Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Emancipation Achieved

Instead of victory came defeat. Pope, taking the command after McClellan's failure, was beaten and driven back in the second battle of Bull Run, and matters were at the worst. McClellan was recalled; his genius for organization rehabilitated the demoralized army; the soldiers' confidence in their old chief gave them new courage. When Lee, after a year on the defensive, took the offensive and entered Maryland, he was beaten and turned back at Antietam.

Then Lincoln summoned his cabinet again, September 22, 1862. Before he spoke the momentous word, he freshened himself in his own way,—he said that Artemus Ward had sent him his book, and he would read them a chapter which he thought very funny; and read it he did, with great enjoyment; the secretaries also laughing as in duty bound—all except Stanton! Then the President became grave enough—he told them that he had been thinking a great deal about the proclamation he had read them two months before; that victory seemed to have brought a favorable occasion; that when the rebel army was at Fredericksburg he determined as soon as it was driven out of Maryland to proclaim emancipation. He went on: "I said nothing to any one, but I made the promise to myself, and,"—hesitating a little—"to my Maker." So now, he tells them, he fulfills that promise. One last word,—some other might do better than he; he would surrender his place to a better man if he saw the way; he believes that he has not so much of the confidence of the people as he once had, but on the whole he does not know that any one has more, and at any rate there is no way for him to give place to any other. "I am here; I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take." It is the counterpart of Luther's "Here stand I; I cannot do otherwise; God help me!"

Discussion in the Cabinet: general approval; slight modification only. The proclamation runs on the original lines; compensated abolition recommended; colonization favored; freedom to be declared next New Year's day to all slaves in rebellious States: ultimate compensation recommended for all loyal owners. The proclamation is issued, September 23, 1862, and the nation is inexorably committed to emancipation,—compensated if possible; forcible if necessary; partial at first, but moving inevitably, swiftly, toward universal freedom.

The proclamation with its sequence was the best Lincoln found himself able to do. What he wanted to do,—his own ideal which he could not bring his countrymen to accept,—was shown in his message to Congress when it met in December. The main burden of that message was an earnest plea for action on the line of compensated emancipation. The President proposed an amendment to the Constitution, to this effect: every State abolishing slavery before 1900 to receive compensation from the United States, at some fixed rate, in government bonds; meantime, all slaves freed by chances of war to remain free, with compensation to loyal owners; Congress authorized to spend money for colonization of such as wish to go. For the general plan of compensation Lincoln argues as broadly and calmly as if dealing with a purely economic question, and with the restrained fervor of the patriot and statesman. He dwells on the vast growth which the country promises; on the increasing resources which will make light the burden of ransoming the slaves; the safety of a process of gradual liberation; the humane, economic, Christian superiority of this settlement instead of prolonged war. This is the close: "We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless."

But as for practical effect, he might as well have read Dr. Watts's Cradle-hymn to a couple of fighting bulldogs. The proposition of compensated emancipation was thirty years too late. Now the blood of both sections was up, the fighting animal in man let loose,—and they would go on indefinitely killing and being killed, to free the slaves or to hold them, but they would not lay down their arms and peacefully share the light burden of emancipation.

So came in New Year's day, 1863, and the final word was spoken, declaring freedom to all the slaves in Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and the greater portion of Virginia and Louisiana; enjoining good order on the freedmen; and opening the army and navy to their enlistment. "And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God."

How far, it may be asked, was the military necessity on which the proclamation was based actually met by its results? Immediate gain, in a military sense, did not accrue. Not a slave was freed except as the ground was conquered foot by foot. But by opening the door to the enlistment of negroes, there was soon a substantial advantage won to the Union armies; for, enlisting by many thousands, they proved themselves docile, trustworthy, and not lacking in courage. In the last two years of the war, they added nearly 200,000 men to the Union forces. They were not considered equal to white soldiers, for they succumbed far more easily to wounds and disease; and though their officers were chary of exposing them in battle, their mortality was greater than that of the whites. In a sense broader than the military, the first results of the emancipation policy were adverse. It was said by many that the proclamation would "unite the South and divide the North." The seceded States could hardly be more united than they were before, but a fresh motive was added to their struggle. In the border States, there was a wide alienation of slave owners and their sympathizers. At the North, a similar effect was obvious at first. From the day of the first proclamation, a war now evidently waged in part for emancipation lost favor with many who cared nothing for the slaves. The elections two months later, in November, 1862, were disastrous. New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, all went against the administration. Its majority in Congress was greatly reduced.

But the emancipation proclamation had struck deep to the hidden springs of power. For the exigencies of a prolonged and desperate struggle, it had evoked the full power of a great sentiment. It had roused the passion of freedom which nerves men to suffer and die. It was an unselfish passion,—it was for the freedom of other men that the North now fought. The loss of the half-hearted and the materialists was outweighed by the enlistment of the enthusiasts for humanity. And the sympathies of the nations, which had wavered while the Union cause was declared to be apart from the slavery question, now swung weightily to the side of the North, since it was avowedly the side of freedom.

By his proclamation, Lincoln had,—to use his language to Greeley,—"freed some and left others alone." He could not go further on the ground of military necessity. But the work, or the promise, could not be left in that imperfect shape. The natural resource was soon found,—universal freedom by a constitutional amendment. This, the Thirteenth Amendment, was brought forward in April, 1864, and received more than the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate—38 to 6; but in the House (elected in the reaction of 1862) only 95 to 66. The next winter it was brought up again in the same House, but a House enlightened now by the Republican victory in Lincoln's re-election; and strongly urged by him it won the necessary two-thirds vote—119 to 56. The States had still to pass upon it, after the war, but to resist emancipation then was fighting against the stars in their courses; and only Kentucky and Delaware rejected the amendment, while Texas was silent, and Alabama and Mississippi gave a qualified assent. The amendment was declared adopted, December 18, 1865, and on that day slavery in the United States came to an end.

When the issue was finally shaped by the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, both sides set themselves anew for the grim struggle—two years more of hard fighting. Since fighting it must be, they bore themselves all, let us say, as brave men and women,—North and South, white and black. The Confederates came often into dire extremities. Men whose lives had been luxurious fared on the plainest and hardest. Delicate women bore privations uncomplainingly, and toiled and nursed and endured. Food, clothing, medicines were scant. Invasion was borne, with its humiliation and suffering, its train of ravage and desolation. The supporting motive was the common defense, the comradeship of danger and of courage. The Confederacy and its flag had won the devotion which sacrifice and suffering breed. Little thought was there of slavery, little calculation of the future, as the siege grew closer and the shadows darkened—but an indomitable purpose to hold on and fight on. The chief hero of the Confederacy was Lee. He was the embodiment and symbol of what the Southern people most believed in and cared for. He was not one of those who had brought on the trouble; his whole attitude had been defensive. He and his Army of Northern Virginia were the shield of the South. A skilful commander, strong to strike and wary to ward; his personality merged in the cause; gentle as he was strong,—his army trusted and followed him with a faith that grew with every victory, and did not wane under reverses.

Let the negroes in the war-time be judged in the calm retrospect of history. Their fidelity meant the security of the families on every lonely plantation from Virginia to Texas.

Instead of the horror of servile insurrection, women and children were safe in their homes, supported and protected by their servants. It was their labor that made it possible for the whole white population to take the field. It was their fidelity and kindliness that kept the social structure sound, even though pierced and plowed by the sword. Their conduct was a practical refutation of the belief that they were in general sufferers from inhuman treatment. It was a proof that slavery had included better influences than its opponents had recognized. But it suggested, too, that a people capable of such things under slavery were fully ready for an upward step, and might be trusted with freedom.

They gave another proof of fitness for freedom when, enlisted in the Union armies, they showed the qualities of good soldiership. They accepted discipline, and developed under it. They were brave in battle, and in victory they were guiltless of excess. It was a wonderful epoch in the race's history,—the transition from servitude to freedom,—and in that ordeal, first as slaves and then as soldiers, they showed themselves worthy of the deliverance that had come at last.

As soldiers, they found leaders in the flower of the North. Such was Robert Gould Shaw, of the best blood and training of Massachusetts; a son of Harvard; serving from the first as private and then as captain; called by Governor Andrew in 1863 to the command of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, the first black regiment mustered into service; taking a place which risked not battle peril only but social obloquy; training his recruits into soldiers; leading them in a hopeless onset against the batteries of Fort Wagner; falling at their head; buried in a ditch with his men; honored in an immortal sculpture which portrays the young, highbred hero in the midst of the humble, faithful men for whom he gave his life.

All the energies of the North were at the highest stretch. In those whose hearts were in the strife, at home or in the field, there was a great glow and elation. The intensity of the time communicated itself to industry and trade. There was an almost feverish activity; with heavy taxation and a fluctuating currency—gold was long at a premium of 250—mills and markets and stores were in full tide of operation. The North matched the South in personal courage and generalship; and greatly outweighed it in numbers, material, and in the productivity engendered in a free, urban, industrial society. The passion of the war touched everything. The churches were strongholds of the national cause. The Sanitary and Christian Commissions kept camp and home in close touch. But under all this stir was the tragedy of wide-spread desolation and bereavement. The multitudinous slaughter of campaigns like the Wilderness had an awful background of woful families.

Arduous achievement, heroism and anguish, suffering and sacrifice for the cause of the nation and humanity—that was the North's story in those years. It is a sublime story as we look back:

The glory dies not, and the grief is past.

Once more the North was called on to solemnly decide, in the election of 1864. Against Lincoln was nominated by the Democrats, General McClellan, himself a stainless soldier and a patriot, but supported by every element of hostility to emancipation, of sympathy with the Southern cause, and of impatience with the long and burdensome struggle. The platform called for an immediate armistice, to be followed by a convention of the States, or other peaceable measures for the restoration of the Union. McClellan's letter of acceptance ignored the platform, and declared strongly for the persistent maintenance of the Union. The result of the election was a majority of 400,000 votes in 4,000,000 for Lincoln, every State supporting him save New Jersey, Kentucky, and Delaware.

It was the greatness of the prize at stake that justified the cost. Lowell sang the true song of the war, when the end was almost reached, in the poem that records the sore loss to his own family,—his three nephews, "likely lads as well could be,"—slain on the battle-field. In that lofty, mournful verse, there is no drum and trumpet clangor, but the high purpose whose roots are watered by tears:

Come, Peace, not like a mourner bowed

For honor lost an' dear ones wasted,

But proud, to meet a people proud,

With eyes thet tell o' triumph tasted!

Come, with han' grippin' on the hilt,

An' step that proves ye Victory's daughter!

Longin' for you, our sperits wilt

Like shipwrecked men's on raf's for water.

Come, while our country feels the lift

Of a gret instinct shoutin' "Forwards!"

An' knows thet freedom ain't a gift

Thet tarries long in han's o' cowards!

Come, sech ez mothers prayed for, when

They kissed their cross with lips thet quivered,

An' bring fair wages for brave men,

A nation saved, a race delivered.

With Grant and Lee locked in the last desperate struggle at Petersburg, with final victory almost in sight, Lincoln spoke his second inaugural,—too grave for exultation, with the note of humility and faith. He is awed before the course of events since he stood there four years ago. He feels the strangeness of both combatants appealing to the same Bible and the same God. For himself and his people he utters the fond hope, the fervent prayer, that "this awful scourge of war may pass away." He accepts the suffering as the penalty of the nation—the whole nation—for the sin of slavery. Humbly, resolutely, he faces with his people the final effort, the sacred duty: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, and to all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."