African Americans and Emancipation

by Manisha Sinha


Historians increasingly understand emancipation was not a singular event that simply involved the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. Instead, emancipation is better understood as a complex process that involved many actors, not the least of whom were the slaves themselves. Even before the start of the Civil War, the antebellum abolition movement had agitated for an end to slavery for thirty years and southern slaves had runaway and, occasionally, rebelled against slavery. During the war, black and white abolitionists, Radical Republicans in Congress, and the thousands of slaves who defected to the Union pressured the Lincoln administration to act on emancipation.

African Americans then were not passive recipients of the gift of freedom. Their struggle for emancipation can be dated back to the moment of their enslavement. With the start of the Civil War, black actions helped put slavery on the national political agenda. In the first year of the war, the Lincoln administration, concerned with retaining the loyalty of the border slave states and northern conservatives, made the preservation of the Union rather than abolition its war aim. President Lincoln revoked the emancipation orders of abolitionist-minded Union generals like John C. Fremont in Missouri and David Hunter in South Carolina as overstepping their constitutional and military authority. But the federal government would soon be forced to address the issue of slavery.

The slaves who started streaming behind army lines in the early days of the war saw the Union Army and the President as liberators before they saw themselves in that role. Indeed, the presence of the fugitives presented a dilemma to Union Army field commanders and the Lincoln administration. Should the federal government enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, which had already generated sectional controversy between the northern and southern states before the war, and return runaway slaves to the Confederacy? Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips, and Radical Republicans like Charles Sumner answered with a resounding no.

In the end, the War Department adopted the makeshift policy first employed by General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in May 1861. Butler declared escaped slaves “contraband of war” or enemy property that could legitimately be confiscated. The contraband policy, while still recognizing slaves as property in principle, actually led to the liberation of those slaves who managed to make their way to Union lines. While a few Union officers had earlier returned escaped slaves to their Confederate masters, now most of them refused to do so. For many northern soldiers, encounters with contraband slaves were their first introduction to the horrors of southern slavery. Slaves who had braved enemy fire and their masters’ wrath, some bearing the telltale marks of whippings, converted many a midwestern farm boy to abolitionism. Moreover, most of these slaves, particularly those who had escaped from the front lines of the war and had been employed to dig trenches for the Confederate Army, brought useful military information about Confederate location and strength with them.

Soon “contraband camps” became a ubiquitous part of Union encampments, and contraband slaves, as they came to be widely known, were employed in military labor and, the women especially, in laundering and cooking. Susie King Taylor, an escaped slave and ardent advocate of black equality, left a memoir of her days as a laundress for a Union Army regiment. Even Harriet Tubman, the “Moses of her people” who had helped hundreds of slaves escape, did not hesitate to perform menial chores like the soldiers’ laundry. Using skills acquired as a “conductor” in the Underground Railroad, Tubman also acted as a scout for the Union Army in the South Carolina low country. After the war, she was denied a government pension for the war services she had rendered. Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, was active in contraband relief and helped form the Contraband Relief Association in Washington, DC.

The political and logistical problems created by the growing number of contraband slaves were compounded by the abolitionists and Radical Republicans in Congress who insisted that the war for the Union be converted into a war against slavery. They enacted the first Confiscation Act in 1861, which confiscated all slaves used for Confederate military labor, and the second Confiscation Act in 1862, which confiscated all slaves of rebel masters. Congress also formally instructed Union Army commanders not to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, abolished slavery in the western territories, and most importantly, fulfilled a longstanding abolitionist demand, the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. African Americans hailed abolition in the nation’s capital, viewing it as a sign of general emancipation. Bishop Daniel Payne of the African Methodist Church met with the President to celebrate the occasion. This was one of the first in a series of meetings between Lincoln and black leaders during the war.

By the summer of 1862, Lincoln had decided to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. Abolitionist agitation and pressure from radicals within his own party had helped push Lincoln to toward this action. As the war dragged on and the need for manpower increased, emancipation also became sound military strategy. And the longer the Confederacy maintained its independence, the more likely it became that it would gain foreign recognition. By tying the cause of the Union with that of emancipation, the Lincoln administration would prevent most European powers from recognizing the Confederacy. All these factors and the still uncertain status of contraband slaves moved the President to act. Lincoln’s own anti-slavery sentiments and his failure to convince the border slave states to accept gradual emancipation also played roles in his final decision to use his war powers to emancipate all slaves in enemy territory.

Though the President had confessed to hating slavery as much as any abolitionist, black and white abolitionists had been critical of his slowness to act against slavery and his revocation of the emancipation orders of Fremont and Hunter. Frederick Douglass in particular was loud in his criticism of the President’s tardiness on slavery and the failure of the federal government to enlist black men into the Union Army. Tubman argued that God would not let Lincoln win the war unless he did the right thing and abolished slavery. When Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation in September 1862, announcing his intent to enact an Emancipation Proclamation within a few months, the very nature of the war changed. It shifted from a war for the Union into a war against slavery or a war for emancipation, the purpose slaves, abolitionists, and Radical Republicans had demanded from the very start of the Civil War. In his first meeting with Douglass, who came to the White House in August 1863 to protest unequal pay and rank for African Americans in the Union Army, Lincoln conceded that while he had been slow to act, he would not step back from emancipation. And he ensured that abolition would be permanent by pushing for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the months before he was assassinated.

Perhaps the most important symbol of the emancipatory nature of the Civil War was the presence of black soldiers in the Union Army. Lincoln had provided for the enlistment of black troops in the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1863, Congress passed the Militia Act, which established the Bureau of Colored Troops and provided the mechanism for the enlistment of African American men into the Union Army. Abolitionists like George Luther Stearns, a supporter of John Brown, recruited black leaders like Douglass, Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, and others to enlist black soldiers. The abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, John Andrews, formed the all-black 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments, and Hunter formed all-black regiments in Union-occupied parts of low country South Carolina, officered by abolitionists like Thomas Wentworth Higginson. A majority of the black Union soldiers were former slaves particularly from the border slave states, who fought to gain their own and their families’ freedom since they were excluded from the purview of the Emancipation Proclamation. In taking up arms against the Confederacy, black soldiers helped make emancipation a reality.

While the Confederacy used slave labor for military purposes, its desperate decision to arm slaves in its dying days came too late to have any effect on the result of the war. Free colored militias like the Louisiana Native Guards, whose offer to serve was rejected by the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War, were quick to change their allegiances to the Union. In fact, the Confederacy’s last-minute attempt to recruit slave men proved its entire theory of racial inferiority and enslavement, its raison d’être, wrong.

On the other hand, black service in the Union Army and Navy became a powerful argument for African American citizenship and equality. Though they served in segregated regiments and units as the United States Colored Troops, black soldiers and their abolitionist and radical allies in Congress waged a successful battle for equal pay and access to officer ranks. By the end of the war, many African Americans like Garnet served as chaplains in the Union Army and Delany obtained an officer’s commission as a major. Around 180,000 black men served in the Union Army and another 20,000 in the Union Navy. Black heroism and daring in the battles of Fort Wagner, Milliken’s Bend, and Port Hudson convinced some skeptical northerners of the wisdom of emancipation. Northerners read about the exploits of such men as the former slave Robert Smalls of South Carolina who delivered a Confederate battleship to Union hands and was destined to become a leading black politician during Reconstruction.

Before his death, Lincoln conceded that black soldiers as well as African Americans who were intelligent and educated deserved the right to citizenship. In endorsing partial black suffrage, Lincoln had traveled a long way from his plans to colonize freed slaves out of the country, a program that most African Americans and abolitionists had opposed since the formation of the American Colonization Society in 1816. As black abolitionist H. Ford Douglas argued, the war “educated” Lincoln out of his colonization views.

African American and abolitionist demands helped to define the meaning of black freedom. As early as 1864, the National Black Convention called for the right to vote, arguing that if black men were good enough for “bullets,” they were good enough for the “ballot.” They insisted that emancipation be accompanied by black equality and citizenship. In many ways, their views and that of their Republican allies in Congress helped shape the agenda of Reconstruction, when the Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the United States Constitution made black citizenship and suffrage a cornerstone of Radical Reconstruction.

African Americans and their radical allies were less successful in their fight for economic autonomy. During the war, former slaves occupied land abandoned by slaveholders in Union-held areas, most famously in the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands where former abolitionists, “Gideonites,” opened schools for the freed people. The Freedmen’s Bureau, especially in areas where local agents had anti-slavery leanings, at times settled former slaves on abandoned lands. During the army’s march through the South, General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton met with local black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, who defined emancipation as freedom from slavery as well as economic independence from their former masters. In his Field Order No. 15, Sherman divided Union-occupied land into forty-acre lots, settling the contraband slaves trailing his army on them and giving each family a mule. But the slogan of “forty acres and a mule” never became a reality, and President Andrew Johnson, a staunch opponent of the Freedmen’s Bureau and black rights, revoked all such wartime grants. Except for a few radicals like Thaddeus Stevens and Sumner, the idea of confiscating land from slaveholders and redistributing it among ex-slaves did not gain much traction in Congress.

After the overthrow of Reconstruction in 1877, African American ideas about emancipation were deferred until the Civil Rights Movement led to the passage of new laws to implement black citizenship. But even during the dark days of sharecropping, debt peonage, disfranchisement, segregation, and lynching, African Americans and their allies continued to struggle for a more complete freedom. Land ownership among former slaves continued to rise slowly in the most adverse circumstances and with the great black migrations to northern cities many left the land of their enslavement. On emancipation, African Americans had reconstructed their families, communities, churches, and schools, staging grounds for the long black struggle for freedom and equality.


Manisha Sinha is Professor of Afro-American Studies and History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the author of The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (2000), and co-editor of African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the African Slave Trade to the Twenty First Century, 2 vols. (2004) and Contested Democracy: Freedom, Race and Power in American History (2007).

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