- Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union
- Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 358 pp.
New Year’s Resolution
Like many Americans interested in our nation’s Civil War, I have visited a number of the sites which figured in the great drama that led to “a new birth of freedom.” I have stood on the ramparts of Fort Sumter, surveyed the “landscape turned red” at Antietam, Maryland, and climbed to the summit of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. And I’ve journeyed to Gettysburg at least five times, ever more intrigued at the way that the Union forces made clever use of the terrain to halt the advance of Robert E. Lee’s previously unbeatable Confederate army.
Try though I might, I’ll never find a way to gain insight into the most important event that took place during the Civil War by studying the “lay of the land.” Indeed, there is no specific locality, no battle-scarred landmark like Little Round Top or Burnside’s Bridge on which to stand and say, “So this is where the Emancipation Proclamation took place.”
As historian Louis Masur shows in his recent book, Lincoln’s Hundred Days, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was the single most important event to occur during the American Civil War. Never-the-less, the Emancipation Proclamation defies easy analysis. Because it encompassed the whole nation, particularly the break-away southern states, President Abraham Lincoln’s policy statement did not have the kind of geographic focus of a battle like Gettysburg or a strategic strong point like Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, site of John Brown’s “raid” in 1859.
More to the point, the Emancipation Proclamation lacked any kind of immediate, world-changing effect. Incredibly, not one African-American slave was actually liberated by the decree, when it was officially signed by Lincoln on the afternoon of New Year’s Day 1863.
Lincoln’s historic measure freed only the slaves in Confederate hands, largely as a military policy initiative to deny the use of slave labor to the Confederate government. By the autumn of 1862, when Lincoln first announced the Emancipation Proclamation, the advance of the Union armies was stalemated far from the “cotton belt” where the vast majority of African-Americans lived in bondage. Furthermore, slave-owning Border States like Maryland and Kentucky were still wavering in their allegiance. During the early years of the war, Lincoln did not dare to emancipate the slaves in the few areas below the Mason-Dixon line that that the Union forces actually controlled, lest pro-Union slaveholders transfer their loyalty to the Confederacy.
Students of history might therefore be forgiven for regarding the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 as a political gambit at best or a “dud” shell at worst. Masur’s astute reading of the events surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation shows that it was neither. Rather, it was a turning point in American history of immense significance.
The one hundred days that Masur alludes to in the title of his book was the span of time between September 22, 1862, when Lincoln issued the preliminary decree and January 1, 1863, when he signed the formal proclamation. The three-month interim was stipulated to give the Confederate states an opportunity to return to the Union. Since there never was much of a possibility of that happening, the three-month interval was really designed to allow discussion and debate in the states loyal (or neutral) to the Union cause and to facilitate damage control in the upcoming mid-term elections in November 1862.
Masur goes to great lengths to discuss the vast array of problems and issues that Lincoln – and the entire American nation – faced in granting the freedom to African-Americans that had cruelly been denied them since the first slave ship made landfall in Jamestown Colony in 1619. Once the Emancipation Proclamation actually began to function as the Union armies moved south, the future status of the former slaves would have to be addressed. Hundreds, eventually thousands, of African-Americans fled to the safety of the Union lines. The nickname of “contraband” was almost universally applied to the escapees. But if these fugitives were no longer the property of their Southern masters, where were they to live?
Early in his political career, Abraham Lincoln had become a great admirer of Henry Clay. “The Great Compromiser” had founded the American Colonization Society in 1816 on the premise that free African-Americans needed to re-locate to colonies in Africa or the West Indies. Clay maintained that this was a humane course of action and the young Lincoln approved. He seems not to have realized that Clay’s colonization scheme was actually a cunning move to prevent the formation of an educated, emancipated class of African-Americans who would serve as an example to those still chained to the plantation economy.
When Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, this colonization scheme was one of the talking points. Lincoln was quite serious about re-locating freed African-Americans away from the United States. At one point, he informed Congress, “I cannot make it better known than it already is, that I strongly favor colonization.”
Northern abolitionists were appalled at the idea that once freed from slavery, African-Americans would be enticed into lives of exile. William Lloyd Garrison, ignoring the counter-veiling hostility of many in the Union states to an exodus of liberated slaves to the north, targeted Lincoln with particular venom. Garrison derided the lanky president, declaring that Lincoln, “If he is 6 feet 4 inches high, he is only a dwarf in mind.”
An escaped slave himself, Frederick Douglass cogently responded to the war of words unleashed by the Emancipation Proclamation. What should be done with the liberated African-Americans?
“Do nothing with them; mind your business, and let them mind theirs,” Douglass exclaimed. “Your doing with them is their greatest misfortune. They have been undone by your doings, and all they now ask, and really have need of at your hands, is to just let them alone.”
Unfortunately, Douglass’ good sense and Garrison’s invective both ran aground on the submerged shoals of the U.S. Constitution. Slavery was not mentioned in the Constitution, but property was. Property, in the shape of millions of African-Americans, was chained down by the legal guarantees of the Constitution. Lincoln could only evade sinking the Union or gutting the Constitution by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation as a presidential war measure. And even with that he was denounced in northern newspapers like the New York Express for changing “the character of our civil, Constitutional Government, into a mere Abolition Military Despotism.”
Observing the controversy in the United States from distant Europe, Karl Marx wrote favorably of Lincoln’s actions, including the transformative effect it would have on the U.S. Constitution. Lincoln’s decrees, Marx noted perceptively, all tended to look like “routine summonses sent by a lawyer to the lawyer of the opposing party.” Behind this smokescreen, lurked a mighty political achievement. Marx declared that “the manifesto abolishing slavery, is the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union, tantamount to the tearing up of the old American Constitution.”
What Karl Marx could publically state, Abraham Lincoln could not. And so the hundred day campaign proceeded cautiously, with Lincoln quietly jettisoning colonization, until the date of signing the Proclamation loomed on New Year’s Day of 1863. Masur charts the course of this crucial period, brilliantly inter-weaving the words and thoughts of hundreds of politicians, writers, religious figures, soldiers and citizens with the events of the war. He also widens the playing field by analyzing the diplomatic maneuvers taking place in Europe, as Britain and France watched to see whether the Emancipation Proclamation was a measure of Lincoln’s strength or of his desperation.
Masur’s narrative produces a couple of surprises along the way. One is the degree of dread in the Union camp that the Confederacy would launch a pre-emptive abolition of slaves in the south. Thousands of gray-clad African-Americans would win their freedom, according to this scenario, by fighting against their would-be liberators. What sounds far-fetched today was a very real fear in 1862.
Wendell Phillips, a prominent Abolitionist, envisioned the Confederacy passing an emancipation bill to gain the support of Great Britain.
“It is to-day a race between Abe Lincoln and Jeff. Davis which will arrive at emancipation first,” Phillips declared early in the war, “and which does will succeed in the end.”
Phillips was correct only about the final success contingent upon the abolition of slavery. But there was never a race between Union and Confederate governments to free African-American slaves. The internal divisions and lack of coherent strategy that characterized the Confederacy made it a poor rival to the “terrible swift sword” of Union power, political and military, that Lincoln wielded to achieve victory.
The second revelation to emerge from Masur’s exhaustive research is the growing political sensitivity of the rank and file of the Union forces in relation to the Emancipation Proclamation. It is often held that most Union soldiers were motivated to fight from a mixed bag of emotions and objectives. Support for preserving the Union, regional pride in their state’s role in national affairs, the determination to stop the economic threat imposed by the “Slave Power” to free labor, even a desire to experience a sense of the war’s adventure, “to see the elephant” in the peculiar phrase of the time, these were the factors that sent Billy Yank charging into battle at Antietam and Gettysburg. Or was there something else as well?
The determination to end slavery may not have figured initially as a Union war aim for most of the young men in Blue who did the fighting and dying. But Masur quotes from numerous soldier letters and diaries to prove that many Union troops were horrified by the conditions that they found in the south, particularly the enslavement of children fathered by their own “masters.”
A soldier from the 8th Maine, Daniel Sawtelle, sent a letter home with these telling remarks:
There is one thing that I shall be glad I enlisted for. It is that I have had a chance to learn something about the institution of slavery. If I disliked it before, I utterly detest it now and I am not alone. Men that call themselves negro haters a while ago are compelled to say they are better than they thought they were. And why should not some of them (with the same advantage) be our equals.
In the same letter, Sawtelle also praised the courage of African-American soldiers in action against skirmishing Confederate troops. But the sentiments quoted above are of vaster importance because they show how the Emancipation Proclamation really took effect. The realization of Union soldiers, some of them “negro haters,” that African-Americans were “better than they thought they were” was the true moment of emancipation. And it freed white Americans from the shackles of their racial bias as readily as it struck the chains of bondage from the wrists of African Americans held in captivity in their own native land.
It was at that moment, movingly depicted by Masur in this splendid book, that the Emancipation Proclamation ceased being a military measure set forth in legalistic terminology. It was at that moment that it became the “Battle Cry of Freedom.”