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How the North Won the Civil War: Part I – Emancipation

May 14, 2017

Any history of the Civil War requires an understanding that slavery and the South’s inability to rid themselves of it, or, indeed compromise on it, led inexorably towards war. Last week, I wrote about how slavery was the cause of the war. This week I will explain how the North’s willingness to fight the war over slavery, rather than simply for Union began the process of victory. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 laid the foundation not only for the Thirteenth Amendment, but also for eventual Union victory. Emancipation had many great effects on the war. I will be focusing on two in this post: the exclusion of European Powers from the war,and the intelligence gained by the Union armies from recently freed slaves.

Foreign Policy

William Gladstone, British Foreign Minister during the American Civil War and future Prime Minister – Source: Wikipedia

In 1861, the United States was a slave-holding republic. Many within the United States were fervently opposed to the institution of slavery, and many more were opposed to the extension of slavery beyond where it existed. However, the stated policy of the United States was pro-slavery. The American government was one which protected the rights of slave-holders, and did not believe that slaves any such rights. When the first shells struck Fort Sumter in April, 1861, and the war began, the South realized that they would need a foreign patron to win the war. The Confederate government understood that it could not withstand the physical, material, and demographic weight of the northern states indefinitely. Great Britain and France were the most obvious choices for allies. Both nations were in need of southern cotton, and both nations would have delighted in a fractured and humbled United States. There was one problem, the Confederacy was adamantly pro-slavery. The British Empire, for all its other blemishes, had outlawed the slave trade during the Napoleonic Wars, and ended slavery within their empire over thirty years before, were uneasy supporting a slave-holding oligarchy. The French, more willing to help the southern cause so as to improve their position in Mexico where they had placed the Austrian prince Maximilian on the throne, were unwilling to strike without British support. Nothing changes minds more than victory, and in October, 1862, after the Confederate victories on the Peninsula and at Second Bull Run, British Foreign Minister Gladstone stated,

Jefferson Davis and the other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either; they have made a nation. [1]

Abe Lincoln’s Last Card – A British cartoon that condemned the Emancipation Proclamation as a desperate gamble to end the war and deprive White Southerners of self-determination – Source: Wikipedia

This notion, that since the south was very nearly a nation anyway – a nation of white people – that the slavery issue could be overlooked, and a negotiated peace could be brokered. However, just as the British were contemplating recognizing the Confederacy, the tides of war moved again. In September, 1862, the seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia met with a draw at Antietam, Maryland. Abraham Lincoln pounced, and stated that if the rebellion was still ongoing at the new year, he would issue an Emancipation Proclamation. The die was cast. All British moral arguments for intervention were based on the idea that supporting one slave-holding republic against another was justified. Now, for the first time, the United States government had taken an anti-slavery position. The equation had changed and support for the Confederacy no longer seemed moral or advisable.

Slaves and Spies

Throughout the war in the Western Theater, Union forces occupied large tracts of land that had been in open rebellion against the government. As many Americans can attest from having watched the United States wade into civil wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan, to Iraq and Syria, this sort of action breeds insurgent fighters. The American Civil War was no different, there were Confederate raiders who struck at Union supply lines and made life for men like Halleck, Grant, and Sherman miserable. However, there was one big difference, these raiders were never more than a distraction. Not even Nathan Bedford Forrest, was able to derail Union armies from reaching their ultimate objectives: Nashville, Corinth, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Savannah. Why was this? The simplest answer that I have found? Slaves.

There was another network [besides Confederate guerrillas] in play, a true army of the night, populated by people who had become by necessity masters of covert activities. They were the slaves. They penetrated to every level of Confederate society; they listened and remembered; but they remained invisible. Southerners bought their own propaganda, assuming their slaves were loyal and resigned to their condition… If and when they could, they would help the Yankees, supplying the most valuable of commodities in this kind of war; information. [2]

Sherman’s March to the Sea, notice recently freed slaves in the bottom right corner – Source: Wikipedia

Slaves began running away from plantations almost as soon as the war began. However, with the promise of emancipation, the trickle turned to a flood, and as soon as Union armies appeared they were greeted with thousands of now former slaves. Sherman alone would liberate thousands of slaves without ever meaning to do so. His raid in early 1864 to Meridian, Mississippi, would produce nearly 10,000 black refugees following his army back to Vicksburg. [3]

In the final analysis, emancipation was not only a moral policy, but one that also allowed for greater military success. The inability of the Confederacy to obtain a foreign patron doomed them to a defeat by attrition if nothing else. The push for emancipation gave the Union army a powerful ally in the nearly four million slaves who, in their pursuit of freedom, worked to undermine the Confederacy at every turn. Through all this, Union was preserved, and slaver, finished.


[1] William Gladstone, quoted in James McPherson. Battle Cry of Freedom. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 552.

[2] Robert O’Connell, Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. (New York: Random House, 2015) 111.

[3] Ibid., 133.

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