Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Road to Antietam, July 22, 1862: "Thenceforward, and Forever, Be Free"

150 years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln introduced to his cabinet what would become the greatest presidential act in American history. The stage was being set for the Battle of Antietam to become not only a battle for military supremacy, but to be a battle for the future of freedom in the United States.

(Library of Congress)

Throughout his political career, Abraham Lincoln was opposed to the institution of slavery. A leading member of the nascent Republican Party, Lincoln campaigned on limiting the spread of slavery; yet, there was little he could do regarding slavery on a national level for most of his political life. Whether in the Illinois State Legislature, or during his one term in the United States Congress, Lincoln lacked the power or ability to affect change on slavery in any meaningful way. Illinois was a state with extremely harsh laws limiting rights and freedoms for free blacks, and Southern Illinois was quite similar to many Southern states when it came to attitudes on race and slavery. Yet, through the power of his rhetoric, Lincoln was able to craft a convincing argument that slavery was a moral wrong that undermined the legitimacy of the United States' claim to be a republic of liberty. In his famed Peoria, Illinois address of 1854, responding to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln proclaimed his hatred for both slavery and those who were indifferent to it: "This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world."

During the seventh of his famed debates with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln culminated a series of arguments by making the case for the moral injustice of slavery and tyranny. Speaking of Chief Justice Roger Taney's opinion in the Dred Scott case, Lincoln declared that if slavery was a moral wrong, which he insisted it was, then owning slaves could not be considered a natural right from God.

But if it is a wrong, he cannot say people have a right to do wrong. He says that upon the score of equality, slaves should be allowed to go in a new Territory, like other property. This is strictly logical if there is no difference between it and other property. If it and other property are equal, his argument is entirely logical. But if you insist that one is wrong and the other right, there is no use to institute a comparison between right and wrong. You may turn over every thing in the Democratic policy from beginning to end, whether in the shape it takes on the statute book, in the shape it takes in the Dred Scott decision, in the shape it takes in conversation, or the shape it takes in short maxim—like arguments—it every where carefully excludes the idea that there is any thing wrong in it. That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, "You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it." No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

Four years after these debates, in 1862, Lincoln was the President of the United States, guiding the nation through a fiery trial of war, deciding whether the country would live or die. He was no longer a Congressman from Illinois; he was now the president, and thus, had more power to deal with the issue of slavery. Yet, under the Constitution, he was still limited in what he could do. As the casualties mounted, Lincoln sought a way to not only gain something of a military advantage, but to make a broader statement about the war itself. Lincoln could have stopped the bloodshed at any moment by simply allowing the Confederacy to go its separate way. Yet, he maintained the war, believing deeper issues to be at stake. He clearly saw a link between death on the battlefield and life for the nation; it was not enough for lives to be sacrificed just so that the country could continue on as it once was, a nation marred by the injustice of slavery, an institution rooted in moral wrong. For Lincoln, this bloodshed needed to lead to "a new birth of freedom."

On July 13, 1862, while on his way to a funeral for the son of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln struck up a conversation regarding the possibility of bringing emancipation into the Civil War with several of his cabinet members. Various Union generals had been dealing with slaves through martial edicts and policies, but these generally only applied to specific localities. Lincoln also found fault with them because, as he believed, such policy needed to be set at the national level so as to make sure it was in accordance with constitutional law and the policy of his administration. Congress had acted against slavery in other ways as well, passing the First Confiscation Act in 1861, and the Second Confiscation Act in July of 1862. These were meant to deal with those slaves who made their way to Federal lines, making it legal for commanders to bring them in and treat them like contraband property being seized in a war. Yet, on this summer morning carriage ride to a funeral, Lincoln stressed several times that a possible Emancipation Proclamation might be needed as a military necessity to turn the war around, inspiring the Union war effort with new life. Those officials who rode with Lincoln that July morning were not the only ones who sensed that the president was on the verge of a history altering policy. On July 20, 1862, one of Lincoln's private secretaries, John Hay, wrote in a letter, “… he will not conserve slavery much longer. When next he speaks in relation to this defiant and ungrateful villainy it will be with no uncertain sound.”

Two days after Hay wrote those words, Lincoln gathered his cabinet on July 22, 1862, 150 years ago today, to introduce a proclamation of emancipation, using his executive authority to free slaves in those states then in rebellion against the Federal government. As Lincoln later explained, "I said to the Cabinet that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject-matter of a proclamation before them." The rough draft document he introduced that day is as follows, and can be found in the Library of Congress:

In pursuance of the sixth section of the act of congress entitled “An act to suppress insurrection and to punish treason and rebellion, to seize and confiscate property of rebels, and for other purposes” Approved July 17, 1862, and which act, and the Joint Resolution explanatory thereof, are herewith published, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby proclaim to, and warn all persons within the contemplation of said sixth section to cease participating in, aiding, countenancing, or abetting the existing rebellion, or any rebellion against the government of the United States, and to return to their proper allegiance to the United States, on pain of the forfeitures and seizures, as within and by said sixth section provided.
And I hereby make known that it is my purpose, upon the next meeting of congress, to again recommend the adoption of a practical measure for tendering pecuniary aid to the free choice or rejection, of any and all States which may then be recognizing and practically sustaining the authority of the United States, and which may then have voluntarily adopted, or thereafter may voluntarily adopt, gradual abolishment of slavery within such State or States—that the object is to practically restore, thenceforward to be maintain[ed], the constitutional relation between the general government, and each, and all the states, wherein that relation is now suspended, or disturbed; and that, for this object, the war, as it has been will be, prosecuted. And, as a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, do order and declare that 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 states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.

The statement began by referencing the recently passed Second Confiscation Act, which required an executive action for it to begin taking effect. That act provided for the seizure of property belonging to those in active rebellion against the Federal government. Lincoln at first believed that with that executive action, he would issue his proclamation, and the above text was designed to that purpose. Essentially, Lincoln at first believed this was a measure which would be issued within days, not months.

He began his second paragraph by referencing his attempts to bring about compensated emancipation, a plan aimed at pursuing the abolition of slavery while maintaining political support for his administration and the war in the Border States. This plan was a tough sell, as it not only would have cost a great deal, but was politically risky in many of these areas. He also included language that would apply such compensated emancipation to those states in rebellion, perhaps as an olive branch to bring about both and end to the fighting and pushing towards the abolition of slavery in a peaceful manner.

Lastly, in the above section italicized (done by me), Lincoln declared his intention to issue a military order under his power as Commander in Chief declaring all slaves in those states in rebellion on January 1, 1863, to "then, thenceforward, and forever, be free." In both of the Confiscation Acts, Congress had essentially declared that because of the war, Federal forces could legally seize Confederate property, including slaves. Now, Lincoln was going one step further. Under his authority as Commander in Chief, he was using his war powers to declare that all slaves held as Southern property (using Southern slavery arguments claiming that slaves were indeed property against slave owners) would be freed. This measure not only had obvious moral benefits of hammering at the foundations of slavery, but would provide a practical benefit of weakening the Southern power structure by removing a significant labor force, hurting the South politically, economically, and socially.

With those words, Lincoln effectively introduced the widest ranging executive measure in American history. The reaction of his Cabinet was somewhat mixed. Attorney General Edward Bates and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase were the first to speak, and each was supportive, although Chase questioned the effectiveness of the measure, suggesting it could lead to retaliatory actions against slaves throughout the South. Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General, objected to the proclamation, believing it would have a negative effect and cost Lincoln significant support in the fall Congressional elections.

It was Secretary of State William Seward, a long standing opponent of slavery, who offered the most significant comments in response to the proclamation. Believing that recent military setbacks on the Peninsula and in the Shenandoah Valley had a strong effect on the North, Seward reasoned, “The depression of the public mind, consequent upon our repeated reverses, is so great that I fear the effect of so important a step.” Thus, Seward suggested that issuing the proclamation following a string of defeats would smack of desperation, depriving the measure of its full impact. As Seward also argued, "It may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help...." It would be best, Seward noted, to wait for a Federal victory, only issuing the document once Lincoln could "give it to the country supported by military success" (Allen Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, 130-137).

While Lincoln began by announcing his intention to issue the proclamation one way or another, he never said anything about timing. Based on this cabinet meeting, as well as on a visit from Seward and Republican Thurlow Weed that evening, Lincoln decided that waiting for a victory was the best course of action. It would be a wait much longer than he ever intended. During his wait, thousands more would be added to the death toll of the war. Lincoln himself began to question God's purpose in the conflict. By September of 1862, Lincoln saw his opportunity to finally issue his proclamation. He would later explain that when Lee's army crossed the Potomac River to begin the Maryland Campaign, Lincoln made a promise to himself and to God that should the Confederate army be turned back, he would have the victory he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

On September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam would not just be fought as a military contest; it would be fought as a contest between the forces of freedom and slavery, determining the future of each in the United States. The stage was set for all of this 150 years ago today, on July 22, 1862.

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