issues could be parsed into good or evil. Lincoln’s words offered a complexity that many found difficult to accept,” for the war had devastated the playground of evangelical politics, and it had “thrashed the certitude of evangelical Protestantism” [30] as much as the First World War shattered Classic European Protestant Liberalism.  Lincoln’s confrontation of the role that people of faith brought to the war in both the North and the South is both illuminating and a devastating critique of the religious attitudes that so stoked the fires of hatred.  His realism in confronting facts was masterful, and badly needed.  He spoke of “American slavery” as a single offense ascribed to the whole nation.” [31]

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.[32]


[1] Ibid. Foner Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction  p.42

[2] Ibid. Freehling The South vs. The South p.47

[3] Brewster, Todd. Lincoln’s Gamble: The Tumultuous Six Months that Gave America the Emancipation Proclamation and Changed the Course of the Civil War Scribner a Division of Simon and Schuster, New York and London p.59

[4] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.364

[5] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.504

[6] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008 p.109

[7] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 468

[8] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.49

[9] McGovern, George Abraham Lincoln Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2009 p.70

[10] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War: p.108

[11] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.39

[12] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.49

[13] Ibid. Brewster Lincoln’s Gamble p.169

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.184

[15] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.49

[16] Douglass, Frederick. Philadelphia Speech of July 6th 1863 recorded in the Liberator in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.221

[17] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 499

[18] Lincoln, Abraham The Emancipation Proclamation The National Archives & Records Administration retrieved from http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/transcript.html 14 June 2014

[19] Ibid. Lincoln The Emancipation Proclamation

[20] Ibid. Brewster Lincoln’s Gamble p.244

[21] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.501

[22] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp. 180-181

[23] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.263

[24] Ibid. Brewster Lincoln’s Gamble p.245

[25] Ibid. McGovern Abraham Lincoln p.78

[26] Reichberg, Gregory M, Syse Henrik, and Begby, Endre The Ethics of War: Classic and Contemporary Readings Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Malden, MA and Oxford UK 2006 p.570

[27] Ibid. Reichberg et al. The Ethics of War p.570

[28] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.263

[29] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.534

[30] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame p.358

[31] Ibid. Wills Lincoln at Gettysburg p.186

[32] Lincoln, Abraham Second Inaugural Address March 4th 1865 retrieved from www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html 24 March 2014


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“One after another they have closed the heavy doors upon him…” The Dred Scott Decision

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another article from one of my Civil War texts, this one dealing with the infamous Dred Scott decision. That decision, made by a Southern dominated, Supreme Court, members of whom included number of slave owners, done in collusion with President Elect James Buchanan, declared that African Americans had no right to citizenship, thus no protection under the law, no-matter where they lived. It would not be overturned until after the Civil War when Congress passed the 14th Amendment, an amendment that is vital for all of our liberties.

Again, for those in denial about how we got to this point in our history, this is not a comfortable subject.

Have a great day,


Padre Steve+

dred scott

Dred Scott

The Deepening Divide

As the 1850s wore on, the divisions over slavery became deeper and voices of moderation retreated. The trigger for the worsening of the division was the political battle regarding the expansion of slavery; even the status of free blacks in the north that were previously slaves, over whom their owners asserted their ownership. Southerners considered the network to help fugitive slaves escape to non-slave states, called the Underground Railroad “an affront to the slaveholders pride” and “anyone who helped a man or woman escape bondage was simply a thief” who had robbed them of their property and livelihood, as an “adult field hand could cost as much as $2000, the equivalent of a substantial house.” [1]

In 1856 the Supreme Court, dominated by southern Democrats ruled in favor of southern views in the Dred Scott decision, one pillar of which gave slavery the right to expand by denying to Congress the power to prohibit slavery in Federal territories. Taney’s ruling in the case insisted “Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution had been intended to apply to blacks he said. Blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Taney did not stop with this but he declared the Missouri Compromise itself unconstitutional for “Congress had exceeded its authority when it forbade slavery in the territories by such legislation as the Missouri Compromise, for slaves were private property protected by the Constitution.” [2]

ROGER B. TANEY (1777-1864).  Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, handing down his decision on the Dred Scott case, 1857. American illustration.

Dred Scott Decison

The decision was momentous, but the judicial fiat of Taney and his court majority was a disaster for the American people. It solved nothing and further divided the nation:

“In the South, for instance, it encouraged southern rights advocates to believe that their utmost demands were legitimatized by constitutional sanction and, therefore, to stiffen their insistence upon their “rights.” In the North, on the other hand, it strengthened a conviction that an aggressive slavocracy was conspiring to impose slavery upon the nation, and that any effort to reach an accommodation with such aggressors was futile. While strengthening the extremists, it cut the ground from under the moderates.” [3]

The decision in the case is frightening when one looks upon its tenor and implications. The majority opinion, which was written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, was chilling, not only in its views of race, but the fact that blacks were perpetually property without the rights of citizens. Taney wrote:

“Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?…It is absolutely certain that the African race were not included under the name of citizens of a state…and that they were not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remain subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them” [4]

The effect of the ruling on individuals and the states was far reaching. “No territorial government in any federally administered territory had the authority to alter the status of a white citizen’s property, much less to take that property out of a citizen’s hands, without due process of law or as punishment for some crime.” [5] Free slaves were no longer safe, even in Free States, from the possibility of being returned to slavery, because they were considered property. The tens of thousands of free blacks in the South were effectively stripped of citizenship, and became vulnerable to either expulsion or re-enslavement, something that the legislatures in Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri debated in 1858. Likewise the decision cast doubt on the free status of every African American regardless of residence.” [6]


Chief Justice Roger B. Taney

But the decision had been influenced by President-Elect James Buchanan’s secret intervention in the Supreme Court deliberations two weeks before his inauguration. Buchanan hoped by working with the Justices that he would save the Union from breaking apart by appeasing slave owners and catering to their agenda. “The president-elect wanted to know not only when, but if the Court would save the new administration and the Union from the issue of slavery in the territories. Would the judges thankfully declare the explosive subject out of bounds, for everyone who exerted federal power? The shattering question need never bother President Buchanan.” [7] In his inaugural address he attempted to camouflage his intervention and “declared that the Court’s decision, whatever it turned out to be, would settle the slavery issue forever.” [8]

But Buchanan attempt at appeasement was mistaken. The case made the national political situation even more volatile because it destroyed the political middle in Congress which had previously found compromise.  Taney’s decision impaired “the power of Congress – a power which had remained intact to this time – to occupy the middle ground.” [9] The Dred Scott decision was far reaching in its implications and Taney declared that Congress “never had the right to limit slavery’s expansion, and that the Missouri Compromise had been null and void on the day of its formulation.” [10] Taney’s ruling fulfilled what Thomas Jefferson wrote when he noted that the Missouri Compromise was merely a reprieve from the broader ideological and economic issues involved regarding slavery, and Taney destroyed that reprieve with the stroke of his pen.

The Court’s decision “that a free negro was not a citizen and the decision that Congress could not exclude slavery from the territories were intensely repugnant to many people in the free states” [11] and it ignited a firestorm in the north where Republicans now led by Abraham Lincoln, decried the decision and southerners basked in their judicial victory. Southerners were exultant, the Richmond Enquirer wrote that the Court had destroyed “the foundation of the theory upon which their warfare has been waged against the institutions of the South.” [12] Northerners now quite rightly feared that an activist court would rule to deny their states the right to forbid slavery. As early as 1854 Lincoln posed the idea that the Declaration of Independence was the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.” [13]

After the Dred Scott decision Lincoln warned that the Declaration was being cheapened and diluted, he remained insistent on this point, he noted:

“Our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all” Lincoln declared, “but now, to aid in making the bondage of the Negro universal and eternal, it is assaulted, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, its framers could ride from their graves, they could not recognize it at all.” [14]

Lincoln attacked the decision noting that Taney “insists at great length that negroes were no part of the people who made, or for whom made, the declaration of Independence or the Constitution.” But as Doris Kearns Goodwin notes “in at least five states, black voters action on the ratification of the Constitution and were among the “We the People” by whom the Constitution was ordained and established.” Lincoln acknowledged that the founders “did not declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.” But they dis declare all men “equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’…They meant simply to declare the right, so the enforcement of it might follow as circumstances permit.” [15]

Not only that, Lincoln asked the logical question regarding Taney’s judicial activism. Lincoln and other Republican leaders “noted that all slavery needed was one more Dred Scott decision that a state could not bar slavery and the objective of Slave Power to nationalize slavery would be accomplished.” [16] How long would it be, asked Abraham Lincoln, before the Court took the next logical step and ruled explicitly that the:

“Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits?” How far off was the day when “we shall lie down pleasantly thinking that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State?” [17]

Lincoln discussed the ramification of the ruling for blacks; both slave and free:

“to aid in making the bondage of the Negro universal and eternal….All the powers of the earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house;…One after another they have closed the heavy doors upon him…and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.” [18]

Frederick Douglass noted that “Judge Taney can do many things…but he cannot…change the essential nature of things – making evil good, and good, evil.” [19]

Lincoln was not wrong in his assessment of the potential effects of the Dred Scott decision on Free States.  State courts in free-states made decisions on the basis of Dred Scott that bode ill for blacks and cheered slave owners.  In newly admitted California the state supreme court ominously “upheld a slaveowner’s right to retain his property contrary to the state’s constitution.” [20]

A similar decision made by a New York Court was being used by slave-states to bring that issue to the Taney Court following Dred Scott. “In 1852 a New York judge upheld the freedom of eight slaves who had left their Virginia owner while in New York City on their way to Texas.” [21] The Dred Scott decision brought that case, Lemon v. The People back to the fore and “Virginia decided to take the case to the highest New York court (which upheld the law in 1860) and would have undoubtedly appealed it to Taney’s Supreme Court had not secession intervened.” [22] Even non-Republican parties such as the democrats could see the writing on the wall. The national publication of the Democratic Party, the Washington Union “announced that the clear implication of the Dred Scott decision was that all state laws prohibiting a citizen from another state, either permanently or temporarily, were unconstitutional.” [23]


[1] Goodheart, Adam. Moses’ Last Exodus in The New York Times: Disunion, 106 Articles from the New York Times Opinionator: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation Edited by Ted Widmer, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York 2013 p.15

[2] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 189

[3] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.291

[4] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction p.91

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp.91-92

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.142

[7] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.115

[8] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.109

[9] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.291

[10] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.210

[11] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.279

[12] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

[13] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.139

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.93

[15] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

[16] Gienapp, William E. The Republican Party and Slave Power in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.81

[17] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.211

[18] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.139

[19] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

[20] Ibid. Gienapp The Republican Party and Slave Power p.81

[21]  Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.181

[22] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.181

[23] Ibid. Gienapp The Republican Party and Slave Power p.82

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“An Institution Sanctioned by God” Southern Religious Support of Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Here is another excerpt from one of my Civil War texts dealing with the role of the Christian faith in justifying Southern Slavery. Once again it is not an easy subject to deal with for many people. Most American Christians of any denomination, Northern or Southern, would prefer that our often less than stellar practice of our faith didn’t exist, or be relegated to the deepest part of the dustbin of history. If they would stay that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but those attitudes, prejudices, and actions seem to always find a way back into current practice, if not in this case against African Americans, with the group du jour. Most of the time now it seems to involve immigrants, both legal and illegal, Muslims, and LGBTQ people. As the evangelical Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath writes: “the arguments used by the pro-slavery lobby represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretive framework that forces predetermined conclusions to the text.”

So have a great day


Padre Steve+


The noted South Carolina Baptist minister, the Reverend Richard Furman wrote: “The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”  [1]

Like other people who supported the institution of slavery in the Americas before them, Southerners turned to the Christian faith to buttress their cause. Catholic and Protestant churches of England, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal all provided their theological and ecclesiastical blessing to slavery and the slave trade. When a Catholic priest wrote his superiors asking if the slave trade and all of its components were legal according to Canon Law he received this answer:

“Your Reverence writes me that you would like to know whether the Negroes who are sent to your parts have been legally captured. To this I reply that I think your Reverence should have no scruples on this point, because this is a matter which has been questioned by the Board of Conscience in Lisbon, and all its members are learned and conscientious men. Nor did the bishops who were in Sao Thome, Cape Verde, and here in Loando – all learned and virtuous men – find fault with it. We have been here ourselves for forty years and there have been among us very learned Fathers…never did they consider the trade as illicit. Therefore we and the Fathers of Brazil buy these slaves for our service without any scruple….” [2]

In the American colonies, the Church of England accommodated itself to the plantation system by adapting itself to the ways of the plantation owners and slave traders. This began in 1619 when planters in Virginia and Maryland began to bring in slaves due to their “growing success by growing and exporting tobacco.” [3] To escape the ancient Christian prohibition on believers owning other believers most plantation owners refused to all their slaves to be baptized. However, to allow for some slaves to be baptized a law was passed in 1667 “declaring that baptism did not change a slave’s condition – another indication of the degree to which established religion was willing to bend to the interests of the powerful.”  [4] It is interesting to note that this uniquely American Anglican idea that baptism did not change the nature of a person, was also used by the Nazis in regard to Jews who had converted to Christianity.

In light of the threat posed to slavery by the emerging abolitionist movement, slaveholders were forced to shift their defense of slavery away from it being simply a necessary evil to a positive good. The institution of slavery became “in both secular and religious discourse, the central component of the mission God had designed for the South.” [5] Like in the North where theology was at the heart of many abolitionist arguments, in the South theology was used to enshrine and defend the institution of slavery. British Evangelical-Anglican theologian Alister McGrath notes how “the arguments used by the pro-slavery lobby represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretive framework that forces predetermined conclusions to the text.” [6]

Southern religion was a key component of something bigger than itself and played a role in the development of an ideology much more entrenched in the Southern culture than the abolitionist cause did in the North.  This was in large part due to the same Second Great Awakening that brought abolitionism to the fore in the North. “Between 1801 when he Great Revival swept the region and 1831 when the slavery debate began, southern evangelicals achieved cultural dominance in the region. Looking back over the first thirty years of the century, they concluded that God had converted and blessed their region.” [7] The Southern political and religious ideology enshrined slavery as a key component of all areas of life. It was a complete worldview, a system of values, culture, religion and economics, or to use the more modern German term “Weltanschauung.” The Confederate worldview was the Cause. As Emory Thomas wrote in his book The Confederate Nation:

“it was the result of the secular transubstantiation in which the common elements of Southern life became sanctified in the Southern mind. The South’s ideological cause was more than the sum of its parts, more than the material circumstances and conditions from which it sprang. In the Confederate South the cause was ultimately an affair of the viscera….Questions about the Southern way of life became moral questions, and compromises of Southern life style would become concession of virtue and righteousness.” [8]

Despite the dissent of some, the “dominant position in the South was strongly pro-slavery, and the Bible was used to defend this entrenched position.” [9] This was tied to a strongly Calvinistic theology which saw slavery in context with the spread of the evangelical Protestant faith that had swept through the South as slavery spread. For many, if not most Southern ministers “the very spread of evangelical religion and slave labor in the South was a sign of God’s divine favor. Ministers did not focus on defending slavery in the abstract but rather championed Christian slaveholding as it was practiced in the American South. Though conceding that some forms of slavery might be evil, Southern slavery was not.” [10]

The former Governor of South Carolina, John Henry Hammond, led the religiously based counter argument to the abolitionists. Hammond’s arguments included biblical justification of blacks being biologically inferior to whites and slavery being supported in the Old Testament where the “Hebrews often practiced slavery” and in the New Testament where “Christ never denounced servitude.”  [11] Hammond warned:

“Without white masters’ paternalistic protection, biologically inferior blacks, loving sleep above all and “sensual excitements of all kinds when awake” would first snooze, then wander, then plunder, then murder, then be exterminated and reenslaved.” [12]

Others in the South, including politicians, pundits and preachers were preaching “that slavery was an institution sanctioned by God, and that even blacks profited from it, for they had been snatched out of pagan and uncivilized Africa and been given the advantages of the gospel.” [13] The basic understanding was that slavery existed because “God had providential purposes for slavery.” [14]

At the heart of the pro-slavery theological arguments was in the conviction of most Southern preachers of human sinfulness. “Many Southern clergymen found divine sanction for racial subordination in the “truth” that blacks were cursed as “Sons of Ham” and justified bondage by citing Biblical examples.” [15] But simply citing scripture to justify the reality of a system of which they reaped the benefit, is just part of the story. The real issue was far greater than that. The theology that justified slavery also, in the minds of many Christians in the north justified what they considered “the hedonistic aspects of the Southern life style.” [16] This was something that abolitionist preachers continually emphasized, criticizing the greed, sloth and lust inherent in the culture of slavery and plantation life, and was an accusation of which Southern slaveholders, especially evangelicals took umbrage, for in their understanding good men could own slaves. Their defense was rooted in their theology. The hyper-individualistic language of Southern evangelicalism gave “new life to the claim that good men could hold slaves. Slaveholding was a traditional mark of success, and a moral defense of slavery was implicit wherever Americans who considered themselves good Christians held slaves.” [17] The hedonism and fundamentalism that existed in the Southern soul, was the “same conservative faith which inspired John Brown to violence in an attempt to abolish slavery…” [18]

Slave owners frequently expressed hostility to independent black churches and conducted violence against them, and “attacks on clandestine prayer meetings were not arbitrary. They reflected the assumption (as one Mississippi slave put it) “that when colored people were praying [by themselves] it was against them.” [19] But some Southern blacks accepted the basic tenets of slave owner-planter sponsored Christianity. Frederick Douglass later wrote “many good, religious colored people who were under the delusion that God required them to submit to slavery and wear their chains with weakness and humility.” [20]

The political and cultural rift began to affect entire church denominations. The heart of the matter went directly to theology, in this case the interpretation of the Bible in American churches.  The American Protestant and Evangelical understanding was rooted in the key theological principle of the Protestant Reformation, that of Sola Scripura, which became an intellectual trap for northerners and southerners of various theological stripes. Southerners believed that they held a “special fidelity to the Bible and relations with God. Southerners thought abolitionists either did not understand the Bible or did not know God’s will, and suspected them of perverting both.”  [21]The problem was then, as it is now that:

 “Americans favored a commonsense understanding of the Bible that ripped passages out of context and applied them to all people at all times. Sola scriptura both set and limited terms for discussing slavery and gave apologists for the institution great advantages. The patriarchs of the Old Testament had owned slaves, Mosaic Law upheld slavery, Jesus had not condemned slavery, and the apostles had advised slaves to obey their masters – these points summed up and closed the case for many southerners and no small number of northerners.” [22]

In the early decades of the nineteenth century there existed a certain confusion and ambivalence to slavery in most denominations. The Presbyterians exemplified this when in 1818 the “General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, while opposing slavery against the law of God, also went on record as opposing abolition, and deposed a minister for advocating abolition.” [23] There were arguments by some American Christians including some Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and others to offer alternative ways to “interpreting and applying scripture to the slavery question,  but none were convincing or influential enough to force debate”  [24] out of the hands of literalists.

However the real schisms between the Northern and Southern branches of the major denominations which began to emerge in the mid to late 1830s continued to grow with the actual breakups of the major denominations coming in the 1840s. The first denomination to split was the Methodist church. This occurred in 1844 when “the Methodist General Conference condemned the bishop of Georgia for holding slaves, the church split and the following year saw the birth of the Methodist Episcopal Church.” [25] Not all Methodists in the South agreed with this split and a few Methodist abolitionists in the South “broke away from mainline Methodism to form the Free Methodist Church.” [26]


The Baptists were next, when the Foreign Mission Board “refused to commission a candidate who had been recommended by the Georgia Baptist Convention, on the ground that he owned slaves” [27] resulting in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Baptist split is interesting because until the early 1800s there existed a fairly strong anti-slavery movement in states such as Kentucky, while in 1790 the General Committee of Virginia “adopted a statement calling slavery “a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, and inconsistent with a republican government; and therefore [we] recommend it to our brethren to make use of every legal measure, to extirpate the horrid evil from the land.”  [28]

However, in many parts of the Deep South there existed no such sentiment and in South Carolina, noted Baptist preachers including “Richard Furman, Peter Bainbridge, and Edmund Botsford were among the larger slaveholders.” [29] Furman wrote a defense of slavery in 1822 where he made the argument that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures by precept and example.” [30]  After a number of slave uprisings, including the Nat Turner Revolt in Virginia, pro-slavery voices “tended to silence any remaining antislavery voices in the South.” [31]

These voices grew more ever more strident and in 1835 the Charleston Association “adopted a militant defense of slavery, sternly chastising abolitionists as “mistaken philanthropists, and denuded and mischievous fanatics.”  [32] Those who met in Augusta Georgia to found the new Southern Baptist Convention indicated that “the division was “painful” but necessary because” our brethren have pressed upon every inch of our privileges and our sacred rights.”  [33] Since the Baptist split was brought about by the refusal of the Triennial Convention to appoint slaveholders as foreign missionaries the new convention emphasized the theological nature of their decision:

“Our objects, then, are the extension of the Messiah’s kingdom, and the glory of God. Not disunion with any of his people; not the upholding of any form of civil rights; but God’s glory, and Messiah’s increasing reign; in the promotion of which, we find no necessity for relinquishing any of our civil rights. We will never interfere with what is Caesar’s. We will not compromit what is God’s.” [34]

Of course, to the Baptists who met at Augusta, “what was Caesar’s” was obviously the institution of slavery.

The last denomination to officially split was the Presbyterians in 1861 who, “reflecting the division of the nation, the Southern presbyteries withdrew from the Presbyterian Church and founded their own denomination.” [35] The split in the Presbyterian Church had been obvious for years despite their outward unity. Princeton’s eminent Charles Hodge tried to be a peacemaker in the denomination warning of the dangers of disunion. He wrote, “If we are to be plunged into the horrors of civil war and servile insurrections, no tongue can tell how the cause of the Redeemer must suffer throughout our whole land.” [36] But like many conservatives of his time Hodge was misguided in thinking that moderates could prevail and that a sentimental attachment to the Union would prevent secession and war.

Some Southern pastors and theologians were at the forefront of battling their northern counterparts for the theological high ground that defined just whose side God was on. James Henley Thornwell presented the conflict between northern evangelical abolitionists and southern evangelical defenders of slavery in Manichean terms, a battle between Christianity and Atheism, and he believed that abolitionists attacked religion itself.

Robert Lewis Dabney, a southern Presbyterian pastor who later served as Chief of Staff to Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign and at Seven Pines and who remained a defender of slavery long after the war was over wrote that:

“we must go before the nation with the Bible as the text and ‘Thus saith the Lord’ as the answer….we know that on the Bible argument the abolition party will be driven to reveal their true infidel tendencies. The Bible being bound to stand on our side, they have to come out and array themselves against the Bible. And then the whole body of sincere believers at the North will have to array themselves, though unwillingly, on our side. They will prefer the Bible to abolitionism.” [37]

Southern churches and church leaders were among the most enthusiastic voices for disunion and secession. They labeled their Northern critics, even fellow evangelicals in the abolition movement as “atheists, infidels, communists, free-lovers, Bible-haters, and anti-Christian levelers.”  [38] The preachers who had called for separation from their own national denominations years before the war now “summoned their congregations to leave the foul Union and then to cleanse their world.” [39] Thomas R.R. Cobb, a Georgia lawyer, an outspoken advocate of slavery and secession who was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg, wrote proudly that Secession “has been accomplished mainly by the churches.” [40]

The Reverend William Leacock of Christ Church, New Orleans declared in his Thanksgiving sermon of 1860: “Our enemies…have “defamed” our characters, “lacerated” our feelings, “invaded “our rights, “stolen” our property, and let “murderers…loose upon us, stimulated by weak or designing or infidel preachers. With “the deepest and blackest malice,” they have “proscribed” us “as unworthy members… of the society of men and accursed before God.”  Unless we sink to “craven” beginning that they “not disturb us,…nothing is now left us but secession.” [41]

The fact that so many Protestant ministers, intellectuals, and theologians, not only Southerners, but men like “Princeton’s venerable theologian Charles B. Hodge – supported the institution of slavery on biblical grounds, often dismissing abolitionists as liberal progressives who did not take the Bible seriously” leaves a troubling question over those who claim to oppose issues on supposedly Biblical grounds. There were many such men in the North who spoke out for it and against Christian Abolitionists “in order to protect and promote interests concomitant to slavery, namely biblical traditionalism, and social and theological authority.” [42] The Northern clerical defenders of slavery perceived the spread of abolitionist preaching as a threat, not just to slavery “but also to the very principle of social and ecclesiastical hierarchy.” [43] Alistair McGrath asks a very important question for modern Christians who might be tempted to support a position for the same reasons today, “Might not the same mistakes be made all over again, this time over another issue?” [44]


[1] Furman, Richard Exposition of the Views of Baptists, Relative to the Coloured Population in the United States May 28th 1823, In Communication the Governor of South Carolina, Second Edition A.E. Miller, Charleston SC 1838 retrieved from http://faceweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/rcd-fmn1.htm 15 July 2016

[2] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States pp.29-30

[3] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day Harper p.219

[4] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2: pp.219-220

[5] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999 p.67

[6] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[7] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.69

[8] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 p.4

[9] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[10] Ibid. Varon Disunion! p.109

[11] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.29

[12] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.29

[13] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2: p.251

[14] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.54

[15] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.22

[16] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.22

[17] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.30

[18] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.22

[19] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.116

[20] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.116

[21] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.60

[22] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.14

[23] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[24] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.14

[25] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[26] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[27] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[28] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.383

[29] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[30] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[31] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[32] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[33] Shurden, Walter B Not a Silent People: The Controversies that Have Shaped Southern Baptists Broadman Press, Nashville TN 1972 p.58

[34] Ibid. Shurden Not a Silent People p.58

[35] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[36] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.13

[37] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.14

[38] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom  p.97

[39] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.460

[40] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.39

[41] Ibid. Freehling  The Road to Disunion Volume II p.462

[42] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom  p.38

[43] Ibid. Varon Disunion! P.108

[44] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

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Slavery and National Expansion: the Compromise of 1850 or “The Privilege of Belonging to the Superior Race…” Part 3


Enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law in Boston 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today the third installment of a three part series  of my work dealing with American Slavery in the ante-bellum period. These next articles deal with the subject of what happens when laws are made that further restrict the liberty of already despised, or enslaved people. In this case the subject is the Compromise of 1850 and its associated laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

This is an uncomfortable period of history for Americans with either a sense of conscience, or those who believe the racist myths surrounding the “Noble South” and “The Lost Cause.”  I hope that you find them interesting, especially in light of current events in the United States.


Padre Steve+

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Robert Toombs of Georgia was an advocate for the expansion of slavery into the lands conquered during the war. Toombs warned his colleagues in Congress “in the presence of the living God, that if you by your legislation you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico, purchased by the common blood and treasure of the whole people…thereby attempting to fix a national degradation upon half the states of this Confederacy, I am for disunion.”  [1]

The tensions in the aftermath of the war with Mexico escalated over the issue of slavery in the newly conquered territories brought heated calls by some southerners for secession and disunion. To preserve the Union, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, supported by the new President Millard Fillmore were able to pass the compromise of 1850 solved a number of issues related to the admission of California to the Union and boundary disputes involving Texas and the new territories.  But among the bills that were contained in it was the Fugitive Slave Law, or The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The act was the device of Henry Clay which was meant to sweeten the deal for southerners. The law would “give slaveholders broader powers to stop the flow of runaway slaves northward to the free states, and offered a final resolution denying that Congress had any authority to regulate the interstate slave trade.” [2]


A Warning to Blacks in Boston regarding the Fugitive Slave Law

For all practical purposes the Compromise of 1850 and its associated legislation nationalized the institution of slavery, even in Free States. It did this by forcing all citizens to assist law enforcement in apprehending fugitive slaves. It also voided state laws in Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, which barred state officials from aiding in the capture, arrest or imprisonment of fugitive slaves. “Congress’s law had nationalized slavery. No black person was safe on American soil. The old division of free state/slave state had vanished….” [3] If there was any question as to whose “States Rights” the leaders of the South were advocating, it was certainly not those of the states whose laws were voided by the act.

That law required all Federal law enforcement officials, even in non-slave states to arrest fugitive slaves and anyone who assisted them, and threatened law enforcement officials with punishment if they failed to enforce the law. The law stipulated that should “any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars.” [4] In effect the law nullified state laws and forced individual citizens and local officials to help escaped slaves regardless of their own convictions, religious views, and state and local laws to the contrary.

Likewise the act compelled citizens in Free states to “aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required….” [5] Penalties were harsh and financial incentives for compliance attractive.

“Anyone caught providing food and shelter to an escaped slave, assuming northern whites could discern who was a runaway, would be subject to a fine of one thousand dollars and six months in prison. The law also suspended habeas corpus and the right to trial by jury for captured blacks. Judges received a hundred dollars for every slave returned to his or her owner, providing a monetary incentive for jurists to rule in favor of slave catchers.” [6]

The law gave no protection for even black freedmen, who simply because of their race were often seized and returned to slavery. The legislation created a new extra-judicial bureaucratic office to decide the fate of blacks. This was the office of Federal Commissioner and it was purposely designed to favorably adjudicate the claims of slaveholders and their agents, and to avoid the normal Federal Court system. There was good reason for the slave power faction to place this in the law, many Federal courts located in Free States often denied the claims of slave holders, and that could not be permitted if slavery was to not only remain, but to grow with the westward expansion of the nation.

When slave owners or their agents went before these new appointed commissioners, they needed little in the way of proof to take a black back into captivity. The only proof or evidence other than the sworn statement by of the owner with an “affidavit from a slave-state court or by the testimony of white witnesses” [7] that a black was or had been his property was required to return any black to slavery. The affidavit was the only evidence required, even if it was false.


Since blacks could not testify on their own behalf and were denied legal representation before these commissioners, the act created an onerous extrajudicial process that defied imagination. Likewise, the commissioners had a strong a financial incentive to send blacks back to slavery, unlike normal courts the commissioners received a direct financial reward for returning blacks to slave owners. “If the commissioner decided against the claimant he would receive a fee of five dollars; if in favor ten. This provision, supposedly justified by the paper work needed to remand a fugitive to the South, became notorious among abolitionists as a bribe to commissioners.” [8] It was a system rigged to ensure that African Americans had no chance, and it imposed on the citizens of Free states the legal obligation to participate in a system that many wanted nothing to do with.


Frederick Douglass 

Frederick Douglass wrote about the new law in the most forceful terms:

“By an act of the American Congress…slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form. By that act, Mason & Dixon’s line has been obliterated;…and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States.” [9]

Douglass was correct as was demonstrated during an incident in Boston in 1854 where an escaped slave named Anthony Burns, who had purchased his freedom, was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act. The arrest prompted a protest in which, “an urban mob – variously composed of free Negro laborers, radical Unitarian ministers, and others – gathered to free him. They stormed the Federal courthouse, which was surrounded by police and wrapped in protective chains….Amid the melee, one protestor shot and killed a police deputy.” [10] The heated opposition to Burns’ arrest provoked the passions of thousands of Bostonians who protested for his release that caused the Massachusetts governor to deploy two batteries of artillery outside the courthouse to deter any more attacks. When the Federal Fugitive Slave Law commissioner consigned Burns to his Southern owner, the prisoner placed in shackles and was marched down State Street. Tensions were now running extremely high and a “brigade of Massachusetts militia and local police were required to run Burns through a gauntlet and deposit him on the ship that would remand him to Virginia.” [11] Bostonians began to see their city as it was in the early days of the American Revolution, as a place that resisted tyranny. Neither did they did not forget Burns but raised the money to purchase his freedom. William Lloyd Garrison wrote, “the “deed of infamy… demonstrated as nothing else that “only “the military power of the United States” could sustain slavery.” [12] Nevertheless, Boston’s “mercantile elite had vindicated law and order” [13] but in the process they helped move so abolitionists who had been advocates of pacifism and non-violence to physical resistance to the bounty hunting Southerners. “Across the North, prisons were broken into, posses were disrupted, and juries refused to convict.” [14]

Violence between slave hunters and their protectors did break out in September 1851 when “a Maryland slave owner named Edward Gorsuch crossed into Pennsylvania in pursuit of four runaways.” [15] Gorsuch and his armed posse found them in the Quaker town of Christiana, where they were being sheltered by a free black named William Parker and along with about two dozen other black men armed with a collection of farm implements and a few muskets who vowed to resist capture. Several unarmed Quakers intervened and recommended that Gorsuch and his posse leave for their own sake, but Gorsuch told them “I will have my property, or go to hell.” [16] A fight then broke out in which Gorsuch was killed and his son seriously wounded, and the fugitives escaped through the Underground Railroad to Canada.

The Christiana Riot as it is called now became a national story. In the North it was celebrated as an act of resistance while it was decried with threats of secession in the South. President Millard Fillmore sent in troops and arrested a number of Quakers as well as more than thirty black men. “The trial turned into a test between two cultures: Southern versus Northern, slave versus free.”  [17] The men were charged with treason but the trial became a farce as the government’s case came apart. After a deliberation of just fifteen minutes, “the jury acquitted the first defendant, one of the Quakers, the government dropped the remaining indictments and decided not to press other charges.” [18] Southerners were outraged, and one young man whose name is forever linked with infamy never forgot. A teenager named John Wilkes Booth was a childhood friend of Gorsuch’s son Tommy. “The death of Tommy Gorsuch’s father touched the young Booth personally. While he would move on with his life, he would not forget what happened in Christiana.” [19]

The authors of the compromise had not expected such resistance to the laws. On his deathbed Henry Clay, who had worked his entire career to pass compromises in order to preserve the Union, praised the act, of which he wrote “The new fugitive slave law, I believe, kept the South in the Union in ‘fifty and ‘fifty-one. Not only does it deny fugitives trial by jury and the right to testify; it also imposes a fine and imprisonment upon any citizen found guilty of preventing a fugitive’s arrest…” Likewise Clay depreciated the Northern opposition and condemned the attempt to free Anthony Burns, noting “Yes, since the passage of the compromise, the abolitionists and free coloreds of the North have howled in protest and viciously assailed me, and twice in Boston there has been a failure to execute the law, which shocks and astounds me…. But such people belong to the lunatic fringe. The vast majority of Americans, North and South, support our handiwork, the great compromise that pulled the nation back from the brink.” [20] 

While the compromise had “averted a showdown over who would control the new western territories,” [21] it only delayed disunion. In arguing against the compromise South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun realized that for Southerners it did not do enough to support the peculiar institution and that it would inspire Northern abolitionists to redouble their efforts to abolish slavery. Thus, Calhoun argued not just for the measures secured in the compromise legislation, but for the permanent protection of slavery:

“He understood that slavery stood at the heart of southern society, and that without a mechanism to protect it for all time, the Union’s days were numbered.” Almost prophetically he said “I fix its probable [breakup] within twelve years or three presidential terms…. The probability is it will explode in a presidential election.”  [22]

Of course it was Calhoun and not the authors of the compromise who proved correct. The leap into the abyss of disunion and civil war had only been temporarily avoided. However, none of the supporters anticipated what would occur in just six years when a “train of unexpected consequences would throw an entirely new light on the popular sovereignty doctrine, and both it and the Compromise of 1850 would be wreaked with the stroke of a single judicial pen.” [23]

To be continued…


[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp.62-63

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.68

[3] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame p.71

[4] ______________Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 retrieved from the Avalon Project, Yale School of Law http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp 11 December 2014

[5] Ibid. Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.71

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom  p.80

[8] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.80

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.72

[10] Goodheart, Adam 1861: The Civil War Awakening Vintage Books a division of Random House, New York 2011 p.42

[11] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.241

[12] Mayer, Henry All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 1998 p.442

[13] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.84

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.73

[15] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.73

[16] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.84

[17] Steers, Edward Jr. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln The University of Kentucky Press, Lexington 2001 p.33

[18] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.85

[19] Ibid. Steers  Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln p.33

[20] Oates, Stephen B. Editor The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1997 p.94

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.71

[22] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.64

[23] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.71

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