Lincoln went to war to get the South back into the Union. Although the war was mostly about slavery, his initial aim was not to abolish it. He wrote as much in a letter in 1862:
“[…] If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union […]”
Because of this stand, when runaway slaves headed north during the Civil War, at first the Union army returned them south, seeing it as somehow the honorable thing to do. Then they started considering the slaves as contraband, to be withheld from their rightful owners because it would thwart the Southern war effort. More Southern white men would have to stay home and work on the plantations to ensure continuation of the food supplies.
But the North still believed blacks should be kept out of the fight. They shouldn’t be enlisted as soldiers or given weapons. They feared that the weapons would end up in Confederate hands.
However, while Washington was arguing the issue, the Union generals in the field were faced with reality: lots of runaway slaves offering to help. The generals began freeing the slaves on the spot and giving them land or paying them to work on abandoned plantations in the areas that came under Union control.
This worked out extremely well and gradually the army began employing them as cooks, drivers, diggers, etc. Running more or less after the facts, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed all slaves in the rebel states. Black regiments were formed and by the end of the war about 10% of soldiers were black.
These are the reasons why the slaves were freed. It was more that the North was faced with a fait accompli than that they were all adamant abolitionists. This probably explains why the Reconstruction period was so short-lived. Why the North didn’t have the patience to keep federal troops in the South for longer.
Some people would argue that what-if exercises are pointless, but I do wonder what the country would look like now if the incredible changes made during Reconstruction had been continued, if there hadn’t been a hiatus of almost a century until the Civil Rights Movement regained the freedoms won in 1866.
Let me know your thoughts.
The next and probably last post in this series is a list of books and movies I recommend.