Beyond the many political demands on him, Lincoln personally had to think the emancipation question through a little more carefully than the soldiers calling for immediate action did. He was no less anxious for slavery to die –at least in the abstract—but how mattered to him more than it did to soldiers, as did longterm questions about what should happen after slavery. His reservations meant that where Union soldiers urged action, Lincoln maintained a look-before-you-leap attitude. As late as 1862, he still harbored reservations about whether black and white could co-exist peacefully, as he made quite clear when he summarily dismissed the delegation of black men who visited the White House that August.[14] Lincoln was also a genuine devotee of legal process, with equal emphasis on “legal” and “process,” so he initially favored ending slavery through some sort of gradual, compensated program. The end result was that well into the second year of the war, Lincoln endeavored to keep the focus of the war on what was for him the less ambiguous question: the survival of the Union as the world’s last, best hope for self-government and the triumph of principles like human equality.

     Yet Lincoln could not keep the questions of Union and emancipation separate indefinitely. The utter conviction that slavery was wrong was a genuine constant in his life, and it did not disappear even when it seemed to get buried by other wartime problems. Events in 1862 helped to bring that ingrained conviction closer to the surface. The war did not go as planned, and that meant he would have to consider new alternatives. Moreover, three groups of people saw to it that even if he had wanted to duck the slavery question, he could not. One consisted of northern abolitionists, black and white, who comprised a tiny minority of the northern population, but who kept pressure on the slavery question high.[15]

     Another group was slaves themselves who saw through, ignored, or were otherwise undeterred by official pronouncements about a war for Union but not slavery. They kept running to Union Army camps, kept making themselves indispensable, and kept the slavery question squarely in the face of officers, who in turn kept writing to Washington for guidance on what to do about slaves and slavery. Even if all that Lincoln wanted to read was plain, unadorned war news on the telegraph wires that he checked almost as obsessively as modern-day Americans check their e-mail, he could not escape the slavery question because runaway slaves would not let him. Generals in the field were constantly informing the President that they had acted on news from an “intelligent contraband,” or asking how to handle the clashes between local civilians and runaway slaves. By the summer of 1862, the contraband phenomenon had literally hit home for Lincoln. He spent much of that summer with his family in a cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home on the outskirts of Washington, and commuted into the White House each day. One of the routes he commonly took went right past a contraband camp. His family’s cook at the cottage, Mary Dines, had herself passed through that camp.[16] Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker and confidant to Mary Lincoln, worked for the Contraband Relief Association in Washington, and at her urging, Mrs. Lincoln lobbied the President to channel some war relief funds toward blankets and other supplies for contrabands in Washington.[17] Simply put, contrabands gave Lincoln little choice but to take them seriously, and to begin to treat slavery less as an abstraction and more as a concrete reality that needed addressing.

     The third group was Union soldiers. By 1862, the average soldier in blue was genuinely fond of the President. As a Connecticut soldier put it, Lincoln’s “popularity in the army is and has been universal.”[18] Yet that fondness did not prevent impatience with the dawdling federal government for failing to grasp what to soldiers was the plain fact that winning the war meant ending slavery. Frustrated with Lincoln’s caution, a Wisconsin soldier spat, “Great God what a system!  And still, our Government handles slavery as tenderly as a mother would her first born.  When shall it be stricken down as the deadly enemy of freedom, virtue and mankind?”[19]  Lincoln called soldiers “thinking bayonets” and had genuine respect for their opinions. Lincoln often stopped to speak to the enlisted men who guarded him, which got him into the habit of taking soldiers’ ideas seriously. He brought that habit with him when he went to visit troops in the field.   

     One such visit took place in June 1862, when Lincoln went to see General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. We remember that visit partly for the “Harrison’s Landing” letter in which McClellan warned Lincoln that a “declaration of radical views” on the slavery question would “rapidly disband” the Army.[20] Had Lincoln not gone to visit the troops himself, he might have taken McClellan’s letter at face value; historians certainly have. But McClellan consistently over-estimated the odds against any plan he opposed personally, and he opposed emancipation.[21] In stark contrast to McClellan, Union soldiers like Luther Furst were saying things like, “The more I see of slavery the more I think it should be abolished,” or, in the more poetic words of Thomas Low, “As long as we ignore the fact (practically) that Slavery is the basis of this struggle so long are we simply heading down a vigorously growing plant that will continually spring up and give new trouble at very short intervals.  We must emancipate.”[22]  These men had tied together Union and emancipation, and as that summer progressed, Lincoln did too.

     For a time, Lincoln kept that recognition to himself. When abolitionist newspaper editor Horace Greeley chastised him in the summer of 1862 for not taking a definite stand against slavery, Lincoln replied with what looked like the same Union-first line he had been employing all along. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” Lincoln told Greeley. “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.”[23] What is really significant about that letter is the linking of Union with emancipation: Lincoln would act as he acted because he saw the fates of slavery and the Union as somehow linked. He sounded a similar note on September 13, 1862 when a delegation of ministers presented emancipation petitions. Lincoln firmly told the ministers, “I view the matter as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion.”[24]

     At the very time that he wrote that letter to Greeley, at the very time he answered the pro-emancipation ministers, Lincoln had sitting in his desk a draft of what would become the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a document that declared “forever free” all slaves located in areas still in rebellion against the Union as of January 1, 1863. The Proclamation did so by defining such a move as military necessity, which is to say as a move necessary for the life of the Union.

     After the Battle of Antietam in September, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and he publicly credited “those who, upon the battle field, are endeavoring to purchase with their blood and their lives the future happiness and prosperity of this country,” because their efforts made the Proclamation possible.[25] From then on, emancipation was an official Union war aim. Then Lincoln went back to the field to see McClellan, to be sure, but also to see the regular soldiers whose attitudes more closely aligned with his own, men like Hervey Howe who admitted to his brother, “I have seene [sic] fighting enough but if necessary will stay my whole term of enlistment” in order to achieve the “noble end” of the Proclamation, which was “to let the oppressed go free.”[26] Some soldiers were impatient that it had taken the President so long to finally move on the slavery question. Iowan Quincy Campbell, remarked, “his proclamation would have been in better time. . .  if it had been made a year ago.  But better late than never.”[27] Still, by and large, Lincoln must have been gratified to encounter men who shared the outlook of one Levi Hines, who was so excited that even though he knew he would have to fall in for drill before he could finish a complete sentence in a letter to his parents, scribbled down “The late proclamation of the President makes it a war on Slavery and I am as ready to die fighting” before dashing out of his tent. He later finished the thought by writing “for the purpose of ending that hellish curse of our country.”[28]

     For the rest of the year, the practical links between Union and emancipation remained prominent for Lincoln, in big ways and small. The biggest was that he issued the final version of the Proclamation on January 1, but other ways abounded. When a Kentucky slaveholder wrote to complain that nearby Union soldiers were harboring runaway slaves and to ask Lincoln to intervene, Lincoln refused, because to return escaped slaves to bondage would be to act against “the life of the nation.”[29]  That same idea comprised a main theme of Lincoln’s December 1862 Message to Congress, in which he asserted, “in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.” For the more hardheaded, Lincoln underscored his practical belief that emancipation “would shorten the war.[30]"

     Response to the Final Emancipation Proclamation was mixed, as Lincoln knew it would be, but despite a few notable exceptions, soldiers embraced Lincoln’s move as exactly the medicine they had been prescribing for what ailed the Union. Thanks to the “great proclamation of President Lincoln Jan. 1st,” a Vermont corporal explained to his parents, “Human liberty is to be planted on a firmer basis than ever before.”[31]

                 To recap: Union and liberty for all were linked in a utilitarian sense for Union soldiers by the fall of 1861 and for Lincoln by the fall of 1862. But the unrelenting ferocity of the war insisted that a mere utilitarian linkage was not enough. As early as the summer of 1862, a Kansas private had wondered, “if all this untold expense of blood and treasure, of toil and suffering, of want and sacrifice, of grief and mourning is . . . to result in no greater good than the restoration of the Union as it was,” then the war would “result in no real and lasting good.” Only “the rights of human nature and universal human freedom” could justify the sacrifice.[32] For Lincoln, too, the scale of the war and the awful everpresence of loss, seemed to demand more than utilitarianism, more than pragmatism. By the war’s midpoint, loss was simply everywhere for Lincoln.[33] Day after day, the telegraph transmitted unrelenting lists of lives cut short.[34] Lincoln was still grieving for the loss of his own young son, Willie, who had died of disease the previous year. How could endless lists of other people’s dead sons not affect him? Lincoln’s summer cottage at the Soldiers’ Home overlooked an ever-growing soldiers’ cemetery; 8,000 fresh graves confronted the President every day as he left in the morning and came home in the evening.[35] In the face of all that terrible loss, he would need to tie Union and emancipation together not merely in the guarded, hedge-one’s-bets realm of practicality, but in the riskier realm of principle.


Previous Page | Next Page

www.soldierstudies.org