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Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Lincoln’

download-1El 2018 Lincoln Prize ha sido sido concedido al trabajo de Edward Ayers,  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (W.W. Norton and Company). Este premio, que consiste de $50,000, es otorgado anualmente por  el Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History para reconocer el mejor trabajo investigativo sobre Lincoln y el periodo de la guerra civil. Ayers es un historiador estadounidense, ex Presidente de la Universidad de Richmond y miembro fundador de unos de los mejores podcast de historia estadounidense: Backstory. Ha sido merecedor tanto del Bancroft Prize como  del Beveridge Prize.

Vale mencionar a los finalistas de tan prestigioso premio:

  • Ron Chernow, Grant (Penguin Press).
  • Gordon Rhea, On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-14, 1864 (LSU Press).
  • Tera Hunter, Bound in Wedlock:  Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century(Harvard University Press).
  • Cate Lineberry, Be Free or Die (St. Martin’s Press).
  • Graham Peck, Making an Antislavery Nation(University of Illinois Press).
  • Adam I.P. Smith, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics: 1846—1865 (University of North Carolina Press).

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HISTORIANS NOW: THE FIERY TRIAL BY ERIC FONER

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

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Lincoln’s Failed Peace Process

The New York Times    February 3, 2015

disunion45On Feb. 3, 1865, a lovely false spring day, the president of the United States traveled south by train and steamboat to a spot near the front lines of the Civil War for a peaceful talk with the enemy. Such high-level negotiations in the middle of a shooting war had never happened before, and have never happened since. After nearly four years of battering, the Confederacy was all but broken – and Lincoln was eager to stop the killing and begin to heal the country with a peaceful reconciliation instead of a military conquest. That’s why, that afternoon, Abraham Lincoln welcomed three Confederate leaders to the presidential steamboat River Queen, the Air Force One of her day, and exposed himself to political attack for the mortal sin of compromise.

Though many in the North wanted to end the war quickly, the dominant, radical wing of Lincoln’s Republican Party had long since determined not to negotiate with the rebel leaders but to hang them. The beaten South, they said, would be governed “as England governs India.” When they learned that the president had quietly slipped away to entertain its emissaries without so much as telling them he was going, the radicals on Capitol Hill and their partisan press exploded.

The meeting had been set in motion through a harebrained scheme contrived by Francis Preston Blair, a longtime Washington power broker, an alumnus of Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” a mentor to Lincoln and a father figure to Jefferson Davis. In 1864, while the proponents of the Monroe Doctrine were otherwise engaged, Napoleon III of France had sent 35,000 troops to Mexico, ousted its elected president and installed a puppet emperor. Now Blair conceived a secret choreography. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee would retreat southwest from Virginia and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would pursue him all the way to the Rio Grande. Crossing the Mexican border with Grant on his heels, Lee would pick a fight with Napoleon’s army and Grant would jump in on the side of his fellow Americans. Together they would beat the stuffing out of the French, embrace on the fields of the Second Mexican War and proclaim a joyful reunion. Slavery would be exchanged for a chance to loot Mexico, and the Civil War would end with no loss of face for the South.

Francis Preston Blair Sr.Credit Dickinson College

Francis Preston Blair Sr.Credit Dickinson College

Blair proposed the idea in a month of shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Richmond. Amazingly enough, Davis purported to bless it. Though Lincoln dismissed it out of hand, he invited a conversation with “any agent” of the rebellion who was willing to bring peace to “our one common country.” Under irresistible political pressure with the war all but lost, Davis sent to Lincoln three leaders of Richmond’s growing peace movement and gave them a secret mandate to bring peace to “two countries.” Knowing how Lincoln would respond, Davis hoped to kill the peace conference in its crib, discredit the Southern doves he had sent to it and incite the Southern people to a war of desperation.

To the cheers of the combatants on both sides, Grant let the Southern peace envoys across his lines from the rebel fortifications; ignored his orders to keep them there; entertained them profusely at his headquarters; introduced them to his generals, his family and his horses; helped them craft conciliatory messages to the North; and convinced his embattled president that they were ready to accept reunion, Jeff Davis notwithstanding, and give peace a chance. Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, a world-class charmer and a prewar friend and colleague of all three rebel emissaries, joined the president for the peace talks.

The conference on the River Queen was a gathering of old friends. The leader of the Confederate delegation, the 90-pound paradox Alexander Stephens of Georgia, was Davis’s political nemesis as well as his vice president; he was also a friend and ally of Lincoln’s in the Congress of 1848 in a movement against the Mexican War. Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia had been close to Seward in the old Senate. The brilliant Alabamian John A. Campbell, a former justice of the United States Supreme Court, had attended Lincoln’s inauguration and tried to help Seward stop the war before it started.

Their reunion at Hampton Roads began in a glow of nostalgia, descended into threats and ended with a glimpse of Lincoln’s simple compromise: the restoration of the Union, a gradual abolition of slavery, the return of all forfeited Southern property, a $400,000,000 payment to the slave states to offset the loss of their slaves, and pardons for their leaders. The conference ended inconclusively and the participants returned to their capitals, determined to keep hope alive.

But peace was not at hand. As rumors of peace brought hope to their suffering people, militants North and South condemned the very idea of negotiation itself. In the exhausted Confederate capital, The Richmond Sentinel told its readers what peace would bring: “All the dark and malignant passions of a vindictive people, drunk with blood and vomiting crime, will be unloosed on us like bloodhounds upon their prey.” On the floor of the United States Senate, Benjamin Wade, a Republican from Ohio, proclaimed that “this nest of vipers at Richmond” must be crushed, not reasoned with, for negotiation “would be disgrace, dishonor, contamination in the eyes of our own people and in the eyes of the civilized world.”

Explosive though he knew it would be, Lincoln would have brought his generous peace plan to a Congress bent on revenge if a single member of his Cabinet had endorsed it. Not a single member did. “You are all against me,” he said, and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference went for naught.

Its failure had consequences. Some 10,000 men and boys alive and well when their leaders clasped hands on the River Queen were corpses three months later. Instead of a voluntary reunion, the South endured the only existential defeat that Americans have ever suffered. A century of bitterness followed.

James B. Conroy is the author of Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865.”

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How Douglass Came Around to Lincoln

Tom Chaffin

The New York Times   December 7, 2014

civil-war-sumter75-popupBy December 1864, Frederick Douglass had become an admirer of the man he later called “our friend and liberator,” and he savored President Lincoln’s re-election the previous month. But Douglass’s path to that admiration had been anything but direct.

Four years earlier, he had quietly supported candidate Lincoln in the November 1860 election. But the Republican president-elect soon gave him pause. Lincoln’s silence during the final months of Democrat James Buchanan’s presidency irked Douglass, and he complained of Lincoln’s failure to condemn pro-South actions by Buchanan’s lame-duck administration.

Moreover, during Lincoln’s days as president-elect and his presidency’s first months, Douglass was also disturbed by the new chief executive’s receptiveness to proposed peace deals with the South that would have left its “peculiar institution” — slavery — intact. He was likewise troubled by Lincoln’s continuing advocacy of black emigration schemes as a means of addressing the secession crisis — schemes that would have sent African-Americans, both free and slave, to Africa or the Caribbean. Indeed, in spring 1861, Douglass, though throughout most of his life an opponent of such schemes, grew so wary of President Lincoln that he planned a 10-week trip to Haiti to ponder emigrating there himself (he eventually canceled the trip).

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass Library of Congress

By late 1862, though, Lincoln had begun to change, and so did Douglass’s estimation of him. In January 1863, Douglass and his fellow abolitionists exulted over Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in all rebel-controlled areas and authorizing the recruitment of black troops. With the stroke of a pen, Lincoln, acting in his role as commander in chief, had elevated the war effort from a fight to preserve a political nation-state, the Union, into a moral campaign against human bondage.

The proclamation did not abolish American slavery, nor did it free all American slaves. It left in bondage close to a million souls in areas exempted by the edict: the nominally Union and free-soil “border states” of Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri and Kentucky, as well as all parts of the Confederacy already occupied by Union forces. But Douglass saw that Lincoln’s edict put the nation on an irreversible course. “For my own part,” he later recalled, “I took the proclamation, first and last, for a little more than it purported, and saw in its spirit a life and power far beyond its letter.” He added:

Its meaning to me was the entire abolition of slavery, wherever the evil could be reached by the Federal arm, and I saw that its moral power would extend much further. It was, in my estimation, an immense gain to have the war for the Union committed to the extinction of slavery, even from a military necessity.

Douglass’s voice was, by then, being heard at the nation’s highest levels; at Douglass’s request, President Lincoln met with him, at the White House, on Aug. 10, 1863. “I was somewhat troubled with the thought of meeting someone so august and high in authority, especially as I had never been in the White House before, and had never spoken to a President of the United States before.” Upon entering the office, however, Douglass was put at ease. He found the tall president seated in a low chair, surrounded by books and papers. “On my approach he slowly drew his feet in from the different parts of the room into which they had strayed, and he began to rise, and continued to rise until he looked down upon me, and extended his hand and gave me a welcome.”

“Reaching out his hand, he said, ‘Mr. Douglass, I know you; I have read about you, and Mr. Seward” — Secretary of State William H. Seward — “has told me about you’; putting me quite at ease at once.” Their ensuing conversation focused on the black regiments then being organized, those from Massachusetts and other Union states, as well as others, made up of former slaves, in South Carolina, Tennessee and other Union-controlled areas of the South. To the president, Douglass made several requests: He asked for an end to pay inequities between black and white soldiers; that black soldiers be promoted, just as white soldiers, for “meritorious” battlefield performance; and that the president enunciate a policy for the Union’s military to retaliate in kind against rebel prisoners of war if the Confederacy made good on threats to execute captured black soldiers. Lincoln, in turn, asked Douglass how the Union Army might more effectively recruit former slaves now in Union-occupied parts of the South.

As their exchange drew to a close, Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas, who, at its start, had introduced Douglass to the president, told Lincoln that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton intended to commission Douglass adjutant-general to Gen. George H. Thomas. The commission would authorize Douglass to travel down the Mississippi and recruit former slaves into the army. The president, by Douglass’s account of the meeting, seemed pleased with that news: “I will sign any commission that Mr. Stanton will give Mr. Douglass.”

When they met that August, Lincoln was well into his first term and already pondering his re-election campaign the following year. He was facing stiff political headwinds from both Republicans and Democrats: Radical Republicans were demanding that he move more aggressively against the South; and Democrats — motivated by the sort of anti-black sentiment that flared during New York’s Draft Riots — were complaining that, through the Emancipation Proclamation and similar measures, he was pursuing policies injurious to whites, and unduly favorable toward blacks.

The president thus exercised caution in answering Douglass’s requests. Lincoln said that, while he was prepared, eventually, to accede to the equal pay request, he would, in the meantime — for political reasons — be unable to grant the other entreaties. Moreover, Lincoln cautioned that he regarded the very idea of any black enlistments as, for the time being, an “experiment.” Regardless of his own favorable view of the value of recruiting black soldiers into the war effort, the president said that he was also aware that many whites remained skeptical of the change in policy. “He spoke,” Douglass recalled, “of the opposition generally to employing negroes as soldiers at all.”

By the war’s end, Lincoln did remove most pay disparities between black and white soldiers, and after atrocities were inflicted on black soldiers, he also issued a warning to the Confederacy that any similar, future actions against black soldiers would produce commensurate retaliations against rebel prisoners. However, the change in policy, requested by Douglass, concerning promotions for black soldiers, never occurred; for the war’s duration, black enlistees were rarely elevated to higher ranks. As for Douglass’s military commission, that too never came — whether for reasons of bureaucratic error or deliberate policy, he never learned.

Even so, Douglass left the meeting satisfied that, in Lincoln, he had met a trustworthy leader with whom he could work. Speaking to an abolitionist convention the following December, Douglass reflected, “I never met with a man, who, on the first blush, impressed me more entirely with his sincerity, with his devotion to his country, and with his determination to save it at all hazards.”

disunion45A year later, on Aug. 19, 1864, Douglass met again with Lincoln at the White House, but this time, at the president’s request. “I need not say I went most gladly,” he recalled. “The main subject on which he wished to confer with me was as to the means most desirable to be employed outside the army to induce the slaves in the rebel States to come within the Federal lines,” where, by terms set forth in the Emancipation Proclamation, the bondsmen would be guaranteed their liberty.

Growing war opposition in the North — much of it fueled by complaints that the Emancipation Proclamation had rendered it an “abolition war,” recalled Douglass — “alarmed Mr. Lincoln.” The president was also “apprehensive that a peace might be forced upon him which would leave still in slavery all who had not come within our lines.”

Fearing such a forced peace, the president told Douglass that he wanted to render the Emancipation Proclamation “as effective as possible” as long as it remained the law of the land. While the order was in effect, he wanted it to liberate as many slaves as possible. More specifically, Lincoln worried that slaves in rebel areas “are not coming so rapidly and so numerously to us as I had hoped.” To increase their numbers, Lincoln made a proposal: He asked if Douglass would be willing to organize “a band of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business should be somewhat after the original plan of John Brown, to go into the rebel States, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries.” Union military advances, however, soon rendered Lincoln’s idea unnecessary.

By the fall 1864 presidential campaign — following the Emancipation Proclamation and the two White House meetings — Lincoln had thus earned Douglass’s trust and admiration. Even so, Douglass, again as he had in 1860, remained mostly quiet in his support for the president’s election campaign. This time, Lincoln’s opponent was the former Union general George McClellan, who had expressed a willingness to discuss an armistice with the rebel South that would have left the region’s slavery in place. Explaining his reticence to the journalist Theodore Tilton, Douglass confided, “I am not doing much in this Presidential Canvass for the reason that Republican committees do not wish to expose themselves to the charge of being the ‘Niggar’ party.” In the end, Lincoln handily defeated McClellan — winning by 2,218,000 to 1,813,000 in the popular vote, 212 to 21 in the Electoral College.

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Tom Chaffin

Tom Chaffin’s books include “Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire,” recently reissued with an updated introduction, and the just published “Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary,” from which the above essay is adapted. For

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Lincoln, God and the Constitution

Disunion

 On Dec. 3, 1864, Abraham Lincoln proposed putting God in the Constitution. Preparing to submit his annual address on the state of the union, the president drafted a paragraph suggesting the addition of language to the preamble “recognizing the Deity.” The proposal shocked his cabinet during a read-through. With his re-election secured and the political utility of such a move dubious, the most religiously skeptical president since Thomas Jefferson proposed blowing an irreparable God-size hole through the wall separating church and state. What was Lincoln thinking?

Recalling the meeting in his memoirs, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote that the imprudent idea had been put in the president’s head “by certain religionists” – namely, the Covenanters. A tiny sect from Scotland that had resided in America since before the Revolution, they believed the Constitution contained two crippling moral flaws: its protection of slavery, and its failure to acknowledge God’s authority. With the Emancipation Proclamation poised to fix the one sin, they believed, why not correct the other? At their first meeting with Lincoln in late 1862 (it was much easier for citizens to get an audience with the president at the time), a group of influential Covenanters suggested doing just that.

In that first meeting, Abraham Lincoln was quintessentially Abraham Lincoln — by turns respectful, humorous and reflective. He regaled his guests with the rough-hewn ideas that became his second inaugural address. He observed that each side in the war prayed to the same God, read the same Bible and invoked divine favor against the other; perhaps, Lincoln suggested, the war would ultimately decide which nation God chose

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham LincolnCredit Library of Congress

 

The Covenanter ministers left their meeting emboldened. Thereafter they were instrumental in forming a coalition of denominations dedicated to acknowledging Christianity in the Constitution. This group, the National Reform Association, hoped to reference Jesus’ authority just after “We the People” and before “in order to form a more perfect Union.” They visited the president again in 1864 with an official request for action.

Lincoln is often remembered as a religious skeptic, at best, but throughout the war he showed exceptional shrewdness in wielding the political power of religion. As a young man, he openly scoffed at Christianity and once wrote an essay examining all the falsehoods contained in the Bible. Open heresy proved politically perilous; he lost his first bid for a congressional nomination amid accusations that Christians could not vote for him in good conscience.

From that experience, and from his active participation in grass-roots political organizing, Lincoln came to respect the ability of church networks to mobilize voters on moral issues. Thereafter, he used religion to great effect in his political career, casting his campaign platforms in stark moral terms, calling for more thanksgiving and fast days than any previous president and meeting constantly with clergy. Those ministers returned from their audiences at the White House preaching sermons that baptized the Union, the War and the president with religious purpose. Cultivating relationships with religious leaders paid dividends when Lincoln won re-election in a landslide.

Even so, the 16th president paid more than lip service to religion. Raised by a Bible-thumping mother in a hard-drinking culture, he somehow managed to reject and have sympathy for both. He was a moralist, a fatalist and prone to bouncing between soaring hope and sinking melancholy. For all these reasons, the president understood and reverenced religion better than many believers did, both as a political advantage and a safe harbor for troubled souls in the midst of storms. Lincoln’s own storms — the disintegration of the Union, the death of his young son Willie and regular wartime casualty reports — heightened his belief in Providence and shook the skepticism of his youth. A distant, impersonal sense of divinity was replaced by the president’s increasing conviction that God was concerned with the affairs of humanity. More important, Lincoln came to believe what he said in 1862 – that this inscrutable God might actually choose sides.

In contemplating a religious amendment, then, Lincoln brought to bear his own conflicted sense about God and America. The nation was at war both with itself and with what he believed remained its ultimate destiny to be an example of free government to the world. With the Emancipation Proclamation, and soon through the 13th Amendment, Lincoln christened the Civil War with the moral name of abolition. Perhaps, if only briefly, he considered that Reconstruction would need a higher calling as well. Americans, in the rubble of war, would share little in common besides enmity. They might yet find unity in rebuilding a nation that possessed a divine destiny.

But Lincoln the philosopher was also Lincoln the lawyer; such a move would open a Pandora’s box of divisive constitutional issues. The Cabinet’s very loud concerns were joined by some of his own. He struck the paragraph and it was never mentioned again.

By suggesting it at all, though, the president put on display, however briefly, the exceptional power of the Civil War to remake American society. Just 10 years before, most Americans might easily have conceived of a constitutional amendment invoking the name of God. Few would have predicted one eradicating slavery. Then the nation’s greatest crisis proved capable of taking slavery out of the national compact but not of putting God in it. High-profile campaigns to Christianize the Constitution continued well into the 20th century and even made their way into congressional committees. Still, they never came closer to realization than that one paragraph read aloud by Lincoln in a cabinet meeting. Those brief words bespoke the limits of religion and reform in American government at the nation’s most malleable moment.

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Sources: “Diary of Gideon Welles, Vol. II”; John Alexander, “History of the National Reform Association”; Richard Carwardine, “Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power.”


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Joseph S. Moore, an assistant professor of history at Gardner-Webb University, is the author of the forthcoming book “Covenanters and the American Republic.”

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This Was One of the Little-Recognized Causes of the Civil War 

HNN  August 17, 2014

I remember reading many years ago W. E. B. Du Bois’s complaint that Americans knew far too little of the decisive role blacks played in winning their freedom.  He pointed specifically to a biography of Ulysses S. Grant in which the author, W. E. Woodward, wrote of African Americans as “the only people in the history of the world . . . that ever became free without any effort of their own. . . . They twanged banjos around the railroad stations, sang melodious spirituals, and believed that some Yankee would soon come along and give each of them forty acres of land and a mule.”  I was in graduate school at the time and congratulated myself on knowing better – that blacks had served in the Union army.  But that was about all I knew of it. As the proud holder of a college degree in history, I thought that was just about all I needed to know.  There are none so ignorant as the educated ignorant.

Some historians still downplay the wider role of blacks in bringing on freedom, preferring to emphasize Abraham Lincoln’s role as the Great Emancipator.  Historian James McPherson, a leading defender of Lincoln’s Great Emancipator image, argues in Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (1996) that without Lincoln there would have been no war and, hence, no opportunity for freedom. With regard to emancipation, it was Lincoln’s determination that was “the essential condition, the one thing without which it would not have happened.” Without Lincoln, there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation and no Thirteenth Amendment. Therefore, says McPherson, “Lincoln freed the slaves.”

Arguments such as those of McPherson and others have some validity as far as they go. To my knowledge, no reputable scholar denies that Lincoln and the Union military played a significant part in the emancipation process. But following their lines of reasoning more deeply, we cannot help but see the efforts of black folk at their core.

Lincoln’s effort to preserve the Union was, of course, a reaction to the South’s secession, a movement engineered by slaveholders who feared not only Lincoln but, more immediately, their own slaves. Controlling slaves had been increasingly difficult for years. It could only be more difficult, perhaps impossible, with slaves believing that Lincoln’s election meant their freedom. How could they believe otherwise? Though Lincoln was no threat to slavery where it existed, and said so often during the 1860 presidential campaign, fire-eating secessionists railed against him as a radical abolitionist with a secret agenda to foment slave rebellion. Such overheated rhetoric was intended to stir up support for secession among southern whites, but southern blacks heard the message too. Rebellion and rumors of rebellion pervaded the South that year and drove slaveholder fears to a fever pitch. Most significantly, underlying their fear was the certain knowledge that slaves wanted freedom. It was that fear, born of generations of slave resistance, that led to secession, war, and slavery’s downfall.

Slaveholders’ doubts about their ability to maintain slavery indefinitely had a long history. The need to justify slavery had for decades occupied their brightest minds. The need to keep southern whites, three-quarters of whom owned no slaves, supporting slavery made fomenting fear of blacks a political priority.  Most threatening to slaveholders were the slaves themselves. Blacks had never submitted to slavery willingly or completely. They did little more than they had to do and took liberties where they could. They resisted in so many ways that the slaveholders’ need to exercise control was constant and consuming.  Had blacks been content to remain enslaved, slaveholders would have had no cause for alarm. Nor would abolitionist arguments have inspired such panic among them. As it was, slaveholder fears of threats to slavery, as much from within as from without, led them to insist on guarantees for slavery’s future and the means to control that future. And that fear led them to secede when those guarantees and their means of control seemed at risk. As Professor John Ashworth reminds us inSlavery, Capitalism and Politics in the Antebellum Republic (1995), there was a direct causal link between the slaves’ desire for freedom and slaveholder politics. “Behind every event in the history of the sectional controversy,” Ashworth points out, “lurked the consequences of black resistance to slavery.”

That resistance was not confined to the South. Escaping slaves saw to that. By the tens of thousands they headed north, undermining northern efforts to keep the slave’s war south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In so doing, as Professor Scott Hancock stresses in “Crossing Freedom’s Fault Line” (Civil War History, 2013), black folk “maintained an unrelenting pressure on the sectional fault lines of identity, law, and space.” That pressure produced large cracks in those fault lines and increasingly drew northerners into the conflict. Time and again, northern failures to keep blacks and slavery locked in the South put them at odds with slaveholders’ expansionist demands. Hancock concludes, and rightly so, that “not simply slavery, but slaves – black people! – caused the Civil War.”

It was, then, at the heart of it all, the unrelenting resistance to slavery among slaves themselves that was the essential condition, the one thing without which the sectional crisis, secession, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment would not have happened.

Of course, it did not happen overnight. For more than two centuries before the Civil War, millions of African Americans lived in bondage all their lives. But it was a resisted bondage, an ongoing struggle, that would eventually reach its consummation. The internal pressures against slavery – rebellion, resistance, escape – were always there and became ever greater as slavery spread. Slaveholders clamped down with more slave codes, more slave patrols, and increasingly brutal control. But the more they tried to tighten their grip on slaves, the more slaves slipped through their fingers. By the late 1850s there were an estimated fifty thousand escapees annually, temporary and permanent. Such resistance fueled a desperation reflected in slaveholder politics and the secession crisis. The resulting war was neither an isolated event nor an end point in itself.  It was part of a massive black resistance movement that had been going on for generations, finally becoming so intense that the country as a whole could hardly help being drawn into it.

Even so, in an effort to avoid war, Congress passed, and Lincoln supported, a constitutional amendment, the Corwin Amendment, that would have guaranteed slavery in the slave states forever.  In the war’s early months, both Congress and Lincoln insisted that the conflict was a white man’s war in which blacks could have no part. But black folk knew the war was theirs and quickly took ownership of it.  Black resistance largely brought on the war, then pressed Lincoln in the direction he eventually went.  By escaping in the tens of thousands and making freedom a fact, blacks forced Lincoln to recognize that fact with the Emancipation Proclamation. They made the document their own, and made it much more that it was.  In the upper South, where the Proclamation did not apply, blacks claimed freedom anyway.  In the lower South, they made freedom real by aiding escaping slaves, serving the Union army as guides and spies, assisting Confederate deserters and armed deserter gangs, giving aid to escaping Union prisoners, resisting abuse, and engaging in open rebellion.  They established freedom for themselves by traveling at will, threatening escape to secure wages, and even claiming land and property when they could.  Still, most Americans today seem to assume that Lincoln, almost single-handedly and of his own volition, “freed the slaves.”  Certainly most students coming into my freshman U.S. history course assume that to be the case, which is in large part what prompted me to write my book, I Freed Myself.

In the war’s aftermath, although whites willfully ignored the wartime role of blacks, memories of self-emancipation efforts remained clear in the minds of black folk.  One day a candidate for local office in Illinois asked Duncan Winslow, a former slave and Union veteran, for his vote in an upcoming election. As if to seal the deal, the candidate told Winslow, “Don’t forget. We freed you people.” In response, Winslow raised his wounded arm and said, “See this? Looks to me like I freed myself.”  Blacks would go on freeing themselves for generations to come.

David Williams is a professor of history at Valdosta State University and the author of the, “I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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The Political War

Allen C. Guelzo

The New York Times  June 5, 2014

A Union artillery battery at Cold Harbor. Library of <Congress

A Union artillery battery at Cold Harbor. Library of <Congress

Pity Abraham Lincoln. Everything that should have gone right for the Union cause in the spring of 1864 had, in just a few weeks, gone defiantly and disastrously wrong.

For two years, the 16th president had toiled uphill against the secession of the Confederate states, against the incompetence of his luckless generals and against his howling critics from both sides of the congressional aisle. Finally, in the summer and fall of 1863, the course of the war had begun to turn his way. Two great victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg staggered the Confederates, and those were followed by a knockdown blow delivered at Chattanooga by the man who was fast becoming Lincoln’s favorite general, Ulysses S. Grant. “The signs look better,” Lincoln rejoiced, “Peace does not appear so distant as it did.”

Peace was not the only thing that would be brought closer by victory. The presidential election of 1864 was looming, and if Lincoln had any desire for a second term, a victorious end to the war was the surest way to secure it. He had never seriously considered taking what appeared to some people as an obvious shortcut to remaining in office – declaring the war to be a national emergency and suspending elections for the duration, though two Union governors, in Indiana and Illinois, had done what amounted to that on the state level. That only made the need for military victory all the more urgent, and so Lincoln installed Grant as general in chief of all the Union armies in March 1864, and Grant obliged him with a comprehensive strategic plan that united Union assaults in Georgia, Alabama and, under his own direct command, in Virginia.

None of it worked, and the place where it seemed to work the least was under Grant’s own nose. Crossing the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864, Grant’s army entered at once into a series of head-to-head contests with Robert E. Lee’s fabled Army of Northern Virginia. Fighting three pitched battles – at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and the North Anna River – and enduring numerous smaller collisions, Grant worked his way down toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, which he got within 10 miles of by the end of the month. But the fighting had cost a colossal total of 40,000 dead, wounded and missing, and Lincoln gloomily understood that the Northern public “hold me responsible.”

They weren’t the only ones. Radicals within Lincoln’s own Republican Party in Congress had long been convinced that Lincoln’s preference for a soft postwar Reconstruction was dis-heartening the Republican base. They were further angered when the Republican national committee, headed by Lincoln’s ally Edwin D. Morgan, met in late February 1864 and announced that the party would hold its presidential nominating convention in Baltimore in June, not as “Republicans,” but as the “National Union Convention.” As Grant’s campaign in Virginia ground agonizingly forward, the most vehement of the Radicals – led by Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips and Horace Greeley – staged a protest convention in Cleveland’s Cosmopolitan Hall, and on June 4 nominated the Radical darling, John Charles Fremont.

If ever there was a moment when Lincoln needed good news from the battlefield, it was now, and Grant wanted to deliver it. The staggering blows he had dealt the rebels convinced him a little too easily that the Confederates were “really whipped,” that “our men feel they have gained morale over the enemy and attack with confidence,” and that with one more blow, “success over Lee’s army is already assured.” On June 1, Grant launched a hasty strike at Cold Harbor, before the bulk of his army could get into action. Even so, the attack cracked the Confederate defenses on the Cold Harbor road and forced them to fall back. With another good push, Grant might just be able “crush Lee’s army on the north side of the James, with the prospect in case of success of driving him into Richmond, capturing the city perhaps without a siege, and putting the Confederate government to flight” – not to mention providing a rousing military endorsement for Lincoln’s renomination.

But Grant, in his eagerness, had badly misread the Confederates, and when he launched a full-dress attack at Cold Harbor on June 3, it resembled (as one Confederate general put it) “not war but murder.” Well-prepared Confederate infantrymen mowed down federal at-tackers. Grant’s army sustained 3,500 casualties in the main attack and another 2,500 in related actions that day, and the armies settled into a miserable standoff.

Yet Grant carefully limited his report of the Cold Harbor debacle to four terse sentences, including the claim that “our loss was not severe.” And in the official report of the campaign he filed after the war, Cold Harbor consumed just three sentences in 51 pages. For years afterward, Grant’s doubters wondered whether he had deliberately soft-pedaled the failure at Cold Harbor in order to limit political damage to Lincoln on the eve of the Baltimore convention. There is no direct evidence of such collusion; still, Grant’s dismissal of his losses as “not severe” is peculiar.

Even more peculiar, newspaper reporting from the field was shut down by the War Department because of “a violent storm.” The New York Times (whose editor, Henry Raymond, was the new chairman of the National Union Party’s national Committee) did not publish an ac-count of the June 3 attack for three more days, and even then, merely observed that “losses were inconsiderable.”

Strangest of all, however, was Grant’s refusal to propose a truce to recover the wounded from the battlefield until June 7. Military tradition dictated that only the loser of an engagement asked for such a truce. Even though there could not have been much debate about who had won and who had lost at Cold Harbor, Grant delayed the truce agreement (and any public admission of defeat) for four days, while men suffered and died from thirst, blood loss and exposure.

By June 7, however, any anxiety that bad news from Cold Harbor would endanger Lincoln’s nomination was past. That same day, the Union National Convention opened at the Front Street Theater in Baltimore, with Robert J. Breckinridge asking triumphantly, “Does any one doubt that this convention intends to say that Abraham Lincoln shall be the nominee?” They did not, and the next day, undisturbed by any news of Cold Harbor, Lincoln – described by one state delegation as “the second savior of the world” – was unanimously renominated by the convention.

Given how diligently the National Union Party’s staff had worked to ensure Lincoln’s renomination in the months before the Baltimore assembly, even the freshest news from Cold Harbor might not have made much difference. But keeping the ill wind at bay certainly did not hurt. Nor was it uncommon in this war for the impact of bad military news to be blunted by creative hesitation. One of Grant’s corps commanders was overheard telling a staffer not to report actual casualty figures: “It will never do, Locke, to make a showing of such heavy losses.” After that, wrote the officer who overheard him, “I always doubted reports of casualties.” It irked one Philadelphia newspaper on June 9 to admit that “we can scarcely find out that there was fought one of the bloodiest battles of the war, yet, until yesterday, no one knew its result.” This was, in the end, a highly political war, in which military decisions frequently turned before the winds of politics. And in the coming months, Lincoln would find far greater political challenges in the path of re-election than the ones presented by Cold Harbor.

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Sources: R.P. Basler, ed., “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln”; Larry T. Balsamo, “’We Cannot Have Free Government without Elections’: Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 94 (Summer 2001); Gordon C. Rhea, “Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864”; Ralph Morris Goldman, “The National Party Chairmen and Committees: Factionalism at the Top”; Andrew F. Rolle, “John Charles Fremont: Character As Destiny”; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series One, 37 (pt 1); Gordon C. Rhea, “The Overland Campaign,” Hallowed Ground 15 (Spring 2014); The New York Times, June 6 and 8, 1864; Ernest B. Furgurson, “Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor, 1864”; D.F. Murphy, “Proceedings of the National Union Convention Held in Baltimore, Md., June 7th and 8th, 1864”; Morris Schaff, “The Battle of the Wilderness”; David E. Long, “Cover-up at Cold Harbor,” Civil War Times Illustrated 36 (June 1997).


Allen C. Guelzo, professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, is the author, most recently, of “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.”

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