Sunday, April 29, 2012

"There Remain No Slaves"

Historian Gary Gallagher on Emancipation & Union

"Contrabands escaping" by Edwin Forbes, May 29, 1864 (Courtesy LOC).

This past week, West Virginia University hosted the Dan and Betsy Brown Lecture Series.  Happily for me, this year's lecturers were historians Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia and Edward Ayers of the University of Richmond, introduced by Aaron Sheehan-Dean (my adviser here at WVU).  Dr. Ayers' discussion on the geography of emancipation will be detailed in a forthcoming entry.  Today, we will be examining some of Dr. Gallagher's thoughts on the developments of emancipation during the Civil War.

Gary Gallagher (UVA).
Gallagher's lecture was entitled "Wherever Our Army Has Been, There Remain No Slaves: The Union Army in the Equation of Emancipation." He delved into the Federals' varied roles in slave liberation.  Gallagher urged his audience to view emancipation as a diverse process not necessarily revolving around a single person or event.  As he noted, "The impact of the Union army should be central to any consideration of the process of emancipation.  To leave it out--whether to emphasize the movement toward freedom of hundreds of thousands of African Americans, Abraham Lincoln's continuing importance, or some other factor--prevents true understanding of one of the transformative movements in American history."  In other words, the notion of emancipation has been largely demilitarized in the consciousness of many historians, focusing instead on the broad political and social ramifications of escaped slaves, politicians, and President Lincoln. 

Some scholars, even James McPherson contends Gallagher, merely skim over the role of the Army in the path to slave freedom.  The president's goal of maintaining Union--the prime motivation of the northern war--could only be gained by striking slavery.  The military was the means of ensuring emancipation and thus securing the perpetuation of Federal Government. Lincoln himself stated as much in October 1864 to a contingent of soldiers: "It is said that we have the best Government the world ever knew, and I am glad to meet you, the supporters of that Government. To you who render the hardest work in its support should be given the greatest credit. Others who are connected with it, and who occupy high positions, their duties can be dispensed with, but we cannot get along without your aid. While others differ with the Administration, and, perhaps, honestly, the soldiers generally have sustained it; they have not only fought right, but, as far as could be judged from their actions, they have voted right, and I for one thank you for it." The idea of Union was central to every facet of the North's war and Lincoln perhaps realized this best.

But history has tended to frame Lincoln as the sole benefactor of the emancipation movement.  The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C. reveals as much.  As Gallagher believes, this perspective offers only a fraction of the truth.  The army is rarely acknowledged in the larger liberation process.  Unlike historian Barbara Fields, who argues slaves were their own agents of emancipation, Gallagher sees emancipation impossible without the presence of the military.  Only one out of seven slaves in bondage escaped the peculiar institution before war's end.  Those who successfully escaped did so because of the Union army's proximity to them.  And as Lt. Robert Gould Shaw (future commander of the 54th Massachusetts) wrote his abolitionist mother in late 1862:

"So the Proclamation of Emancipation, has come at last, or rather its forerunner. I suppose you are all very much excited about it. For my part, I can't see what practical good it can do now. Wherever our army has been there remain no slaves, and the Proclamation will not free them where we don't go. . . . Jeff Davis will soon issue a proclamation threatening to hang every prisoner they take, and will make this a war of extermination."
Robert G. Shaw.
Confederates too made the correlations between troops movements and slave liberation.  After all, a similar scenario occurred in 1780-81 during Lord Cornwallis' Southern Campaign in the Carolinas.  With British forces offering emancipation through black enlistment during the Revolution, droves of slaves fled back country plantations with hopes freedom.  Later, Confederate nationalists such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were not opposed to black recruitment because it would allow them to preserve slavery on their own terms.  This seemed a more suitable preference than defeat and the complete dismantling of slavery.  Yet, scores of Confederates disagreed at all levels of society.  One southern woman wrote, "Freeing negroes seems to be the latest Confederate government craze. . . . [I]f we are to lose our negroes we would soon as see Sherman free them as the Confederate government."  Similarly, one Mississippi representative exclaimed, "Victory itself would be robbed of its glory if shared with slaves!"  By placing African Americans on any level of equality with whites, Confederates would be undermining many of the reasons they seceded in the first place.

Gallagher concluded that "U. S. soldiers were not on a great crusade to kill this evil institution" of slavery despite the fact Confederates were out to preserve it in perpetuity.  Federals "wanted to kill it to further the goal of Union."  This fact, however, does not detract from the truth that saving the Union and killing slavery were completely compatible.  Soldiers were "engines of freedom" whether they realized it or not.  Few Americans in 1860 could have realized that slavery would be dead within five years, revealing just how transformative war can be.  Emancipation has evolved into the legacy of the American Civil War but its history is not as clear cut as it may seem.

 The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, circa 1880.  Muddling the causes and meanings of emancipation?


  1. Lincoln's views on abolition evolved as events in the war made it important to use abolition as a tool to preserve the Union by denying the South the use of slavery to bolster their war effort. And abolition ensured that Britain and France would not support the Confederacy on moral grounds. As early as 1861 General U.S. Grant was using run away slaves to support his troops at Cairo, Illinois. And General Benjamin Butler was using them at Fort Monroe, Virginia. It was Butler who coined the phrase "War contraband" to describe freed slaves who came inside Union lines.

  2. A great article on a fascinating topic! I agree with Dr. Gallagher's thesis that the causes of emancipation were "diverse". The parts played were many. Lincoln, anti-slavery groups, newspapers, conductors on the underground railroad, clergy, etc. - all played a role in this epic transformation. The fact that Union troops were a primary force in emancipation in no way diminishes the role, and the personal courage, of the many slaves who were themselves agents of their own freedom.

  3. Great points, John. In the following lecture, Ed Ayers said much the same thing. "The North did not end slavery. Individuals in the North ended slavery." It was a multi-faceted process to say the least.