Monthly Archives: October 2013

A King’s Cure for All Evils: Lincoln, the End of the War, and Slavery

Before the Civil War, Lincoln was staunch in his antislavery beliefs and denied access to equal rights for African Americans. Throughout the war, his views evolved considerably. He denied Frémont’s 1861 call for military emancipation because he did not see it as a necessity, but by 1862 he began to see slavery as intrinsically linked to the war cause. In a December 1862 address to Congress, he said “without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” and outlined his ideas for emancipation, which included gradual and compensated emancipation (146). This proposal was to further the war cause and quicken reunion, not necessarily to give the salves the freedom they deserved. However, Lincoln never abandoned his personal moral opposition to slavery. In the Gettysburg Address of November 19th, 1963 he reminded the nation that the war advanced the notion of equality between blacks and whites.

“Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address” by Dan Duffy. From

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. In December of the same year, he addressed Congress and outlined the effectiveness of emancipation on the war effort. He emphasized that the “full one hundred thousand” (186) black men now enlisted in the Union military provided both manpower and worked against the Confederacy by taking away their slaves and employing them against the Confederate war effort.  White soldiers, though originally reluctant to embrace emancipation as a war aim, began to support it once they saw that it would be the best way to dry up the support system of the Confederacy. By 1864, Lincoln began calling for voting rights for the “very intelligent” blacks as well as those who fought for the Union (193). In April, he said: “I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong” (194).  He presented his opposition to slavery as not only one that is morally right, but one that is inherent in man’s sense of justice and righteousness, as well as one ordered by God. He claimed that emancipation became a military necessity not only due to the manpower crisis, but also due to the refusal of Border States to voluntarily accept gradual emancipation. Previously, Lincoln kept this personal view of slavery to himself, but the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the general acceptance of black troops gave Lincoln the green light to announce his personal opinions.

Lincoln did not sway from this position – he used previous actions such as the Militia Act of 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment as well as the views of the people (213) to validate and further his views on slavery. In his Second Inaugural Address, he cited slavery as the cause for the war and without its abolishment, the war would continue forever. Lincoln’s views on slavery evolved due to events outside of his control, and he eventually supported complete emancipation and eradication of slavery and suffrage for certain blacks, but his opinions on equal rights remained unclear, for he never said anything directly about black equal rights except in relation to their status as prisoners of war, specifically at Fort Pillow (197). However, his plan of extending suffrage towards some blacks could have evolved into a plan of extending suffrage to all black men during the journey of Reconstruction.

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“I saw no dead man that night whose pockets had not been turned inside out”

Frank Wilkeson (Mathew Brady: c. 1864)

Frank Wilkeson has provided a first-hand account of a rank-and-file Union soldier in his memoir Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac. In his preface, he immediately states that the purpose of his memoir is to show what the war was really like and that he was not “inspired by vanity or jealousy” or to “repair damaged or wholly ruined military reputations” (xiii) like the well-known histories of the war. He acts as the spokesman for the men who he believes truly fought and won the battles: the private soldiers. He specified two main grudges he held against the war the Union conducted the war: the use of volunteers instead of inscription, and the very existence of West Point officers in the field. He emphasized fully on his hatred of West Point and its officers. His vendetta against West Point is chilling and blunt. He denied the soldiering abilities of the West Point officers and went so far as blaming the failures of the Union during the war on these men who, in his eyes, “were commanders, but they were not soldiers”, for soldiers “are not the products of schools” (xvii).

The chapter in which he described the Battle of the Wilderness provided a particularly interesting insight to the war. Wilkeson knowingly left his battery due to lack of action and went towards the battle. He graphically described the moment when he “saw the elephant” – a phrase for the awesome and gruesome experience of the soldiers’ first exposure to war as presented by historian James McPherson in the book’s introduction – and realized that he was in danger when he heard bullets hitting the trees next to him and saw the of a dead officer who had a bullet hole in his forehead out from which his “brain oozed” (62). This first-hand account is indispensible to accounting the story of the Civil War and adds a personal note to the total casualty count that is simply recited as if those numbers were only numbers, and not the lives of men.


Later in the same chapter, Wilkeson described the Confederate men he saw slain on the ground. He seemed to pity their lack of resources and their poverty, but stated, “they fought…like men of purely American blood” (70). This sentiment, along with the chilling account of facing battle, adds a personal note to a part of history that is so deeply studied. Wilkeson felt a bond with his fellow common soldier, albeit that other soldier was his enemy. This kind of identification with a Confederate solider from a Union one should be scrutinized, seeing as it was accounted after the war and Wilkeson’s opinions may have changed.

Wilkeson’s memoir shows a gritty personal experience in comparison to the laudable accounts of military generals. He provided his own brute honesty and supposed true emotions and accounts of events he experienced. His memoir is a bottom-up view of the war instead of a top-down down one, and despite personal bias, limitations due to memory loss, change of opinion, or simple mistake, his accounts of his time as a private solider in Grant’s Army recounted what seemed to be the experience of many of Grant’s men in his 1864 Overland Campaign.

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Animals, Cannon Fodder, or Men?

Currier & Ives, “Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment”

To the slaveholders in the South and to many whites in the North, African Americans were not regarded as people, but as property. This was a heavy blow to the black society as a whole, but was especially troublesome to black men. The denial of their manhood by white society proposed the question of what manhood really was.  Was it someone “born…with manhood” or was it earned? Did it mean something different to black men than it did to white men (77)? How did fighting in the war entitle black men to a label of manliness? Jim Cullen addresses these questions in his essay “’I’s a Man Now’: Gender and African American Men” in Clinton and Silber’s Divided Houses.

The scholarly study of gender is largely a modern phenomenon, but it is helpful to lay the groundwork of gender studies while reading a source dealing with 19th century gender constructs. Sex is biologically determined due to the presence of XX/XY chromosomes and the function of sex organs (usually determined as male or female, with a small percentage of people being born as intersex), while gender is the social construct, norms, and behaviors associated with a sex. Gender is a fluid spectrum and not just male or female, allowing a full scale of options for identification. A person may choose to be gender fluid or gender queer if they feel that they do not fully identify with the male or female gender. Further, a person who is biologically male and identifies as so may also choose to identify as “femme” – a term often used to describe homosexual males who identify as male but are more effeminate than what is deemed normal for male gender identification by greater society. This normalization is based upon structured gender roles: men are strong defenders of the family while women swoon into men’s arms and take care of the children and the home. During the Civil War, many men enlisted and went off to fight, fulfilling the expectations of the male gender. However, these men were always white men, fighting a “white man’s war” (78). How did the black men feel about their denial of manhood and male identification?

Black males were not completely ignored in the war effort, for they found work in the Confederate war machine…yet were denied admission into the Union forces. Why, then, would a black man ever choose to fight at all? The North offered a life of privileges that must “be guarded, if not expanded” and if one were to refuse to fight, it would be “unpatriotic, nay mean and unmanly” to do so (79). The very concept of battle was manly, and the best way for black men to show white men that they were “equal in war as well as peace” (80) was to enlist, but this action was still barred until the First Confiscation Act of 1862. Regardless of official policy, many black men chose to weaken the Confederate infrastructure by engaging in guerrilla warfare, escaping plantations, and/or becoming “contraband” under Butler’s 1861 decree. After Lincoln’s 1862 preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, African American status became the pinnacle of the war effort.

Black men now joined the Union forces with deliberate speed, “possessing the means – and promised a worthy end” (81), finally able to prove themselves to the rest of America. Frederick Douglass promoted enlistment as a surefire way for African American men to obtain citizenship as well as secure “manhood and freedom” (81). The issue of black enlistment was both supported and rejected by the white masses. Those who supported it did so either because they truly believed in the right to fight, or would rather just see black men die in place of white men. Those who opposed enlistment felt in such a way due to racism and their refusal to treat blacks as victors and with “all decent and becoming respect” (82). Many African American soldiers were not allowed to become commissioned officers and received about one-half of the salary attributed to whites. A black commander wrote to the Governor of Massachusetts telling him that he and his men would rather fight without payment if it meant having to “acknowledge that because they have African blood in their veins, they are less men, than those who have saxon” (84).

Men of Color! To Arms! To Arms! (Philadelphia, 1863)

The metamorphosis of a black man turning into a “man” nullified the belief that such a person could be considered property or an animal – an enormous blow to the peculiar institution of slavery. Further, it changed the African American family dynamic. The black man’s newfound manhood would strengthen his authority in his home and allowed him to practice the “intellectual, emotional, and temperamental traits of manhood” (90) previously denied to him in slavery, where he had lost the ability to control his own life. Now, he had the ability to control not only his life, but to oversee his family.

Cullen’s piece highlights the dehumanization aspect of slavery and how desperately black men wished to be seen as humans in the eyes of whites. These men fought “for the right to kill and be killed” (82) and despite all of their mortal sacrifices, which were seen as the “zenith of manhood”, black men “were still dismissed as less than men” (88). Finally, with the removal of enlistment restrictions and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, black men finally staked their rightful claim as men, not slaves, not animals, but American men who fought and sacrificed to save the Union and free themselves while struggling to live up to the social constructs of manhood and the male gender identity.

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