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HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
- Lincoln, Leadership, and Race: Emancipation as Policy
Professor Blight follows Robert E. Lee’s army north into Maryland during the summer of 1862, an invasion that culminated in the Battle of Antietam, fought in September of 1862. In the wake of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a document that changed the meaning of the war forever. Professor Blight suggests some of the ways in which Americans have attempted to come to grips with the enigmatic Lincoln, and argues that, in the end, it may be Lincoln’s capacity for change that was his most important characteristic. The lecture concludes with the story of John Washington, a Virginia slave whose concerted action suggests the central role American slaves played in securing their own freedom.
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 15 - Lincoln, Leadership, and Race: Emancipation as Policy
Chapter 1. Introduction: Turning Points in the Civil War [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: Good morning. I’m going to talk today about turning points, and on Thursday about turning points, and beyond that, probably, about turning points. But let me lay out right now my own sort of selective list, short list, of the most important turning points in the Civil War; make the list and then we will come back to them. Now this is any military historian’s, or any Civil War historian’s guess, of course. But there’s no question that the Antietam campaign of 1862 is a major turning point in the Civil War, and I’ll select that as my first. There are things happening before that that are terribly important, like the saving of Richmond, against McClelland’s Peninsula Campaign in June and July of ‘62. But it is this first invasion of the North by Robert E. Lee, culminating in the bloodiest single day of the Civil War; over 5000 dead, 23,000 casualties in eight hours, on fields along a little creek in southwestern Maryland that not only stopped this first major invasion of the North and this threat of a southern army to northern soil, northern resources, and northern cities, but it of course resulted in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which transformed the purpose of the war on both sides; back to that in a second.
The second major turning point in the war, militarily, I’d argue, as most people do, was the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863 and the day after the three days’ battle at Gettysburg. The bloodiest encounter of the entire war, if you add up the three days’ casualties of almost 56,000 dead and wounded, in three days — that battle, of course, stopped Lee’s second invasion of the North, and we’ll come to that in a moment, at least in brief terms. On the day after Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on the 4th of July 1863, the kind of citadel river town or city of Vicksburg, Mississippi fell to Union forces, after a siege of nearly six months. When Grant took Vicksburg on the 4th of July in 1863, it virtually opened up the entire Mississippi River to Union control; it cut geographically the Confederacy in half; it isolated Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas from the rest of the Confederacy. It was without a question, at least in the long-term, a decisive turning point in the war in the West. A third major turning point, I’d argue, is the Fall of Atlanta in September 1864; and we’ll come that later on, after the break. A fourth major turning point in the war, politically, without any question I think, is the Election of 1864, the only time in modern history that a republic attempted to hold a general election in the midst of civil war and succeeded in doing it. The re-election of Lincoln in 1864 was absolutely crucial to the prosecution of the war to the ends, the Lincoln administration at least, by then, had determined to fight it. But without the fall of Atlanta, the first week of September 1864, it’s not at all clear Lincoln would’ve been re-elected, and more on that later.
And then fifth, you could argue, I would argue, the greatest single turning point in the Civil War, deeply related to these military battlefront affairs, is emancipation. The emancipation of 4.2 million American slaves in the midst of eventually all-out, near total war by the North on the South, to destroy southern society and its institutions, transformed American history, more than just transforming a war. That’s the theme of this lecture and Thursday’s lecture, and even to some extent beyond. It is those results beyond the battlefield that ultimately it is our obligation to understand. It’s important, it’s an obligation to understand why the Battle of Antietam turned the way it did, and it’s an obligation to understand why Lee is invading the North a second time in 1863, and why that encounter at Gettysburg turned out the way it did. But by then it is a war being fought for something very different, and much, much larger than it had been at the outset.
One way into this story is a very simple quotation in one of those interviews held with former slaves in the WPA Oral History Narratives in the 1930s. These were the interviews, over 3000 of them done with ex-slaves, many of them in their eighties, some even in their nineties. A guy named Cornelius Garner was interviewed in 1937, at age 91. He was asked if he had fought in the Civil War, and Cornelius replied to his interviewer, who was a black interviewer in this case, “Did I fight in the War? Well if I hadn’t you wouldn’t be sittin’ there writin’ at me today.” He then went on to describe a corner of his native Norfolk, Virginia where slave auctions used to be conducted on New Year’s Day. “That day, New Year’s Day,” said Garner, should be kept by all the colored people. That is the day of freedom. And they ought to remember Frederick Douglass too. Frederick Douglass told Abe Lincoln, ‘Give the black man guns and let him fight.’ And Abe Lincoln say, ‘If I give him a gun, when it come to battle he might run.’ And Frederick Douglass say, ‘Try him, and you’ll win the war.’ And Abe said, ‘All right, I’ll try him.’” Now that’s a simplistic, homespun explanation for how emancipation came about. Over 180,000 African-Americans will end up in the Union armies. But old Cornelius wasn’t entirely wrong.
Chapter 2. Robert E. Lee’s Assumptions on Moving North [00:07:42]
All right, back to Virginia, in 1862. I’ll put the outline back up if we need it. I don’t know if you can see all of that but I hope you can see some of it. I left you with McClellan’s army on the peninsula having been defeated. I thought I’d show you a couple of magnificent Mathew Brady photographs. Photography, of course, had finally come into its own. The Civil War would be the first major event in world history to be photographed on a large scale, and it’s in part what made Ken Burns’s film possible, especially the use of that camera they now that have that can go into an old daguerreotype type, which isn’t any bigger than this, and make it seem like a giant panorama. This is a photograph taken behind Union troops overlooking the Cumberland River in May 1862; that’s before the Battle of the Seven Days, that’s during the march by McClellan’s army up the peninsula. I don’t how well you can see that but that’s an absolutely stunning photograph of a Union wagon train on one of these makeshift bridges. They would build these things in a few hours, over all these rivers, which in May of 1862 were flooding constantly. It’s Union troops crossing the Chickahominy River, just east of Richmond, May 1862.
Now, what happened next of course was — and this is where I left you — was Lee’s fateful decision to not stay and just defend Richmond; so not just leave the war in Central Virginia. Having defeated or held back McClellan’s army, and with a certain degree of confidence that McClellan probably would be McClellan and not move, he decided to invade the North. Now there were all these high-level councils of war in Richmond between Jefferson Davis, Lee and his generals. There were arguments for and against it. But Lee won the day, and the argument, and he went west behind the Blue Ridge mountains and invaded the North through the upper part of the Shenandoah Valley, the goal of which was to not attack Washington, D.C., by any means — I think I have a better map possibly; yes, maybe that helps a little better — not to attack Washington or necessarily to even threaten Philadelphia directly. Lee had no intention of taking over any northern cities. He couldn’t do that. He didn’t have the resources. He didn’t have an army big enough. How would he have occupied them? But what he most wanted to do, the aim of this invasion, was wanting to take the war out of ravaged Virginia; to threaten northern cities, especially the U.S. capital; to try to bring about — and Great Britain was on the brink of this, and I’ll come back to that foreign policy diplomatic story a bit later — but Great Britain was truly on the brink of near recognition, at least a kind of quasi-recognition of the Confederacy, and the theory here was that if the Confederate forces could win a major victory, somewhere on northern soil, get into Pennsylvania, do it twice over, live off the land, possibly even force the evacuation of the U.S. capital, that news of that in Great Britain might bring about British recognition of the Confederacy as the legitimate government, and especially give the Confederacy access to its navy, if not even the possibility of ground forces. And by the way, a British force had already been sent to Canada in early 1862 for the possibility of intervention in the American Civil War.
Now, there was also a theory here at work that is going to be dead wrong. Lee believed, as did other Confederate leaders, that in Maryland, in particular, there was a great deal of Confederate sympathy and sentiment, and a lot of young Maryland men, the theory was, eager to join the Confederate forces if they could just get out of Maryland. And that marching Confederate Army was going to attract them; at least that was the theory. The problem was when young men actually saw that Confederate Army, they were appalled, because that Confederate Army that invaded across the Potomac River — they crossed the Potomac on September 4 and September 5, 1862 — was an army that had apparently remarkable, almost miraculous morale; they were winners. They had just defeated a Union Army with McClellan’s whole force still back on the peninsula. The 40 to 50,000 Union troops still guarding Washington, DC were decisively, horribly defeated in the Battle of Second Manassas, the last two days of August, the 29th and 30th of 1862. That Union Army retreated once again — fought on the same fields as First Bull Run, thirteen months earlier — retreated into Washington, DC. Washington, DC, on September 1st 1862, was like a giant field hospital. There were some 3 to 4,000 wounded Union soldiers all over the streets of Washington, a broken army, with McClellan’s army now retreating back up the Chesapeake and the Potomac and this huge flotilla trying to get to Washington in case Lee actually attacked Washington.
But the army Lee had was starving, they weren’t very well fed, and they weren’t very well clad. Here’s one description of a young Marylander who saw the Confederate Army. He said it was nothing but, quote, “a set of ragamuffins. It seemed as if every cornfield in Maryland had been robbed of its scarecrows. None had any underclothing. My costume consisted of a ragged pair of trousers,” — this guy apparently joined — “a stained dirty jacket, an old slouch hat, the brim pinned up with a thorn, a begrimed blanket over my shoulder, a grease-smeared cotton haversack full of apples and corn, a cartridge box full and a musket. I was barefooted. I had a stone bruise on each foot. There was no one there who would not have been run in by the police had he appeared on the streets of a normal city.” And there’s plenty of testimony in the record, though a lot of young Maryland men came out to see this now famous army of Robert E. Lee, took one look or one smell, as one put it, and went back to their farms. Lee will get almost no real recruits, out of Maryland. What they will do in Maryland, however, is capture several hundred slaves and return them, or take them, to Virginia. They’re going to do the same thing in 1863 in the Gettysburg campaign on an even larger scale. Kidnapping was also part of the Confederate army’s job.
Chapter 3. The Battle of Antietam [00:15:55]
Now, the battle would not have occurred at Antietam except for the famous — and it’s true — lost order. Here’s what happened. Lee went into Maryland. The Union Army is all around Washington, D.C.; there’s really no army up in Maryland to stop him, yet. He divided his army in three parts, three corps, about 20,000, roughly, men each. And they were spread out around Maryland about twenty miles apart, over a sixty-mile stretch. Stonewall Jackson’s corps was sent to Harpers Ferry. The other two corps, they were separated, at least by twenty miles in between them, these three parts of his army. One of the cardinal rules of the old manuals they were taught in at West Point was, quote, in the old, in Henri Jomini’s Military Manual of Conduct, it said, “never divide your forces in the presence of the enemy.” It’s exactly what Lee had done. The problem was that the Union command was about to find out quickly. Lee wrapped orders around three cigars, sent his courier out to the three corps commanders, over the course of more than a day, to deliver the orders. But the orders were lost, and they were found by a private in an Indiana regiment whose name was B.W. Mitchell — the 27th Indiana Volunteers to be exact — who picked up this bundle of three cigars, with paper wrapped around it, and he read the orders, and at the bottom it said, “R. E. Lee.” And he apparently said something like, “I’ve heard of him.” And Lee was already a kind of budding legend because of the Seven Days and because of Second Manassas. And he gave it to his colonel who gave it to his brigadier-general who quickly gave it to other generals.
Lincoln had little choice but to put McClellan back in charge. His commander at Second Manassas had been a general named John Pope, who had been thoroughly defeated and had had a nervous breakdown; seriously, he had a mental breakdown during the Second Manassas battle, and Pope was out of action, to say the least, and he would’ve been put out of action anyway. So Lincoln puts McClellan back in command, in Washington D.C., and within hours McClellan was delivered Lee’s orders, just as though there had been a fourth cigar for McClellan. McClellan looked at these orders; but they were discovered, by the way, on the 13th of September of 1862. McClellan read them by that night. The orders were basically to have all parts of Lee’s Army concentrate, rather slowly, but concentrate toward the area of Sharpsburg, Maryland, which is right here along Antietam Creek. Sharpsburg is a little town, Antietam’s a little river. But they were to congregate there within the next, oh, three to four days.
McClellan now has at his command about 90,000 troops. If he marched them quickly he had the opportunity to defeat Lee’s Army in parts. But McClellan was McClellan. He sat on the lost order for about two days before he decided (1) whether to believe it, (2) what to do about it. Lee quickly discovered that his orders never reached his commanders and he worried, he sent out new orders to concentrate as fast as possible near Sharpsburg. McClellan finally moved slowly from the camps around Washington, up toward Sharpsburg. They encountered each other at a place called South Mountain at the end of the day of the 15th of September 1862, and a battle of a sort was fought there. It was only a rearguard sort of thing. Lee retreated out of the South Mountain pass, down into this little valley around Sharpsburg, Maryland, which is just above the Potomac River. Now Lee was taking a tremendous risk here, because one of those other rules they’d been taught was never engage an enemy, at least in full force, with a major river behind you. But that’s exactly what happened.
They fought the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, as I already said, the bloodiest single day of the Civil War. They fought in cornfields, they fought across open fields, they fought along a sunken road, they fought along a famous bridge now known as the Burnside Bridge. I have a couple of photographs to show you. They fought along what’s known as the Hagerstown Road, along which 48 hours after the battle one of Mathew Brady’s photographers took this awful photograph. These are Confederate dead along that road. There are many, many photographs taken at Antietam. This is another one of Union dead lined up for burial, a line of dead probably 75 yards long. Antietam was in no way necessarily a decisive or strategic victory for either side. I want you to see this photograph because of its irony. You’ve probably seen this one before. At the end of the day at Antietam there were about 23,000 casualties on both sides, over 5,000 dead. And you may remember back on 9/11, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the estimates were over 5,000 dead at the World Trade Center and people were comparing this to Antietam as the bloodiest day of sacrifice in American history. It turned out not to be the case; nevertheless.
What happened in the wake of Antietam was that Lee’s invasion of the North had been stopped. Now McClellan missed a tremendous opportunity to press the day. This has always been a debate among military historians, and you can read, oh God, hundreds of pages on this, if you care to. It’s always been a debate as to whether if McClellan had followed this up could he have literally crushed Lee’s army with the Potomac at his back and in effect ended the war? There surely was that possibility but the day at Antietam had been so devastating to both forces that McClellan did not move; in fact, he did not move for days. It’s also true though that McClellan kept in reserve at Antietam, and it was this act, I think, more than anything else, that got Lincoln finally to go out there by October 3 and fire McClellan. McClellan kept about 20,000 of his troops in reserve at Antietam, always fearing that he was outnumbered; he didn’t use them. And in a military sense had someone like Grant been in charge at Antietam, it is entirely possible Lee would’ve been defeated and at least the war in the East ended. But that was not the case. Lee retreated back into Virginia to fight again.
This is a Mathew Brady photograph, taken of Lincoln meeting with McClellan. This is McClellan right here. There’s also a famous photo of them sitting in that same tent you may have seen; Burns uses it in the series. It was in this meeting that Lincoln went out to meet with McClellan to urge him to move, to push into northern Virginia, to push after Lee’s Army in early autumn, while the weather was so good. And McClellan did not move, and a couple of days after that he was fired; and fired for good. Although McClellan will not leave history of course, he will come back to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 1864 against Abraham Lincoln.
Chapter 4. Lincoln’s Personal Views on Slavery and Historical Legacy [00:25:07]
Now it is, of course, in the wake of Antietam that Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. Let me turn to that now and explain why and how emancipation became the new cause of the war. Now, let’s discuss Lincoln for a moment, first. The biggest problem with Abraham Lincoln has always been not — that is in how we interpret him and treat him, understand him, use him, which we do constantly. Every president, every American politician, as David Donald once said famously in the 1950s, “has to get right with Lincoln.” Everybody uses him. We twist him all inside out and make him say whatever we want him to say. And there’s no other American in our history who has been given credit for more apocryphal quotations, than Abraham Lincoln. A little later in the course I’ll use a few of them, at the end of — when we get to the end of the war. But the problem with Lincoln is indeed his ambiguity, the reality of his historical ambiguity. There is a puzzling dualism about him. There are two, at least two, seeming incompatible legends, if you want, about Abraham Lincoln. One has him as the kind of awkward, amiable, storytelling, rail splitting, frontier folk hero, everybody’s favorite homespun, granddaddy with a corncob pipe, who might just tell you a little raunchy story, and have you chuckling; he’s kind of fun. The other though is the towering political genius, the moral leader, the shaper of a nation’s destiny, savior of the Union and the Great Emancipator. He never quite asked for any of those.
Everybody needs to claim him though. There’s a brilliant essay on this by an historian named Scott Sandage. It came out about ten years ago, it’s called “A Marble House Divided.” It’s all about the Lincoln Memorial. A lot of you you’ve probably been to the Lincoln Memorial. It is America’s secular temple. Everybody uses it. The Ku Klux Klan has held rallies at Lincoln’s temple. Martin Luther King gave the Dream speech at Lincoln’s temple. It’s been used by every extreme of American political culture. If you want to claim the nation’s attention, go to the nation’s temple and claim old Abe, up behind you. He was never very open about himself, never wrote an autobiography, didn’t write many autobiographical sentences as a matter of fact; didn’t live long enough to do that. He was never an abolitionist. He actually had a lot of personal contempt for radical abolitionists. He didn’t like a lot of their arguments and he didn’t like their tactics and strategies. He was a genius with language; no, no, there’s no question about that. We’ve never had a president who could use words, who could find the music of words, like Lincoln. He wrote every word and every sentence of every one of his speeches and every one of his great public letters. Jim McPherson even went so far as to write an article saying how Lincoln won the war with metaphors. I don’t know whether a metaphor can win you a war. Strongest battalions might be a little more important in the end. Who knows?
Is he the symbol, though, of the man who held back emancipation as a white supremacist, or is he the symbol of the man who outgrew his prejudices, and those of his time, to become the emancipator? Or was he just a shrewd politician, kind of finding the middle ground and seeing how the wind was going to blow if he tried this or if he threw up that balloon, or if he tried that? Now there are many ways to reflect on Lincoln. My own favorite expression about him — and there are thousands of these — but my own favorite comes from W.E.B. DuBois, the great black scholar of the twentieth century, who I think really captured all sides of Lincoln in one quotation. This was DuBois, in an editorial he wrote in 1922 in TheCrisis magazine. He wrote it at the time of the unveiling of the Lincoln Memorial. He also wrote it at a time when he was fed up with all of the national honoring and celebration of Robert E. Lee. So it may have — that celebration of Lee, which disgusted DuBois, maybe had had something to do with how he wrote this expression about Lincoln. But this is DuBois on Lincoln, quote: “I love him, not because he was perfect, but because he was not perfect, and yet triumphed. There was something left so that at the crisis he was big enough to be inconsistent, cruel, merciful, peace loving, a fighter, despising negroes and letting them fight, and vote, protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man, a big, inconsistent, brave man.” I’d argue, my friends, that the most important thing you can grasp about Abraham Lincoln is that he had the capacity for growth. He was big enough to be inconsistent, or as Emerson once put it, consistency’s a hobgoblin of simple minds. Remember all that language about flip-flopping in the 2004 election? One of the candidates was alleged to have been a flip-flopper all the time. Well, if Abraham Lincoln hadn’t been a flip-flopper we wouldn’t have had the Emancipation Proclamation. So here’s to flip-flopping. [laughter]
Lincoln’s early record on slavery is interesting. As early as 1837 he was one of only two representatives in the Illinois Legislature to vote against a resolution declaring the right of slave ownership; he was twenty-eight years-old at that time. He has one two-year term in the House of Representatives. During that term, which was the Mexican War, he found himself appalled at the slave trade in the District of Columbia. You could go visit slave auctions, as I’ve said before, I think, two or three blocks down the street from the capitol. He called that slave market, quote, “a sort of Negro livery stable where droves of Negroes are collected, temporarily kept and finally taken to Southern markets, precisely like droves of horses.” He also said during that same term, “If the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that all men are created equal and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” At the same time Lincoln though was a Henry Clay Whig. He was a supporter of the Compromise of 1850. He believed in compensation to slave owners as a way, a hope, of setting up some kind of gradual emancipation plan. And he believed, as Henry Clay had founded it, in this idea — at least he did for awhile — this idea of colonization, of sending blacks either to Africa or to the Caribbean or to Central America.
I don’t have time to stop on those fabulous Lincoln-Douglas debates where you can find every extreme of Abraham Lincoln. I was once given an assignment in a junior seminar as an undergraduate. Old Fred Williams at Michigan State sent us to the Lincoln Collected Papers and he said, “Your assignment is to come back with one passage demonstrating that Lincoln was anti-slavery and believed in emancipation and come back with one passage showing that he was a white supremacist.” Now, growing up a Lincoln lover, and I thought “oh, dear.” That’s like you’ve been raised in a certain religion and somebody says go read the Bhagavad-Gita or read the Koran or study Buddhism for awhile. I did that too for awhile; I didn’t learn much but — . [Laughter] And sure enough you can find all those extremes in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. We also know, of course, that he was a free soiler and he’s most famous in the South, of course, for that language of “putting slavery on a course of ultimate extinction” in the House Divided speech, and elsewhere. But once the war came, the imperative about what to do about slavery was a huge and delicate and terrible political question. And this is the Lincoln that will be forever debated and it’ll be debated next year like it’s never been debated because it’s the bicentennial of his birth next year, and as I’ve warned you, it will be raining Lincoln books and you will have to dodge them next year. [Laughter]
Chapter 5. Slave Conscription and the Emancipation Proclamation [00:35:11]
Now, after the war broke out immediately some slaves began to come into Union lines. The first were at a fort in Florida, and then as early as May 1861, some slaves began to come into Union lines, handfuls, near Fortress Monroe in Virginia. And there was a Union commander there, a political general, a former Democrat, before the war, and anything but an abolitionist, Benjamin F. Butler, who nevertheless when these slaves came into his lines, he realized, no, wait a second, the Confederates are over there using these people to build their fortifications, maybe we could use them to build our fortifications. So why don’t we confiscate them and call them contraband of war? They’re property under the law, call them contraband. And the name stuck, of course, and that name will end up in poetry and in song, and even in a law or two; contraband property. But, at the outset of the war, in the summer of ‘61, fall, winter of ‘61/’62, into the spring of ‘62, the first year of the war, the official policy of the Lincoln administration and of the Union forces, across the land, the official policy, was called denial of asylum. It meant that any slave who escaped into Union lines, the officer in charge and command of that unit had the responsibility to return that slave to his owner, if the owner — this was the impossible kicker — if the owner was loyal to the Union. If that owner was not loyal to the Union and was in the Confederate army or something, then yes, you could admit that slave to your lines as contraband of war.
Now, of course if this had only been a trickle of people here and there, coming into Union lines, possibly this could be enforced. But it wasn’t enforceable. How’s that Union commander going to go out and figure out, hey, mister enslaved person, is your owner loyal or disloyal to the Union? That slave is probably going to say, “He’s a Confederate, what do you think?” And, of course, most were. Now, Congress took the lead before Lincoln ever wrote an Emancipation Proclamation, although Lincoln was thinking about this and working on this all through that summer of 1862. Congress took the lead. Now this was a Congress, remember, that is now dominated by the Republican Party. You got eleven southern states out of the Union. They don’t have any senators, they don’t even have members in the House of Representatives. This is a northern Republican majority, significant majority. Now, they’re going to run into trouble in the fall congressional elections of 1862, and they’re going to lose some of those seats because of what they’re doing now. Congress took the lead; it passed an Article of War in March of 1862 which said that fugitive slaves must be admitted to Union camps. It didn’t say what their status would be, it didn’t define anybody. It left their legal status vague. It just said any escaped slave must now be admitted.
Now, the reason they did that is because this denial of asylum policy had caused chaos in a lot of Union units. A brief example. Remember this guy Charles Brewster whose letters I read from the other day; this guy from Massachusetts whose letters I edited and so on? Well Charlie Brewster, this racist from Northampton, Massachusetts, 28-years-old by now, nevertheless in the late fall of 1861, he took a runaway slave who was 17-years-old and named David, into his personal care — he made him his personal servant. This is after Brewster got his commission as an officer. He even wrote home to his sister, several times, asking his sister to send stocking caps, socks, an old pair of pants. He even named the shirts that he wanted to put on his David; it was as though he was dressing him. And Brewster was determined never to send that kid back to slavery. But down came the orders, by January, early February 1862, that all fugitive slaves within their camps must be returned to their owners, if those owners came to the Union lines to retrieve them. And the fugitive named David had his owner waiting at the camp. There was a near mutiny in the 10thMassachusetts, which was Brewster’s regiment, between those soldiers who wanted to protect these fugitive slaves and free them, in effect, and those who did not. And this went on in hundreds of regiments. Brewster was threatened with court martial and being run out of the Army if he didn’t give back this fugitive slave. His compromise was that he took this young David out into the woods and he said, “Get out of here, run. I’ll just tell them you ran away.” And that’s what he did.
By that spring, Congress decided any fugitive slave who escapes to Union lines must be accepted. In April of 1862, Congress, on the 16th of April — and this was a very significant law — they passed abolition, the end of slavery in the District of Columbia. They gave $300 per slave in compensation to those owners of slaves in the district. The District of Columbia in 1862 had 3,100 slaves. They also put up, I think the figure was about $300,000.00 in that bill, where they provided for the possible colonization of blacks voluntarily to foreign countries as a result of emancipation, a policy the Lincoln administration now was supporting. Then third, in June of ‘62, Congress, by majority vote, sort of threw a great deal of American history on the dust heap and they abolished slavery forever in the Western Territories; arguably the single most important cause of the Civil War. A stroke of the pen, in June of ‘62, they ended slavery, in spite of the Dred Scott decision. Now, remember what the Dred Scott decision had said. Here was Congress passing a law in direct opposition to a Supreme Court decision. It’s an argument for not having too many civil wars, you see, because Congress might end up doing anything in the midst of a civil war, and they surely did here. And then finally, on July 17, 1862, Congress passed what was called the Second Confiscation Act. There’d been a First Confiscation Act passed back in August of ‘61. Even in the First Confiscation Act — and by the way, these were acts authorizing Union forces to confiscate Confederate property. Even in the First Confiscation Act, back in August of 1861, slaves were mentioned as property; their status was still very vague. But in the Second Confiscation Act, July ‘62, the law explicitly freed slaves of all persons, quote, “in rebellion,” anywhere; any slave of anyone supporting the Confederacy. It did everything the Emancipation Proclamation will later do and then some. It was in some ways more extensive because it included all parts of the South, including those Border States that had not seceded from the Union.
Now, with Congress already having done these things, by July of ‘62 — and by the way, this is all during the Peninsula Campaign, down in Virginia. The Second Confiscation Act was passed in the immediate wake of the Seven Days battle. Lee is deciding to invade the North. Lincoln, as you may know the story — if you’ve read Team of Rivals by Doris Goodwin you know it — would hang out at the War Department. He’d go there for some solitude. He had a private little office there. He began to draft an Emancipation Proclamation as a legal brief, a legal document, and he kept it in a locked door of a desk at the War Department. Supposedly there was one or two guards that knew about it; I’m not sure about that. But he was beginning to draft an Emancipation Proclamation probably as early as June, certainly by July of ‘62. The pressure now mounted from every direction. He secretly held meetings with a delegation of Delaware, and a delegation from Kentucky, trying to convince them to institute gradual emancipation plans over time with compensation to slave owners that would free slaves over a 35-year period. This was Lincoln the gradualist, this was Lincoln trying to condition public opinion. Delaware at that point only had 1,800 slaves. There were far more slaves in the District of Columbia than there were in all of Delaware. But the Delaware delegation that came to the White House to meet with Lincoln told him unequivocally no, they weren’t going to touch slavery for fear of what it might ignite.
Lincoln waited and waited. He was attacked by Horace Greeley in the New York Herald Tribune, as you know. Read the famous Greeley letter in the Johnson Collection. This is the famous passage in August of ‘62 where Lincoln said, “I will save the Union by freeing all the slaves; or I will save the Union by freeing none of the slaves. My aim in the end is to save the Union.” But read that entire letter, not just that quote, I’m going to leave that to you; read the entire letter, because he’s actually honest on both sides of the semicolon. Look for his semicolon, and judge both sides. He’s a crafty cat, you got to read him closely. Lincoln needed a battlefield victory, he needed some kind of battlefield success, and he gets that of course with Antietam. In the wake of Antietam, five days afterwards, 22nd September ‘62, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. That preliminary Emancipation Proclamation said that slaves in the United States, in the states in rebellion, would be freed on January 1st. There was a carrot and a stick. The stick was emancipation and conquest, if the Union forces could ever do it; and the carrot was in effect he invited the Confederate states to throw down their arms, give up the war, come back to the Union, by January 1st. They’re not going to do it, of course, but he was hoping; or was he hoping?
Chapter 6. The Story of John Washington and Conclusion [00:47:35]
I’m going to leave you with this. Back in Virginia there was a young slave, twenty-two years-old. His name was John Washington. He’d grown up Fredericksburg, Virginia. Had a white father whom he never knew, a slave mother named Sarah. She taught him to read and write. He grows up an urban slave with lots of skills, highly valued, probably a brilliant young man. He got hired out five times in the late 1850s and the first year of the war. He married his sweetheart in January 1862 in the African Baptist Church in Fredericksburg. And he chose his moment of escape at the first appearance of Union forces along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg on the 18th of April, 1862. He left a narrative that he wrote after the war that I had the great good fortune to have lopped in my lap and have recently published a book about it. And in that narrative he tells this remarkable story of the day of his escape. He even drew a map of Fredericksburg of the day of his escape, including a glossary of sixteen sites and buildings and crossroads on that map, as though he wanted the world to see as well as hear his story. And John tells this story — he’s twenty-two years-old — he tells the story of all the white people evacuating Fredericksburg and his mistress, Mrs. Tolliver, is literally packing her china and her silver, and she says one day, “Now John, you’ll be with us tomorrow, you’ll be with us tomorrow.” She’s assuming his loyalty. And he says, “Yes Misses, yes Misses, I’ll be with you tomorrow.” And then his next scene is he’s got a hotel where he’s been hired out as a steward, almost like an assistant manager, and he describes all the white people fleeing the hotel and fleeing the streets of Fredericksburg, and he says he took the twelve workers up on the roof of the hotel — and the hotel was called The Shakespeare, I kid you not. He takes all the black workers up on the roof of the hotel where they could see across the river and see what he called “the gleam of the Yankees’ bayonets.” And then he brought them all back down into the kitchen and he poured a round of drinks, and he held a toast, and the toast was “To the Yankees.” And then he instructed his fellow workers, he said, to get out of there. “But,” he said, “don’t get too far from the Yankees.”
And then John Washington walked two blocks down to the river, he witnessed the formal surrender of Fredericksburg, he saw the bridges being burned by the Confederate forces, and he walked one mile up river, and he said he crossed the river at Fickland’s Mill; and the old stone ruins of that mill are still there. So I know exactly where he crossed the river. He got into a rowboat, he crossed, and that night he slept in the camp of the 30th New York Volunteers. A captain in that regiment named Ladd, l-a-d-d, formally freed him, he said, based on the law that had just been passed by Congress forty-eight hours earlier in Washington, freeing the slaves in the District of Columbia. John Washington spent the rest of that summer as a camp hand and a guide for the Union Army, all the way through Second Manassas. He dated his arrival in Washington, D.C. as part of the first great wave of freedmen into the capital, as September 1. And by the following year I found him in a City Directory record, living at his first address on 19th Street in Washington. He had his wife, his newborn child, his mother and his 68-year-old grandmother living there with him. Apart from, beneath, next to, underneath this great military and political story, thousands and thousands of John Washingtons are freeing themselves.
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