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Black Soldiers of the Union
Emancipation as a war strategy

Painting of the 54th Massachussets at Fort Wagner (Library of Congress)

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Mackubin Thomas Owens

At this time 150 years ago, the two major Union army formations — Major General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army group — were tightening their stranglehold on the Confederacy. The former was besieging Petersburg south of the city, trying to thin out Confederate lines and cut the last railroad line connecting Petersburg–Richmond to Georgia and the Carolinas. The latter, having forced the Confederates back on Atlanta, was engaging John Bell Hood in vicious battles at Peachtree Creek, Ezra Church, Dalton, and other places. Atlanta would fall in September, freeing up Sherman for his march to the sea. Petersburg would hold out until March 1865.

While these events were taking place, there were other developments that were less known both at the time and now: among them, the full-scale employment of black soldiers in the service of the Union. The former slave and great abolitionist Frederick Douglass had called for arming blacks at the very outset of the war. Writing in his Monthly of May 1861, Douglass argued that the way “to put an end to the savage and desolating war now waged by the slaveholders, is to strike down slavery itself, the primal cause of that war.”

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He called for unleashing a “liberating army” on the slaveholders and denounced the hesitation of the government to employ “the sable arm.” Instead, Union forces were returning escaped slaves to their masters. “Would to God you would let us do something! We lack nothing but your consent,” Douglass wrote. He concluded: “Until the nation shall repent of this weakness and folly, until they shall make the cause of their country the cause of freedom, until they shall strike down slavery, the source and center of this gigantic rebellion, they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm, nor will it succeed in crushing the cause of our present problems.”


Emancipation and Prudence
Lincoln would come to share Douglass’s view regarding the psychological impact of enlisting black troops in the Union cause. As he wrote to Andrew Johnson, the Unionist governor of Tennessee, in March 1863, “the bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.” But in the beginning, Lincoln was constrained by prudential considerations: His hesitation regarding both emancipation and the arming of black soldiers was based on his need to maintain a working coalition between his Republican party and “War Democrats,” who were willing to fight to restore the Union but who did not want to interfere with slavery. For the most part, Republicans sought the end of slavery, although differences over the means to do it divided the party.

The Republican party grew out of the anger generated in both the Whig and the Democratic parties by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the territories formed out of the old Louisiana Purchase area that lay north of Missouri. But as James Oakes shows in his splendid book, Freedom National, the Republicans inherited a coherent set of antislavery principles formulated long before the Nebraska controversy.

The antislavery consensus that underpinned the Republican party was based on a number of principles: (1) that the Founding generation suffused the Constitution with the principles of natural law and the law of nations, which held that man’s natural condition is freedom (and the Constitution is therefore inseparable from the Declaration of Independence); (2) that the presumption of freedom recognized by the Constitution could be overridden only by local or municipal law; in other words, freedom was “national,” holding sway wherever the Constitution was sovereign — e.g., in the federal territories and on the high seas, while slavery was “local,” limited to state jurisdiction; (3) that while the Constitution placed slavery in the states where it existed beyond the reach of the federal government, the Constitution did enable the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery; and (4) that the slavery compromises of the federal Constitution never included the idea that slaves were property — there could be no such thing as “property in man.”

Notwithstanding that the Constitution prohibited the federal government from interfering with slavery in the states where it existed, Republicans firmly believed that these principles provided the basis for an indirect federal assault on slavery once Lincoln and a Republican Congress took office. To begin with, Lincoln and the Republicans argued that, based on the precedents of the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise, the federal government could prohibit the expansion of slavery into the territories.

Thus, if the slave states remained in the Union, the federal government could, Republicans believed, construct a “cordon of freedom” around them. With slavery’s growth curtailed, Lincoln believed, a policy of gradual compensated emancipation would bring about the end of the institution. Lincoln’s plan was to convince the legislatures of the slave states to abolish slavery in return for federal money to compensate slave owners.


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