The New York Times’ coverage of the history of the Civil War on the 150th anniversary of secession has been astonishing, but not entirely surprising. With historians as a profession making now a concerted effort to explode the lingering states’ rights myth and bring the focus of the history to the central issues of the war and institution of slavery, it seems that we’re not only able to see the War more clearly, but there’s also a missionary-like drive to burn off pointless distractions and get at the real complexities and problems in our understanding of the war.
So while the South and the Confederacy become clearer – rather than trade and tariff rights, or other ill-defined economic concerns, we can now see the South as seceding primarily to preserve the institution of slavery and secondarily to establish a landed, and largely hereditary, “natural” aristocracy in direct refutation of Jeffersonian democracy – the role of the North and the Lincoln administration becomes foggier. While the North went to war initially and ostensibly to preserve the Union, the War became by degrees and then by fiat a war to end the practice of slavery. The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday had a fascinating article by historian Adam Goodheart showing that progression in microcosm within the federally-held Ft. Monroe in the days following Virginia’s decision to join the Confederacy.
As battle lines were being drawn, and in the case of Ft. Monroe, opposing fortifications were being built, slaves began to trickle into Union encampments seeking freedom. The law, the Constitution as generally understood at the time, and official Union policy was not to interfere with the legal institution of slavery, that the business of the Union was war not emancipation. General Butler, soon to be known as “Beast” Butler in the South, accepted the first few fugitives that arrived at Ft. Monroe on the grounds that they had been sent to work building fortifications to which they would likely be set back to if returned. So he ordered the slaves seized as “contraband of war.” It was only days before this particularly legal fiction embracing the Southern contention that the descendants of black Africans were property and not people became a widespread practice throughout Union encampments at the border of the Confederacy as word spread and entire families and communities of slaves began to arrive.
Butler quickly decided that to sort out and determine which slaves were able-bodied and likely to be used in the war effort from the others, what would seem to be logically and therefore legally required of the policy, would be against principles of common decency: “If I take the able-bodied only, the young must die. If I take the mother, must I not take the child?” Butler at first resisted counsel that he abide by the legal form of his decision to declare slaves contraband and select which slaves to accept and which to return, and then became more and more forceful that humanitarian grounds, not legalities, determine the appropriate course of action toward slaves and slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation was given the following year, another legal fiction and expediency in the war effort that masked a broader humanitarian principle. Goodheart is quite excellent in his depiction of that at the close of his article:
When Lincoln finally unveiled the Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862, he framed it in Butleresque terms, not as a humanitarian gesture but as a stratagem of war.On the September day of Lincoln’s edict, a Union colonel ran into William Seward, the president’s canny secretary of state, on the street in Washington and took the opportunity to congratulate him on the administration’s epochal act.
Seward snorted. “Yes,” he said, “we have let off a puff of wind over an accomplished fact.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Seward?” the officer asked.
“I mean,” the secretary replied, “that the Emancipation Proclamation was uttered in the first gun fired at Sumter, and we have been the last to hear it.”
On a side note, I’m grateful to see the Disunion coverage in the Times address how one of the more fruitful avenues of scholarship on American history that looks at gender and critical race studies to examine “white”-ness and masculinity has approached the history of secession, though the column they present doesn’t strike me as particularly remarkable or revelatory.