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Slavery During the Civil War

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Although slavery was at the heart of the sectional impasse between North and South in 1860, it was not the single cause of the Civil War. Rather, it was the multitude of differences arising from the slavery issue that impelled the Southern states to secede from the union.

The presidential election of 1860 had resulted in the selection of a Republican, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, as president of the United States. Lincoln won because of an overwhelming Electoral College vote from the Northern states.(1) Not a single Southern slave state voted for Lincoln. Lincoln and his Republican party had pledged only to stop the expansion of slavery and not eliminate it. Although they promised to protect slavery where it existed, white Southerners were not persuaded. The election results demonstrated that the South was increasingly a minority region within the nation. Soon Northerners and slavery's opponents might accumulate the voting power to overturn the institution, no matter what Southerners had desired.

Many Southern radicals or fire-eaters, openly hoped for a Republican victory as the only way to help force Southern independence.(2) South Carolina had declared it would secede from the Union if Lincoln was elected, and it did so in December 1861. It was followed shortly by the other lower Southern states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. February 1861, a month before Lincoln was inaugurated, these states formed a new nation, the "Confederate States of America". After the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, the other slave states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the Confederacy. The border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remained--not entirely voluntarily--in the Union.

The new republic claimed its justification to be the protection of state rights. In truth, close reading of the states secession proclamations and of the new Confederate Constitution revealed that it was primarily a one state right that impelled their separation, the right to preserve slavery within their borders. But the South's decision to secede proved to be the worst possible choice it could have made in order to preserve that right.

There was enormous antislavery sentiment in the North, such sentiment was also strongly anti-Negro. Northerners did not wish slavery to expand into new areas of the nation, which they believed should be preserved for non-slaveholding settlers. This was, in part, why Republicans pledged to protect slavery where it existed. They and their constituencies did not want an influx of ex-slaves into their territories, should slavery end abruptly.

Some historians argue that, had the South remained within the Union, its representatives could have prevented any radical Northern plan for emancipation. By leaving the Union, Southerners gave up their voice in national councils. Moreover, by seceding, the South compelled the North to realize the extent of its allegiance to a united American nation. Thus, the North went to war to preserve the Union, and the South went to war for independence so that it might protect slavery. Most participants on both sides did not initially realize that the slaves might view the conflict as an occasion that they could turn to their own advantage.

In 1861, as the Civil War began, there were four open questions among Northerners and Southerners with regard to the slaves: First, would they rebel? Second, did they want their freedom? Third, would they fight for their freedom? And, finally, would they know what to do with their freedom if they got it? The answer to each question was yes, but in a manner that reflected the peculiar experience of blacks in America.

First was the question of whether bondsmen would rebel or remain passive. The fear of slave rebellion preoccupied both the Southern slaveholder and the Northern invader. Strikingly, Northerners were as uneasy about the possibility as were Southerners. Initially the Northern goal in the war was the speedy restoration of the Union under the Constitution and the laws of 1861, all of which recognized the legitimacy of slavery. Interfering with slavery would make reunion more difficult. Thus, Union generals like George B. McClellan in Virginia and Henry W. Halleck in the West were ordered not only to defeat the Southern armies but also to prevent slave insurrections. In the first months of the war, slaves who escaped to Union lines were returned to their masters in conformity with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.(3) Concern about outright slave insurrections proved unfounded, however. Slaves were not fools, nor were they suicidal. Mary Boykin Chesnut, the famed Southern diarist and one of the South's most perceptive observers of slavery, understood the slave's strategy. She wrote from her plantation: "Dick, the butler here, reminds me that when we were children, I taught him to read as soon as I could



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