Can Soldiers Tell Us Anything about Lincoln?
BY Chandra M. Manning

In this bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, it is easy to feel a little overwhelmed by the deluge of books, articles, and newspaper columns on the sixteenth president, and to begin to wonder if there could possibly be anything left to say. Yet for all of what a later age might call “exposure” –for all that we can find books on Lincoln’s friends, marriage, summer home, speeches, and more besides—stubborn mysteries persist. One of them is, how did a man who genuinely hated slavery but who was also worried about the legality and aftereffects of its sudden destruction, become a President willing to wield federal power to achieve the immediate destruction of slavery? It is very easy, in trying to answer that question, to get trapped into a tiresome and uninspiring debate about whether Lincoln was a near-mythic superhero, singlehandedly saving the nation and ridding it of evil in a single bound, or a hypocritical racist forced by circumstances beyond his control to take actions that he would preferred not to have taken, but at least cheered by the opportunity to wield power, which pleased his tyrannical side. Neither caricature really tells us very much about Lincoln, or about emancipation. Yet if we widen our angle of inquiry to look at Lincoln and emancipation in a broader frame that also includes Union soldiers, we might see new possibilities. It would be too much to claim that soldiers convinced Lincoln to end slavery, but the war in which both Lincoln and soldiers were swept up changed all of them in similar and related ways. In short, Union soldiers’ firsthand observations of slavery, interactions with slaves, and experience of a war far more terrible than they expected convinced them that the only way to win the war and save the Union was to end slavery. The length and ferocity of the war later convinced many of them that the end of slavery had to be for principled rather than simply utilitarian reasons, because the whole nation, and not just the South, was implicated in slavery. Lincoln’s own observations of slaves and freedpeople in the nation’s capital, the changing attitudes of Union soldiers, and the profound and pervasive loss brought by a terrible war propelled Lincoln along a path from sincere dislike of slavery and an abstract desire for it to end someday to a willingness to use federal power to emancipate immediately. His path also went from a pragmatic stage to a principled one. One of his greatest accomplishments as leader was to recognize that soldiers and slaves had blazed that path, and then to bring the nation as a whole along it, too.

     That Abraham Lincoln hated slavery is undeniable. As he put it, “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.”[1] He hated it for all sorts of reasons. He hated it because it concentrated too much power and wealth in the hands of too few people. He hated it because it violated his basic belief in the right of every human being to rise in the world. He hated it because it went against the grain of his economic principles. He hated it because it made a mockery of the nation’s Founders and their ideals, and because it shamelessly elevated self-interest into an accepted justification for individual behavior. Above all, he hated it “because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.”[2]

     Lincoln’s attitudes toward race were more complicated. On numerous occasions before the war, he insisted “very frankly that I am not in favor of negro citizenship,” even though several states did recognize African Americans as citizens.[3] His early support for ending slavery was accompanied by the supposition that freed slaves would leave the country, and as late as 1862 he had not entirely let go of his preference for that outcome. The supposition was based less on vicious antipathy toward people who looked differently than he did than on a fatalistic presumption that whites and blacks could not coexist harmoniously. He stated pointblank, “there is a physical difference between the two [races], which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and . . . I . . . am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” That presumption grew in part from his doubts that white people could overcome their own deepseated prejudices. “A universal feeling,” which he believed white prejudice to be, “whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded,” he cautioned in 1858, and he made a similar point in 1862 when he told a delegation of black men who visited him in the White House that “there is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us.”[4] But whatever its source, the result was that for most of his life Lincoln saw whites and blacks as separate, unequal, and bound to stay that way.

     For white Northerners, including Lincoln, slavery and race were two distinct subjects, and therefore it was entirely possible to hate slavery and believe in black inferiority at the same time. Lincoln’s belief for most of his life in racial inequality does not somehow invalidate his desire for slavery to end. That belief did, however, prevent Lincoln from advocating immediate emancipation for much of his life, partly because he lacked a clear plan for what should follow slavery in a land where he doubted that whites and blacks could live as equals.

     If Lincoln’s ideas about race were complex, on the topic of the government of the United States, his ideas were crystal clear. He genuinely loved the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence with a reverence that bordered on religious devotion, and he regarded the Constitution and the Union as the necessary safeguards for those principles. In his view, the survival of the Union was far more than a matter of political power or territorial sovereignty. It mattered not just for Americans. It mattered for all humanity.  In his First Message to Congress, Lincoln affirmed that the war “embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy –a government of the people, by the same people –can, or cannot” succeed. The Union had to survive in order to prove that republican government, established by the Founders on principles of liberty and equality and administered though free and fair elections, could survive. If the Union was destroyed, human beings everywhere would be forced to draw the grim conclusion that self-government based on ideals enunciated in the Declaration of Independence could not work.[5]

     The view that Lincoln articulated in the Message was not unique to him, but rather was shared by many Northerners, and was especially prevalent in the ranks of the Union Army. From the very beginning, soldiers like Indiana private W.D. Wildman insisted, “the Union is not only the citadel of our liberty, but the depostory of the hopes of the human race.”[6] Nearly three years later in the darkest days of the war, Corporal George Cadman continued to urge his wife to remember that if he was hurt or killed, “it will be not only for my Country and my Children but for Liberty all over the World . . . for if Liberty should be crushed here, what hope would there be for the cause of Human progress anywhere else?”[7]

     Right from the very beginning, some Americans recognized that if the Union was supposed to stand for universal principles, then it could not be separated from the issue of slavery. Most such Americans were black. Just weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter, a black newspaper in New York admonished, no adjustment of the nation’s difficulty is possible until the claims of the black man are first met and satisfied . . . If you would restore the Union and maintain the government you so fondly cherish, make way for liberty, universal and complete.”[8] By the time those words made it into print, enslaved black Southerners had already begun making their way into Union Army camps; they knew full well that the fact of their bondage had brought the two halves of the nation to blows, and they further knew that their fate and that of the Union were intertwined.

     It did not take long did not take long for much of the Union rank-and-file to draw the same conclusion. As a group of Wisconsin soldiers put it, “the fact that slavery is the sole undeniable cause of this infamous rebellion, that it is a war of, by, and for Slavery, is as plain as the noon-day sun.”[9] For them, there was nothing complicated about the coming of the war: Confederates seceded from the Union in order to protect slavery from a President who opposed its extension. Like it or not, that made the war about slavery. And the more they saw slavery with their own eyes, the more convinced they became. Between August and December 1861 a striking pattern took shape, as soldier after soldier began to insist that since slavery had caused the war, only the destruction of slavery could end the war. “You have no idea of the changes that have taken place in the minds of the soldiers in the last two months,” one enlisted man told his neighbors back home in October 1861. Seeing the South and slavery with their own eyes forced men who cared little about slavery “to face this sum of all evils, and cause of the war.” As a result, “men of all parties seem unanimous in the belief that to permanently establish the Union, is to first wipe [out] the institution” of slavery.” In short, “The rebellion is abolitionizing the whole army.”[10] 

     Interactions with the hundreds, and then thousands, of slaves who ran to Union Army camps –the so-called “contrabands”- made many men in blue even more sure. Sometimes the plight of the contrabands simply touched the humanity within a hardbitten soldier. A Michigan officer had “always been very bitter on the abolitionists,” but when 20 contrabands proved themselves willing to face a treacherous river to get to freedom, he spent “more than 3 hours in water up to his waist” to help them get across, and when asked about his actions merely shrugged “he had to help them.”[11] Frank necessity also changed soldiers’ minds. They needed former slaves. Contrabands were willing to labor to keep camps running. Union troops did not know the local terrain. Black Southerners did. Blacks coming into Union lines also often knew what the enemy was up to. Army records are full of officers’ reports about close calls averted thanks to reports from “intelligent contrabands.” Ordinary soldiers commented on the phenomenon frequently, as well. A Wisconsin private noted that a company in his regiment “was probably saved from destruction while on picket two weeks ago, by a slave giving them notice that they were to be attacked.” “Our only friends here are the slaves,” the private concluded, and any good soldier knew to look out for his friends.[12]

     In sum, throughout the rank-and-file, enlisted soldiers reasoned that only elimination of the war’s cause would end the rebellion and prevent its recurrence. Further, seeing the reality of slavery impressed upon them how much crueler it was than they imagined, and their own reliance on the aid of local blacks taught them that their interests and the ultimate success of their cause were closely allied with the interests of the enslaved. For these reasons, many in the Union Army championed the destruction of slavery a full year ahead of the Emancipation Proclamation, well before most civilians or political leaders did. And they did not just do so in the privacy of their own minds or in the camaraderie of camp. They wrote vociferous letters –to families, neighbors, and friends, to local newspapers, to their elected officials, to the President—arguing forcefully that if the Union wanted to win, it had no choice but to get rid of slavery.

     Now for the obligatory caveats. First the obvious one: at no point did the entire Union Army agree on anything at all, let alone a matter as weighty as emancipation. From beginning to end, a vocal minority of Union soldiers objected to emancipation. Second, calling for emancipation was not the same as calling for racial equality. Especially in the war’s early seasons, Union troops found it very easy to oppose slavery and insist on black inferiority all at the same time. A soldier named Adelbert Bly was quite direct about it: “I have a great deal of sympathy for the slave,” he told his sweetheart, “but I like the Negro the further off the better.”[13]

     And third, Lincoln did not move as fast as the men in the ranks did. He had a more complex array of duties than they did, and chief among those duties in 1861 was keeping the Border Slaves states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri in the Union. He knew that the surefire way to lose them was to threaten slavery. When Union Army commanders like John C. Frémont and David Hunter made bold moves against slavery, the President rescinded them. Lincoln also knew some civilians bitterly opposed emancipation. Union soldiers could try to preach the reluctance out of anti-emancipation stay-at-homes, but Lincoln needed political support too badly to risk alienating them.


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