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The Great Emancipators: How The Civil War Openly Became about Slavery

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 12, 2024 3:01 am

The Great Emancipators: How The Civil War Openly Became about Slavery

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 12, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Abraham Lincoln is often referred to as "the Great Emancipator"... but that's not the entire truth. Our regular contributor Jon Elfner and Dr. Kate Masur, author of "Until Justice Be Done," tell the rest of the story that begins with three runaway slaves.

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Take a pause and enjoy a Keebler Sandies. And we're back with our American stories. Abraham Lincoln's nickname is the Great Emancipator, but our regular contributor, John Elfner, is about to tell us a story on how that's not quite the whole story.

Here's John. It was a beautiful spring evening in Norfolk, Virginia, the night of May 23rd, 1861. Abraham Lincoln had recently been inaugurated, and by this night, ten southern states, including Virginia, had seceded from the Union.

The scope of the Civil War was still not well understood by most, but the Civil War had begun. Working along the banks of the James River were three men, Frank Baker, Shepherd Mallory, and James Townsend. The men were finishing their assigned task of building a Confederate artillery battery just south of the James River in a location called Sewell's Point. The artillery position was designed to assault a Union fort just across the James River.

The fort was called Fort Monroe. As evening approached, Baker, Mallory, and Townsend decided to abandon the Confederate post and cross the James River to Fort Monroe. And when they traveled that short distance from Sewell's Point to the fort, they became fugitives. You see, according to the laws of Virginia, Frank Baker, Shepherd Mallory, and James Townsend were slaves.

They had run away with the hopes of finding their freedom within Union lines. Any casual student of American history would likely expect the Union soldiers would take them in. After all, the soldiers commander-in-chief was Abraham Lincoln, who would eventually earn the nickname, the Great Emancipator. But when the three arrived at Fort Monroe, the fort's commander, Major General Benjamin Butler, was faced with a dilemma. He knew that he shouldn't be returning the escapees based on Lincoln's public statements about the war. The general ethos at the beginning of the war was, we're not here to get involved with slavery. We are here to try to persuade the Confederates to drop their arms and come back into the Union.

That's Dr. Kate Masur, professor of U.S. history at Northwestern University. She writes about the complexities of the abolition movement in her fantastic new book, Until Justice Be Done, and her research revealed something surprising. U.S. military officers sometimes decided to cooperate with slave owners and return slaves. Everyone knew that the war was about slavery, so it's not that anyone was disguising that the conflict was about slavery. It's true, Lincoln was pretty clear about the role of slavery in the war in his first inaugural address just two months earlier. In that address, he said this, One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.

This is the only substantial dispute. Then why would the escapees not be welcomed into a Union fort during the Civil War? It's because moments later Lincoln added this, I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it currently exists.

I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. First, we have to remember that it was the Confederacy that declared itself out of the Union. The conflict begins with a series of southern states saying that they're no longer part of the United States and then creating this thing called the Confederate States of America, which they say is a separate nation. But this was something Lincoln steadfastly denied throughout the war.

The United States of America was a part of the United States of America. The United States government's position was you cannot secede from the Union, and if force is necessary to show that you, the southern states, are still in the Union, we will use force to prove that the United States is still intact. Lincoln did not want to say that the government was going to attack slavery. This was because Lincoln had a military problem. There were four slave states which had not left the Union, and if those so- to join the Confederacy, it would be devastating for the Union. So any talk of abolition might have caused Lincoln grave problems in the war, and he was especially worried about the state of Kentucky. Lincoln expressed this concern in a private letter to his close friend, Senator O.H.

Browning. I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland.

These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. That's because the Confederate state of Virginia already borders Washington, D.C., and if Maryland secedes, the Capitol would be surrounded by Confederate states. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this Capitol. This explains why Lincoln didn't make public statements attacking slavery early in the war. There's a possibility that when white Kentuckians see that a critical mass of them are going to say, hey, I want to join the Confederacy and continue to fight to preserve slavery.

So he does a lot of different things in the first year or so of the war to try to satisfy folks in those states. He says that he's not going to attack slavery. He says this is not a war about slavery. But the Civil War ended slavery, so how could Lincoln be saying at the start of the war that he had no intention and no power to abolish slavery? It's important to understand that when Lincoln publicly stated that he had no right to get rid of slavery, he was correct. After all, how can he get rid of slavery when just moments earlier he had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution? And like it or not, the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it currently existed.

There's absolutely no doubt that Lincoln loathed slavery. The question was, under the United States Constitution, what power does the president or the federal government have to abolish slavery? He believed that the federal government did not have the power to abolish slavery in the states where it already existed. And at the time of his inauguration, there hadn't been any violence between the Union and the seceded states. So as far as Lincoln was concerned, the Constitution was still in effect throughout the United States, and that included the states that had claimed to secede. They begin with the objective of simply persuading the Confederates to stop what the U.S. government thought was a ridiculous and also treasonous enterprise.

Preserving the Union, that was Lincoln's stated objective at the beginning of the war. And to help keep the focus on preserving the Union, Lincoln's military generals developed a surprising practice. Military officers frequently returned escaped slaves to their owners. U.S. military officers sometimes decided to cooperate with slave owners and return slaves. This really happened. And when enslavers came to U.S. officials and said, hey, this person escaped into your camp, I need them back, the officers would say, okay, let me go find them. And that's what happened.

It happened regularly. The United States has not recognized the Confederacy as a separate nation. There is this 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Under federal law, when escaping slaves cross jurisdictions, the slave owner supposedly has a right to come and get them back. And so that's one of the types of claims that the slave owners would have made. And what did this mean for Baker, Mallory, and Townsend, the three escapees who fled to Fort Monroe? The commander of the fort, General Butler, certainly knew Lincoln's position. And Butler also knew that if he didn't return the slaves, he'd be sending a message that the U.S. forces were attacking slavery. And that was a message Lincoln was working hard to avoid. So when Baker, Mallory, and Townsend arrived at the fort, they were taken in. And consistent with the common practice of returning escapees, Butler may have considered returning them. But when he spoke to the three, he learned that he couldn't do that.

The reason? They'd been installing cannon aimed at Fort Monroe. There was a report written about the conversation and it said this. These able-bodied men, held as slaves, were to build breastworks, to transport or store provisions, to serve as cooks and waiters, and even to bear arms. Butler knew he couldn't return the three men who would immediately be put back to work installing cannon aimed at Fort Monroe. But he needed to find a way around Lincoln's constitutional understanding of the property rights of slave owners. A decision needed to be made.

And it needed to be made quickly because Confederate Major John Baytop Cary was approaching the fort seeking the return of the escapees. And you've been listening to John Elfner tell the story of the Civil War. A different kind of story, a messy story, and a difficult story. And one having a lot to do with what could Lincoln actually do at the time as opposed to what did Lincoln actually want to accomplish.

Lincoln didn't know what was going to happen. More of this remarkable story of the Civil War told by John Elfner here on Our American Stories. Judy was boring. Hello. Then Judy discovered Chumbacasino.com.

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Subscribe now to Variety Confidential, wherever you get your podcasts. And we're back with Our American Stories and the story of how three slaves escaping to the Union's Fort Monroe provided the spark that led to Abraham Lincoln earning the nickname the Great Emancipator. Slaves were traditionally returned to southern slave owners because the Union held that the south was still part of the Union until this moment changed everything. Back to John Elfner with the rest of the story. Union General Benjamin Butler and Confederate officer John Baytop Cary met outside Fort Monroe.

According to a report, their conversation went something like this. I am informed that three slaves belonging to Colonel Mallory have escaped within your lines. What do you mean to do with those escaped slaves?

I intend to hold them. Do you mean then to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them? I mean to take Virginia at her word. I'm under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be. But you say we cannot secede. And so you cannot consistently detain the escapee. But you say you have seceded, so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these escapees as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.

And with that, Cary was sent away without the escapees he'd come to collect. And how was Butler able to justify keeping the escapees? He was relying on something called the International Laws of War.

Dr. Kate Mazur explains. There's a tradition in what are called the International Laws of War. And one of the mainstream ideas was belligerence, or enemies in war can confiscate the property of their enemies. Normally, we would generally respect the property rights, but in wartime, especially property that's going to be used in the war effort, the enemy is allowed to confiscate that property. And what are the enslaved legally considered in Virginia? Property. Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe was thinking about the laws of war and thinking, yeah, if these enslaved people who their owners say their property, well then I can confiscate them as contraband of war. Under international law, property was more typically describing things like guns, horses, and military supplies. But what Butler had recognized was that the Confederate military had categorized slaves as property, and therefore the southerners themselves had opened up the enslaved to confiscation, or what Butler had called contraband.

It's not peacetime, it's wartime, and the commanders have choices about what they're going to do in the situation. Butler, with his word contraband, had created a constitutional loophole that permitted him to hold the escapees. And upon dismissing Kerry, he may have assumed that that was the end of it, but this encounter fundamentally changed the role of slavery in the Civil War. The day after Butler refused to return the escapees, eight more escaped slaves approached the entrance of the fort. The following day, 47 escapees arrived at Fort Monroe. Within two weeks, over 500 escaped slaves had sought asylum there. In word that the Union Army was receiving fugitives and no longer returning them, it began to spread. Four long Union soldiers stationed outside the fort were encountering escapees who were asking, where could they find the Freedom Fort? Butler, by giving asylum to Baker, Mallory, and Townsend, had moved slavery into the political conversation in a way that required it to be addressed by Congress and the President. And it wasn't just Fort Monroe where the escapees began to run.

Then everywhere they go, enslaved people start to escape and come to Union lines. So the story about Fort Monroe is one really critical, very early version of that story, but it's really happening everywhere. And members of Lincoln's inner circle in the White House recognized just how important Fort Monroe was. Lincoln's personal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, wrote about the events at Fort Monroe in their biography of Lincoln.

Here's what they said. Out of this incident, there seems to have grown one of the most sudden and important revolutions in popular thought which took place during the whole war. Baker, Mallory, and Townsend, along with General Butler, in a sense created the power that Lincoln needed by characterizing the escapees as contraband of war. And the growing number of fugitive slaves swelling the Union forts forced Congress to act. Congress in spring of 1862 passes legislation that says from now on there's going to be no returning runaway slaves from our kingdom.

After that point, it was policy of the United States government not to return people. Lincoln supported this legislation, first signing the bill Congress sent to him prohibiting the return of slaves and setting the stage for his later Emancipation Proclamation. But how did a president who said this on his first day of office, I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it currently exists, end up issuing an Emancipation Proclamation two years later that said this, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, the people of shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward and forever free. It's because upon his inauguration, the Civil War had not really begun. Sure, seven states had claimed to secede, but Lincoln's inauguration preceded any violence towards the federal government by the states that had seceded.

But when the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter a month after Lincoln's inauguration, that action fundamentally changed the relationship between the rebels and the federal government. And though Lincoln proceeded cautiously with his public statements about slavery in the early days of the war, as the years passed, he acted more and more aggressively to get rid of slavery. And he used a version of Butler's argument, military necessity to justify the Emancipation Proclamation.

What happens at Fort Monroe is it's it just puts down a marker that things are going to be different and that this is not simply a contest between white northerners and white southerners over whether the states in the Confederacy are going to stay in the Union. It proved to everyone that black people were not going to sit around and wait to be emancipated. So how much credit does Lincoln deserve for the abolition of slavery? There's no doubt Lincoln did a lot to end slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation was a key example of that. Pushing for the 13th Amendment, which constitutionally abolished slavery, was a great example of that. But on how slavery really ended during the Civil War, it's actually a lot more complicated than just the president suddenly deciding in his wisdom to wave his wand and issue an Emancipation Proclamation.

And so we need to take into consideration if we want to really understand the history, what enslaved people themselves were doing, how they made themselves a factor in the war, what Congress was doing, and what the U.S. Armed Forces were doing, and how all of these different parties kind of came together to destroy slavery during the course of the Civil War. Lincoln is without a doubt a masterful politician. So when considering his nickname, the Great Emancipator, there's no denying that Lincoln solved the riddle of how the federal government could order that slaves be permanently free. And in so doing, nearly 4 million slaves were freed over the course of the Civil War. But it took lesser known people like Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend, who had the courage to escape. It took the cleverness of General Benjamin Butler to find a way to refuse their return. It took the hundreds and later thousands of enslaved who escaped to Union lines to pressure Congress to prohibit Union commanders from returning escapees. And it took the lives of over 300,000 Union soldiers to carry out Lincoln's orders.

Yeah, Lincoln did a lot, but he had a lot of help along the way. And a special thanks to John Elfner for the storytelling on that piece. And he's a history teacher in Illinois, and there are so many great history teachers in this country.

They may not have PhDs, and they may not be writing fancy books, but we just got to sit in John Elfner's classroom. And what a privilege that is. Special thanks also to Kate Mazur, her book, Until Justice Be Done, America's First Civil Rights Movement from the Revolution to Reconstruction. Go to your local bookstore or the usual suspects and buy a copy. And my goodness, what a story about three courageous slaves and a courageous general who found a way to do what was right, to do what was in the end, the beginning of the end of slavery.

The Great Emancipators, how the Civil War openly became about slavery. That story here on Our American Stories. and I Heart podcast comes Variety Confidential. I'm your host, Tracy Patton. And in season one, we'll focus on the secret history of the casting couch.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-12 04:29:55 / 2024-01-12 04:38:52 / 9

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