28 October 2011

Thoughts on the Emancipation Proclamation.

Copyright © 2011 Bob R Bogle

As part of an online class I'm taking on the Civil War, I wrote a little theme on the Emancipation Proclamation a short while back.  Thought I'd share it here:

The assignment is to describe "the battle and events that led to Lincoln's issue of the Emancipation Proclamation." But neither Antietam nor the preceding campaigns in Virginia of 1862 "led to" the Emancipation Proclamation in any directly causal way. It's better to think of the Emancipation Proclamation as a political act rather than a consequence guided by military events of the day. I judge that Lincoln had concluded to take this course very early in the war, but it was McClellan's softness in the Peninsula Campaign (the Seven Days ended on 1 July at Malvern Hill) which pushed him to do it now.
McClellan's lack of aggressiveness may have been intrinsic to his character. It was probably also influenced by a reluctance to see his beloved spit-and-polish army take casualties, a frame of mind antithetical to a successful military man, occasional severe damage to an army being after all central to its raison d'être. But even more corrosive of his field command ability was an incapacity to reconcile his own political views of slavery with the necessary brutality called for if the war were to be won. This internal division was at once severely debilitating to McClellan's leadership skills in the field and influential on Lincoln's future course. For Lincoln, the Peninsula Campaign fiasco provided insight into McClellan's contradictory impulses, symbolic of the overall mixed conduct of the war.
Lincoln arrived at Harrison's Landing in Virginia on 8 July to meet with the retreating McClellan, who presented a letter, impertinently (although sincere and heart-felt) advising the President of how the war should be conducted. Besides mirroring McClellan's inconsistent and warring psychic impulses in anguished tones, the letter warned explicitly that emancipation must never become a war aim. I suspect it was at that moment, or not very long after, that Lincoln determined emancipation must become a war aim, to be explicitly articulated soon, for larger historical and moral reasons, and to begin to débride once and for all these very doubts that crippled McClellan, and much of the army, and much of the country. Certain lingering pre-war sentiments, Lincoln realized, must be quickly jettisoned, and more assertive impulses in the war's conduct must be fortified and encouraged. Returning to Washington, Lincoln read his initial emancipation draft to William Seward and Gideon Welles on 13 July before presenting it to his entire cabinet on the 22nd.
The Emancipation Proclamation did free probably about 20,000 slaves immediately in parts of rebel states currently under Union control, and emancipation would proceed apace as Union armies progressively took and held Southern territory, especially following Sherman to Atlanta and Savannah. Nevertheless, the proclamation was directed at the states in rebellion (or the states of a sovereign nation, if you look at this through a Southern lens), where Lincoln's declarations were deemed irrelevant. Many now imagine it to have been of only symbolic significance. Cynical revisionists mock the irony that the Proclamation allowed slave owners living in the Union to legally keep their slaves. But these arguments, or sneers, miss the point.
Like only a few other participants in the war and its satellite occupations (people like Jefferson Davis, James Longstreet, US Grant, Edwin Stanton and perhaps William Seward come to mind), Lincoln always grasped the big picture. For all the agonies the Union endured in trying to win the war, especially in the Eastern Theater, Lincoln saw clearly that there was no reason why the North shouldn't ultimately prevail, simply as a matter of resources and mathematics, provided it did not lose the will to fight and accumulate casualties to the very end. For all the talk that continues to this day, Lincoln saw clearly that the South could never win a military victory. Its only hope, which was a legitimate hope and an authentic possibility ‑‑ and Robert E Lee understood this implicitly even if so very few Southerners ever did (or do) ‑‑ was to attempt, with military actions, to buy time to win a political victory. That is to say, the South needed to encourage the Northern public to pressure its politicians into ending the war and recognizing the CSA as an independent nation. McClellan would have settled for this approach, as he made abundantly clear during his run for the presidency in 1864.
But Lincoln would not. Lincoln knew he could win the war with military might and hold the Union together, and he would. But also, realizing he was uniquely situated in history to do so, he determined to simultaneously close the unhealing wound that had tormented the country from the beginning: the source of perpetual rancor, slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was largely a symbolic first step, but its true impact was less in the number of slaves that it freed than its nuclear assault on the psyche both North and South. That objective was Lincoln's true target, as it is for any effective politician. Major tectonic shifts in psychological and political terrain followed, and these, unfortunately, remain by and large incomprehensible to most people in the present, for whom the Civil War means little more than: "Lincoln freed the slaves." For the North the Emancipation Proclamation initiated a long-running assault on old attitudes exemplified by McClellan's, for example. The very purpose of the war did begin to shift in the public imagination from merely preserving the Union to also ending slavery; it became a new and different war. Southerners, on the other hand, understood immediately that the Emancipation Proclamation was a "mean trick," and they were exactly right. Precisely because its states had seceded, the South now understood that it had handed Lincoln the opportunity to end slavery forever. They were trapped by their own actions. The fact that Lincoln deliberately targeted only states in rebellion for emancipation powerfully underscored this fact: the South alone had forfeited its right to keep slaves. The South now must win the war, and every day that passed made it clearer how big that challenge was.
There was no excuse for the Army of the Potomac to be driven off the Peninsula. It was not a military defeat but a form of psychological self-immolation on McClellan's part. This was made all the more obvious by Lee's withdrawing his army from its defensive position between McClellan and Richmond (had anyone but Lee done so it would have been called brash, or reckless, or even contemptuous of McClellan) to come to Jackson's aid at Manassas. Even at that late moment McClellan could have redeemed himself by pivoting and capturing Richmond, and then setting about the business of defeating Lee in the aftermath of Second Manassas, but of course McClellan did not. The credit for a great military victory on the Peninsula should not go to Lee, but scorn should go to McClellan.
Second Manassas was a fascinating battle full of honor for the South and foolishness and disarray for the Union, maybe the most forgotten of the really important battles of the war, but (regrettably!) space precludes my talking more about it here. But some small discussion of Antietam is indicated, not so much for either its concurrence with the Emancipation Proclamation or McClellan's frustrating combination of activity and dithering, but to further contemplate the effects of the changing psychology of the war.
As the Emancipation Proclamation would reverse Lincoln's original stated war aims, initiating fundamental changes in Northern psychology, so Lee's first incursion into the North sent shock waves through the collective Southern psyche. The intended goals of this incursion were to promote a Southern political victory, never a final Southern military victory, by intimidating Northerners to petition for peace, and by demonstrating to European observers a Southern resilience that might bring new allies and resources to the Southern cause. But one problem with the strategy was that it immediately gave the lie to the myth of the South being purely the recipient of Northern aggression. It became infinitely harder to make that case afterwards, and indeed many Southern soldiers refused to cross the Potomac into Maryland even after the recent string of Southern victories and the rising cachet of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson: invading the North was no fight many Southerners had ever signed up for. Also, in more western states, this invasion of the North smacked of further Richmond adventurism at the expense of their own people; again, most Southerners always failed to understand that Davis and Lee were trying to win a political battle, not a military war, and so in that sense the strategy of invading the North was perfectly sound. Nevertheless, an unsettling psychological line had been crossed, as real as a geographical borderline, and how Southerners thought of the nature of the war had to change at that moment. The conjunction of the Northern incursion and the Emancipation Proclamation brought the whole war into a new phase.
Which says nothing at all about what actually happened at Antietam. I find this battle striking for several reasons other than those I've already mentioned. Of first importance is how close Sharpsburg is to the Virginia border: Lee failed to penetrate into the North to any significant degree at all, and the psychological damage in the South probably outweighs any gain among Northern pacifists or European observers. The "dirty little secret" of Antietam is how close Lee came to throwing his army away. McClellan's actions were predictably mixed, but Hooker shone, as he had on the Peninsula, and Burnside performed reasonably well, despite his notorious bad luck first manifesting itself conspicuously here. I'll conclude by pointing out that the massive casualties that took place in the Peninsula, Second Manassas, and especially at Antietam, coupled to poor performances by McClellan and Pope, finally allowed for a proper reassessment of Grant after the bloodshed of Shiloh. And so a profound psychological shift in understanding of the bloodiness of the war was setting in. By the conclusion of Antietam and the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, everyone on both sides was becoming much more realistic about the costs and the stakes of the Civil War.

In addition, I thought later that I should have amended what's probably an extremely important point concerning the Emancipation Proclamation, and that's the following.  A terribly important reason that slavery became such a soul-searching problem before the war was the issue of financial compensation:  slaves being expensive property, it was inconceivable that the abolitionists could have their way and the federal government not pay for each liberated man, woman and child.  Emancipation provided the solution to the problem.  By giving the rebellious South a deadline to come back into the nest or else, Lincoln sidestepped the economic quandary:  the Southern slaves would be freed without the federal government paying their owners a dime.  This is also largely why the South viewed the Emancipation Proclamation as being so treacherous:  Lincoln had found an essentially legal way to steal their property, and there was nothing they could do about it.  I think it's altogether possible that such a solution could not have been arrived at except during civil war.  To a degree the whole war can be thought of as the federal government stealing private property and wiping out a Southern political system to which the Republicans were opposed.  I'll have to think more on all these ideas.....

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