The Civil War is known as the bloodiest war in the history of America, and any discussion on this subject will not be complete without the mention of slavery. The period of Reconstruction started soon after, and there was a significant change in the lives of the slaves in the South. It would be wrong to say that after the end of the Civil War, the slaves were treated as equals, but their condition changed from being slave laborers to free laborers.
The history of slavery in America dates back to the seventeenth century when slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619. The era of slavery in US can be broadly divided into three sections,
Slavery during the Civil War
We will be focusing our attention on the lives of slaves during the Civil War – a war many believe was fought for their emancipation. But before we get an insight into this subject, it is important to know in brief the events that led to the Civil War.
Election Of Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was elected the President of United States in 1860, and this propelled anxiety and fear in the minds of the southern states who believed that the government will pass laws that will dampen their economy and the ‘southern way of life.’ This was primarily because of the reason that northerners hadn’t too much at stake in the institution of slavery.
Reason Why South Got Worried
Their economy chiefly depended on industries and factories. South, on the other hand, depended on slaves heavily for their work. The plantations of indigo, tobacco, rice, and cotton (after the invention of cotton gin) required hard labor and the slaves were made to work for long hours so that profit was maximized.
Confusion About The Civil War
Many people believe that the Civil War was about North’s struggle to emancipate the slaves and South’s fight to continue the slave trade. However, it should be remembered that the North did not go to war to emancipate the slaves, instead Abraham Lincoln, before becoming the President had explicitly stated that his aim wasn’t to abolish slavery, but to contain its spread.
However, the southern states (none of which had voted for Abraham Lincoln) believed that the election of Abraham Lincoln was detrimental to their economy, and hence, there was no other option than secession.
First Country To Revolt
South Carolina was the first state to declare secession from the United States in 1861. Other southern states which had considerable stake in the slave labor soon followed suit and seceded from the Union. These were Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. These states came to be known as the Confederate States.
The First Trigger
The event that precipitated the Civil War was the aggression at Fort Sumter (a fort in the Southern State of South Carolina) by the Confederacy. This prompted Abraham Lincoln to call 75,000 volunteers to help the Union in fighting the Confederate States. As the skirmish was heading to become a full-fledged war, four more southern states seceded and joined the Confederacy.
These were the states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. These eleven states fought against the twenty-three states of the Union, and thus began America’s bloodiest war which left over 620,000 people dead.
Contraband of War
Slaves who ran away from their masters during the onset of Civil War found sanctuary in the Union border lines, but as per the Fugitive Slave Act, the escaped slaves had to be returned to their masters. However, in Union controlled Virginia, General Benjamin Butler came up with a strategy that earned him the title of “Beast Butler” among the southerners.
General Butler declared escaped slaves as “contraband of war”, and it rendered the Fugitive Slave Act ineffective. This encouraged thousands of slaves to cross over to the Union side with the assurance that they will be not returned to their masters.
Slaves in the Confederacy
In the south, the army took slaves with them to the frontline to do menial works like washing, cooking, digging etc. The idea was that by using the slaves for these chores, the army would be able to use more white men as soldiers. However, this move boomeranged badly as not only did the soldiers escape on the first opportunity, but they also provided intelligence inputs to the Union army.
As the Union army (6 million) easily outnumbered the Confederacy (2 million), there was a desperate need for the south to push more men in the war. Still hesitating to arm slaves, the responsibility fell on the laymen of the south who worked in industries and factories.
These people neither owned any slaves nor had any interests in the institution, but they joined the war because they inherently believed that the North must be defeated in order to ensure that their southern way of life is not hindered.
Slaves Join War
Because of the influx of working white men in the Confederate army, there was a shortage of laborers in the industries and factories. To counter this, the owners decided to allow the slaves to fill in for the whites. In the final days of the Civil War, the Confederates, who had always thought of slaves as inferior, contemplated allowing them to join the army and fight against the Union. However, before any progress could be made on this, the Confederates lost the war.
Slave Started To Revolt
Although life was much difficult for slaves on the frontline, the condition of bondsmen on plantations was not good either. The war had caused a shortage in the supply of food, and slaves were the first to face the brunt of this deprivation.
One thing that had changed on the plantation was that the slaves had started to rebel, albeit in a different way. The slaves slowed down their pace of working as there was a shortage of supervisors on the fields. With a majority of white men fighting a fratricidal war on the borders, it was left to white women and elderly to rein in the slaves. But, their attempts at disciplining the soldiers turned futile and many slaves refused to obey their orders.
Difficulty For Lincoln
The problem for Lincoln was that he had not foreseen the emergence of such a large number of escaped slaves. The Union army, though sophisticated in its war-effort, lacked the skills to deal with the burgeoning number of slaves. The slaves were provided with food and shelter, but their life was similar if not worse as it was in the Southern states. They had to perform the same tasks like digging latrines, building fortifications, laundry etc.
Although Abraham Lincoln was anti-slavery, to preserve the Union he had to think about the repercussions abolishment would have on the whole country. A majority of Northerners were anti-slavery as well, but it won’t be right to say that they considered blacks as equals.
Soldiers serving in the Union army resented the fact that they had to stay away from their families in such hostile conditions to fight for the rights of slaves. This caused animosity in their hearts towards the escaped slaves and there were several reports of ill-treatment.
Lincoln had first thought that the free slaves would be resettled somewhere outside America, and the government will fund this exercise initially until the slaves develop their own economy, however, not many northerners were in favor of this proposal and eventually, this plan never materialized.
The Beginning of Emancipation
Although Confederacy had not been recognized as an independent country by any European power, there were simmering apprehensions among the North that if something drastic is not done, Confederacy may well gain an advantage by having the international support with it.
Amidst mounting pressure by abolitionists and international countries, Abraham Lincoln slowly began the emancipation program. This was a major breakthrough in the war as till now, the Union war motto was to preserve the Union, but now for the first time since the war had started, emancipation of slaves took center stage.
On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued what is known as the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It explicitly stated that slaves in the rebel states would be declared free after 1st January, 1863. The proclamation did nothing to deter the south from retreating and fighting continued as usual. As promised, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on 1st January, 1863.
Excerpt of that day is, on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
The important thing to note in this proclamation was that it did not speak anything about the future of slaves in the loyal border states. Historians believe that although the proclamation was more symbolic than effectual, and it was the stepping stone towards the abolishment of slavery three years later.
After Emancipation Proclamation
After the announcement of Emancipation Proclamation, pressure had been mounting on the Union government to allow slaves to fight against the South. However, this was met with much skepticism as not many people in the north thought that slaves could be good soldiers. They also thought that by enlisting the slaves in the army, the world will get the notion that the Union army is not competent enough to fight the war on its own.
However, the prospect of a seemingly unending war convinced Lincoln that it was time that the slaves be allowed to fight their oppressors. The Second Confiscation and Militia Act (1862) was passed and it allowed the President to employ slaves to join the army and help it in suppressing the rebellion.
Many slaves thought that they will now be able to fight the war which started for their emancipation, but to their dismay, they were confined to service units while the whites did all the fighting. To make matters worse, the slave soldiers experienced what is now termed as ‘institutional racism’. The white soldiers were paid $13 per week, but the slave soldiers were paid $10 only. Also, a part of the wage was deducted for clothing charges, which left the slave soldiers with around $7 per week.
The first significant step in formation of an African-American unit took place in New Orleans where three National Guards were formed, but, the biggest moment of triumph and vindication came on July 18, 1863 when the 54th Massachusetts – a unit comprising mainly African-Americans attacked Fort Wagner.
The Confederacy soldiers inside the fort retaliated and the 54th Massachusetts lost as many as 600 soldiers. Although, the troops were not successful in conquering Ford Wagner, the sacrifice and valor of the soldiers proved that the slaves wanted freedom and they could lay down their life to achieve it. By the time the war was over in 1865, about 180, 000 black men had served in the Union army. The total casualty of the slave soldiers was 40,000 out of which 30,000 died of illness and epidemics.
Abolishment of Slavery
The Civil War ended in 1865 with the Northern forces under the Union defeating the southern states fighting under Confederacy. The Congress passed the 13th amendment which abolished slavery in the United States on January 31, 1865, and it was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865.
The amendment stated,
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.