CONVERSATION / Legacy / Deep Dive

The Concrete Confederate Crisis
Part 8: Emancipation, Economics & Politics

Early in the war, to keep the border states in the Union, Lincoln resisted the demands of the Radical Republicans to free the slaves. Military commanders, though, sometimes took action counter to Lincoln's policy during actual fighting. For example, faced with slaves who had run away to Union lines, General B. F. Butler treated them as contraband and did not return them to their owners (May 1861). General John C. Frémont, in charge of the Department of the West, which included Missouri and Kansas, confiscated the property of rebels and declared their slaves emancipated (August 1861). Lincoln effectively countermanded Frémont's order.

Congress, meanwhile, enacted measures that whittled away at slavery. The Confiscation Act of 1861 allowed captured or runaway slaves who had been in use by the Confederacy to support the Union effort instead. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia with compensation in April 1862 and in the territories in June 1862. The Second Confiscation Act (July 1862) gave real freedom to slaves belonging to anyone actively participating in the war against the Union.



Lincoln proposed a plan for gradual emancipation that was by definition a long‐term solution to the slavery problem. The plan was aimed at pacifying the slave states that remained in the Union. Lincoln outlined his ideas on several occasions between 1861 and 1862, the fullest statement coming in his Second Message to Congress in December 1862. He urged the House and Senate to adopt a constitutional amendment under which states that abolished slavery by 1900 would be compensated by the federal government. Runaway‐slave owners who remained loyal to the United States would also be compensated for their losses. The amendment authorized Congress to appropriate funds to resettle free blacks, if they consented, outside of the country. Although Lincoln himself did not think resettlement was necessary, the idea addressed the deep racial prejudice existing in the country as a whole and particularly white fears about competing for jobs with millions of former slaves.


Despite his support for gradual emancipation, Lincoln soon realized that immediate action was necessary, both on military and moral grounds. Slaves were an asset to the Confederate war effort, and public opinion in the North was shifting in favor of emancipation. Following the Union “victory” at Antietam, the president issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (September 22, 1862), which granted freedom to all slaves in the Confederate states and in other areas of active rebellion as of January 1, 1863. The proclamation did not apply to the slaveholding border states, nor would it apply to any Confederate states that rejoined the Union before the deadline. The formal Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, specifically delineated the Confederate territory where slaves were freed, urged the slaves not to resort to violence except in self‐defense, and confirmed that African Americans could serve in the Union army and navy.

Despite its limited scope, the Emancipation Proclamation redefined the purpose of the war. Southerners as well as northern Copperheads recognized this fact, and they condemned Lincoln's actions as tantamount to promoting a slave insurrection throughout the Confederacy. The slaves themselves responded with jubilation, not rebellion, and those who could fled to the Union lines, where their symbolic freedom could become a reality.


Almost two hundred thousand African Americans fought in the Civil War, the majority of them former slaves. Organized into segregated units under white officers, they received less pay than white soldiers until Congress remedied the inequity in June 1864. At first, black troops were used only for menial jobs behind the lines. When finally allowed into combat, they distinguished themselves and earned grudging respect for their courage under fire. Black soldiers knew quite well that they faced summary execution or reenslavement if captured. Around thirty‐seven thousand were killed during the war, a number that represents a significantly higher casualty rate than that of white soldiers.

The Confederacy used slaves as laborers to construct trenches and earthworks and as cooks and teamsters in military camps. With the South's manpower reserves dwindling in late 1864, Jefferson Davis proposed putting slaves into the army. The idea of slaves defending a government committed to the preservation of slavery while the opposing side was pledged to end it was one of the great ironies of the war. The Confederate Congress in fact passed legislation in March 1865 for the call‐up of three hundred thousand slaves for the army, but the fighting stopped before the law went into effect.


The war was expensive for both sides. The Union raised money through higher tariffs, an excise tax that raised prices on most goods and services, and the imposition of the first federal income tax. The Bureau of Internal Revenue was established to collect taxes. Congress ordered paper money, known as greenbacks, to be printed as legal tender that could be used to pay debts but could not be redeemed for hard currency. Greenbacks and bonds issued by the federal government provided the main sources of revenue for the war effort. Bonds were sold through a network of agents and increased the national debt to almost $3 billion by 1865.

War created the opportunity for profiteering. The Union awarded millions of dollars in contracts to businesses for firearms, uniforms, and a broad range of military equipment and supplies. The contractors often took advantage of the federal government's largesse. One of the most notorious examples was manufacturers' use of shoddy, a cheap cloth made from compressed rag fiber, for making uniforms, which quickly fell apart. The word “shoddy” entered the English language as an adjective for anything of very poor quality.

The Confederacy, which was unable to secure the loans it expected from overseas, faced far worse financial problems than the Union. While taxes were raised in the same manner as in the North, they were difficult to collect and provided less than five percent of the South's wartime revenue. Confederate paper money was not declared legal tender, so there was little to no public confidence in it. Inflation became a major problem as more and more paper money was put into circulation; the value of a Confederate dollar dropped to just over one and a half cents in gold by the end of the war. Prices in the South rose by more than nine thousand percent between 1861 and 1865.


Some basic civil liberties were also casualties of the war. Lincoln, with the ultimate approval of Congress, suspended the writ of habeas corpus early in the conflict, and individuals suspected of disloyalty or active work against the Union were arrested without formal charges. While most of the nearly fourteen thousand who were detained were never brought to trial, those who were tried came under the jurisdiction of military courts. The reliance on military courts for trying civilians was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Ex parte Milligan in 1866.

Part 9: Union Triumph

Despite his victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, General Lee realized that the Confederacy's only hope of victory was to bring the war to the North. In June 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia moved into Pennsylvania and confronted the Union forces at Gettysburg on July 1. The three‐day battle ended in the South's worst defeat. Half of the fifteen thousand men under the command of General George Pickett, who charged the entrenched Union positions, were either killed, wounded, or captured. Lee had little choice but to retreat. At the same time, the Confederate troops under siege at Vicksburg surrendered and gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River. The two engagements were the key turning points of the war; the Confederacy was effectively split and its armies never penetrated the North again.



That Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 with only forty percent of the popular vote indicated that he did not start his term with an overwhelming political mandate. His own party was divided into Moderates and Radicals; the latter favored immediate emancipation and tried to interfere with his method of conducting the war. The Democratic party in the North, while generally supportive of the administration, contained a peace faction known as the Copperheads their loyalty to the Union was doubted. Militarily, the North faced the difficult challenges of invading a large territory, maintaining long supply lines, and dealing with hostile southern civilians, all of which made its numerical superiority less effective. Northern generals proved less daring and innovative than their southern counterparts, particularly during the early stages of the war.


The South intended to fight a mainly defensive war, which meant it needed fewer troops than the invading army. With slaves working either on the farms or in Confederate labor battalions, more white soldiers were available for combat duty than would have been without slavery. Southern strategy, formed from an assumption that support for the war in the North was weak, was to wear down the Union forces until Lincoln was ready to accept the independence of the Confederacy. The South also had a greater number of experienced military commanders than the North; many U.S. army officers, including veterans of the Mexican War, resigned their commissions to fight on the Confederate side when the hostilities broke out. Southerners knew that their economy was not self‐sufficient, particularly in wartime, but they anticipated outside help. They fully expected the dependence of Great Britain and France on cotton imports to lead to diplomatic recognition and direct material aid.


In March 1864, following his victories in the West and his taking of Chattanooga (November 1863), Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Union forces. Lincoln had finally found his general after three years of war. The two main theaters of operation in 1864 were Virginia and Georgia. Grant fought a war of attrition, constantly attacking, regardless of the cost. Against Lee in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor and during the siege of Petersburg, the Union forces suffered extremely heavy casualties, but they continued to drive Lee's army deeper into Virginia.

In May, Grant ordered General William T. Sherman from Tennessee into Georgia. Union troops occupied Atlanta on September 1 and staged their infamous “March to the Sea” in the late fall. Sherman had all possible war materiel in Atlanta confiscated or destroyed, and he set fire to a large part of the city in the process. As his army moved through the state, crops were burned, livestock killed, and plantations and factories destroyed. Sherman's campaign of “total war” continued after he took Savannah in December and moved north into South Carolina.


Despite a challenge from the Radical Republicans, the president was easily nominated for a second term with Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a Unionist War Democrat, as his running mate. The platform called for the Confederacy's unconditional surrender and a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The Democrats chose General George McClellan as their candidate on an extreme peace platform that urged an immediate armistice, attacked Lincoln's handling of the war, and criticized emancipation. Public support for the war was uncertain as casualties mounted in 1864, but the president's campaign received a boost from Farragut's victory in Mobile (August 1864) and the fall of Atlanta. Lincoln won reelection with fifty‐five percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority in the Electoral College. Most of the states allowed soldiers to vote in the field, and eighty percent of them cast their ballots for Lincoln.


With about half the number of troops as the Army of the Potomac, Lee was unable to break the siege at Petersburg. He broke off the engagement and tried to swing west and south to link up with what was left of his troops in North Carolina under General Johnston. Jefferson Davis abandoned Richmond and was eventually captured in Georgia in May. With the Confederate capital in Union hands, Lee found himself penned in by Grant's troops and those of General Philip Sheridan, and he asked for surrender terms on April 7, 1865. The formal surrender took place two days later in the town of Appomattox Court House. In the meantime, Sherman's army was moving into North Carolina to confront Johnston. Although Davis urged the general to fight on, Johnston surrendered his thirty‐seven thousand men on April 26. By the end of May, all Confederate resistance throughout the South had come to an end. President Lincoln did not live to see the end of the war. He was assassinated by the actor John Wilkes Booth while watching a play in Washington's Ford's Theater on April 14,1865.

Between 1861 and 1865, nearly three million men served in the Union and Confederate armies; more than 600,000 were killed, and an additional 275,000 were seriously wounded. Civil War casualties were almost as many as the combined losses in all other American wars through the Vietnam War. Although the fighting ended in the spring of 1865, the sectional divisions that led to the conflict continued to fester for generations. The immediate question was how the defeated states of the Confederacy would be treated. Although Lincoln had sounded a conciliatory note in his Second Inaugural Address a few days before his death, many others felt that the South must pay dearly for the war.