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‘Not Shed a Tear’ – Emancipation Before the Fighting

The idea is often put forward that up until the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Civil War was fought by the United States only to keep the Union together. It’s claimed that it was not until after the Proclamation, delivered on January 1, 1863, did it become a war to free the slaves. This, however, is not entirely accurate. From the start, especially to the more progressive ends of the Republican Party, the war was one to do both. It’s purpose was to reunite the nation, while its intended consequence was to abolish slavery. Nowhere is this made clearer than during the first summer of the war.

Emancipation at Fortress Monroe.
The influx of self-emancipated slaves into Fortress Monroe.

The Butler Precedent

By the time of the battle, nearly 900 slaves had already escaped into the arms of United States-held Fortress Monroe near Norfolk, Virginia. General Benjamin Butler, a Democrat and hardly an abolitionist, began accepting and even encouraging local slaves to run away, offering them shelter and paying jobs. Beginning in late May of 1861, Butler began to ask the War Department about the status of these escaped slaves.

While their final status would have to wait for Congress, Butler was, in the meantime, told to continue doing what he was doing. “Your action in respect to the negroes who came within your lines, from the service of the Rebels, is approved,” wrote Secretary of War Simon Cameron on May 30th, following a Cabinet meeting and discussion with President Lincoln. This was the first official emancipation of slaves by the United States government during the Civil War, and it was accomplished months before the first battle of the war took place. 1Official Records, Series 3, Vol. 1, p243. First land battle was the Battle of Philippi, western Virginia, on June 3, 1861.

Cameron mentioned that the question of the slaves’ “final disposition” would come later. This was taken up by Congress in July, a couple of weeks prior to Manassas. Lincoln’s approval of Butler’s actions were specific to Butler. That spring, some Union commanders, such as George McClellan, had been returning slaves escaping into Union lines to their owners. While others, such as Col. Harvey Brown, commanding at Fort Pickens, Florida, vowed that he “shall not send the negroes back as I will never be voluntarily instrumental in returning a poor wretch to slavery but will hold them subject to orders” from Washington. 2Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 1, p755. June 22, 1861. It was clear that Congress had to decide upon a strict course of action.

Alfred R. Wald's sketch of escaped slaves at Newport News, Virginia.
Alfred R. Wald’s sketch of escaped slaves at Newport News, Virginia.

Congress Supports Emancipation Before Manassas

When Congress began meeting, in early July, they immediately took up the debate. Though Lincoln was not part of it, he had the ear of Orville Browning, a senator from Illinois. Both agreed “that the government neither should, nor would send back to bondage such as came to our armies.” 3Orville Hickman Browning Diary, July 8, 1861. (Springfield: Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, 1925) 476-477. This was echoed in the House by Illinois’ Owen Lovejoy, who introduced a resolution stating that “it is no part of the duty of the soldiers of the United States to capture and return fugitive slaves.” Though this was approved along party lines 93 to 55, it never made it to the Senate. 4The American Annual Cyclopædia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1861(New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1863) 227.

The mood there was a bit different, with Ohio’s Clement Vallandingham and Kentucky’s Lazarus Powell, each introducing provisos winking at Lovejoy’s. Both stated that United States troops had no business “abolishing or interfering with African slavery in any of the states.” 5Congressional Globe, First Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress (Washington: Congressional Globe Office, 1861) 77.

This was an obvious impasse. While the conservative Democrats wished the war to be about only the Union, the President, with the approval of many of the Republicans, had already set a precedent. While the Senate defeated Vallandingham and Powell’s resolutions 33 to 4, on July 18th – three days before the battle – they were less apt to go much farther. 6Ibid., 194. The four voting for Powell’s resolution were Powell, John Breckinridge (who would soon join the Confederacy), as well as Missouri’s Trusten Polk and Waldo Johnson (who would also soon join the Confederacy).

The day before the battle, Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois introduced the first Confiscation bill, which dealt entirely with how to handle the property of Rebels. Though it initially had nothing to do with slavery, Trumbull introduced his own amendment to the bill, which held that any slave who aided the Rebellion “shall be henceforth discharged” from such service. 7Ibid., 217. As Trumbull merely introduced the amendment, it would not be debated until after the battle – after the rumors of Confederate slaves greatly aiding the Rebels had flowed back into Washington with the troops.

Stereograph showing a group of seven African American men, former slaves, dressed in old Union uniforms standing in front of a wagon and shack.
Stereograph showing a group of seven African American men, former slaves, dressed in old Union uniforms standing in front of a wagon and shack.

The Battle, the Defeat, and the Rumors

Following the defeat of the Union Army at Manassas, July 21, 1861, the beaten soldiers returned to Washington with tales of war in all its horrors. Among the words of blood and thunder were mixed reports of how the Confederate army used its slaves.

Prior to the battle, the press reported that between 12,000 and 20,000 slaves were being utilized to build fortifications and entrenchments, thus freeing up white soldiers for the fray. Following the defeat, the Northern troops carried rumors of black slaves impressed into the service. These rumors grew from a few sharpshooters to entire regiments of slaves. While there’s more than enough proof that some Confederate masters forced their slaves to fight, the rumors of the Rebel army being greatly aided by slavery was a wake up call for the North. 8For more on these rumors, including quotes from the press, see Glenn David Brasher Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation (University of North Carolina Press, 2012) 50-53.

The greatest contribution made by the Confederate slaves prior to the battle was in building defenses. Their use as forced labor allowed the untrained white volunteers to be properly and quickly instructed in the school of the soldier. P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Southern forces, mentioned the Virginians who, “by the gratuitous labor of whose slaves the intrenched camp at Manassas had been mainly constructed, relieving the troops form that laborious service, and giving opportunity for their military instruction.” 9Official Records, Series 1, Vol.2, 501.

Congress After the Battle

From the votes defeating Powell’s resolution, it might be easy to assume that Trumbull’s amendment would easily be adopted by Congress. Of course, it’s impossible to say just how the Senate would have reacted to it on July 22nd if there had been no battle, no defeat, no rumors, on July 21st. But had it not been for the battle, and especially the confirmation that thousands of slaves were forced by their masters to aid the Confederate army – some possibly even in arms – lit the first under both conservative and progressive senators.

John Breckinridge was the first to speak out against it, though he said little apart from noting that “this amendment strikes me as very objectionable.” But this was all Trumbull needed to let loose his fury. After explaining in detail the purpose of the amendment, Trumbull expressed that he was happy to hold the vote upon the measure “to let us see who is willing to vote that the traitorous owner of a negro shall employ him to shoot down the Union men of the country, and yet insist upon restoring him to the traitor that owns him.” Trumbull concluded by addressing Breckinridge, saying that if he was “in favor of restoring them, let him vote against the amendment.”

But Breckinridge played it cool, slagging off Trumbull’s remarks as “altogether uncalled for.” He would give no counter argument, but seemed resigned to the fact that the Senate would agree to “a general confiscation of all property,” including slaves.

Coming to Trumbull’s defense, Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, seemed even hotter, vowing to “vote with more heart” than he would otherwise have voted. “The idea that men who are in arms destroying their country shall be permitted to use others for that purpose, and that we shall stand by and issue orders to our commanders, that we should disgrace our cause and our country, by returning such men to their traitorous masters, ought no longer be entertained.” Though the war had just started, Wilson demanded that “the time has come for that to cease; and, by the blessing of God, as far as I am concerned, I mean it shall cease.”

John Breckinridge and a "retouched" portrait.
John Breckinridge and a “retouched” portrait.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had been a sour point for even moderate free-soilers, and now, as progressive Republicans, this was their chance to effectively kill it. “I think the time as come when this Government,” continued Wilson, “should cease to return to traitors their fugitive slaves, whom they are using to erect batteries to murder brave men who are fighting under the flag of their country.” Like Trumbull, Wilson addressed Breckinridge, hoping that “there is a public sentiment in this country that will blast men who will rise in the Senate or out of it to make apologies for treason, or to defend or to maintain the doctrine that this Government is bound to protect traitors in converting their slaves into tools for the destruction of the Republic.”

Breckinridge brushed it off, telling Wilson that he “speaks to the wind.” He and his supporters would not be influenced “in the discharge of their public duties by any such course of remark.”

And then there was New Jersey’s John C. Ten Eyck. He had been on Trubull’s committee and had voted against the amendment, believing that rebellious enslavers would never use their slaves in such a way. Ten Eyck made it clear that he did “not want them in our section of the Union,” but put his prejudicial feelings aside long enough to vote in favor it it “with less regard to what may become of these people than I had on Saturday.” The battle, and the word spread of Confederate slaves following the battle, had changed his mind. That there were now believed to be slaves “with arms in their hands to shed the blood of the Union-loving men of this country,” he thought differently.

Though not a full ally of Breckinridge, James Pearce of Maryland spoke strictly of Unionism and questioned the constitutionality of such emancipation. He wondered how it would be enforced, and worried that it would “only add one more to the irritations which are already exasperating the country to far too great an extent.” But these were words that made more sense before 4,500 Americans became casualties not thirty miles southwest. While such a Confiscation Act would certainly irritate, what might now be considered “far too great an extent” after such a bloodletting? 10Ibid., 218-219.

Confederate fortifications built at Manassas by black slaves. 1862.
Confederate fortifications built at Manassas by black slaves. 1862.

What Did Manassas Change?

Curiously, the battle changed little in the minds of Congress. Twice before had the progressive Republicans voted in favor of emancipation. 11By voting against the Powell resolution, and voting in favor of Lovejoy’s. This is incredibly significant. Prior to Manassas, the general outlook on the war, with its few and sporadic skirmishes, was that it would be short and relatively uneventful. Despite the notion of a brief conflict, the majority of Congress – now becoming what would forever be known as “The North,” were fully in favor of emancipation. While Manassas shocked and even angered them, it changed only a few moderates, whose votes would still not give pro-slavery Unionists anything close to a majority. The battle certainly gathered the Northern resolve to win the war, but it did not change their already-emancipationist views.

The First Confiscation Act would pass both the House and Senate by August 6, 1861, with Trumbull’s amendment more or less in tact. While it emancipated the slaves from the former owners, it gave the United States government de facto ownership of them, though even this was fairly ambiguous. 12You can read the full text of the act here.

This ambiguity would be addressed the following year with the Second Confiscation Act, and then the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Finally, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation in full and the matter would be settled – they were “henceforth and forever free.”

What is important to note, however, is just how early this drive for emancipation began. Not only were there simple stirrings and rumblings, but actual votes were taken and actual laws were passed that actually freed people enslaved by Confederate masters.

1851c poster warning slaves who escaped to Boston.
1851c poster warning slaves who escaped to Boston.

Why Not More?

The logical question, upon learning of the early successes of emancipation, is why couldn’t the Republicans do more? Why couldn’t they go all the way, freeing the slaves of the South as well as the North?

While this is a subject for a much headier piece, it can be boiled down to their understanding of the Constitution. For the most part, the believed that the Federal government had no authority to either free the slaves or abolish slavery. Since there was some precedence for military emancipation, however, they understood that, as a war measure, slaves of those at war with the United States could be emancipated. 13See the post I wrote about this here.

In another sense, asking “why not more?” is misunderstanding just how much they accomplished. The Republican Party was founded only seven years before. Through that time, they had dealt with and overcome a defeat in a Presidential election, as well as blows against their pro-abolitionist cause such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

Prior to secession, the Republican plan was merely to disallow slavery to extend into the territories. After secession, however, they saw an opportunity to end slavery for good. Before the first muskets were fired, before men were killing and dying, even before armies were gathered, schooled, and arrayed for battle, the progressive Republicans, starting with Lincoln who approved Butler’s actions at Fortress Monroe, were launching their attacks against slavery.

And so, even as the Confederate armies bested those of the United States through 1861, 1862 and much of 1863, the Republicans were winning the march toward not only emancipation but abolition of slavery. How could they have done more? Though they could not legally fight a conflict to free the slaves, they openly waged war with the intent that slavery would be destroyed as a repercussion.

“If slavery shall be abolished, shall be overthrown as a consequence of this war,” spoke Senator Ira Harris of New York on July 25, 1861, “I shall not shed a tear over that result….” 14Congressional Globe, First Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress (Washington: Congressional Globe Office, 1861) 259.

Anonymous escaped slave.
Anonymous escaped slave.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.