December 7, 2023

The Place of Slavery in the Early Union War

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By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The American Civil war played a significant role in the history of the nation. The war fulfilled a number of important purposes, such as giving Abraham Lincoln an opportunity to issue his preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation. However, the place that emancipation held during early Union War was very different from what it is often construed to be. Read to understand what the truth was. 

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln at Antietam with other prominent figures of the Civil war, including George B. McLellan, Scout Adams, and Alexander Web.
Even though the abolishment of slavery was one of the most important issues in The Civil War, it was not the primary aim of the North, especially during the beginning. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Slavery was one of the biggest causes of the sectional tensions that culminated into the war. The secession of the South was largely a reaction to a perceived threat that the victorious Republican Party would not only prevent slavery from expanding into the Federal territories, but would also strike at slavery where it existed in the Southern states.

Yet, for the first year and a half of the war, the issue of slavery was in the background in terms of Northern war aims.

Northern Aims

The North went to war to save the Union, and, as long as this was the war aim, there was remarkable unity in the North. However, there soon was a fast-growing debate about the future of the Union following a Northern victory—was it wise to form a Union with slavery, which Northern democrats, and even some conservative Republicans, favored, or a Union without slavery, which black and white abolitionists and the radical Republicans insisted should be the case?

It was on the outcome of this debate that the question of whether it would be a full-fledged war for victory, after which the South would have to replicate the policies of the North, or whether it would be a limited battle, aimed at negotiating the differences between the two sides, relied. 

There is no doubt about the fact that it was a war for the Union in the beginning. In fact, had the white North been polled in the spring and early summer of 1861, and people had been asked about what they hoped to accomplish through the war, the majority would have said that the war was about maintaining the Federal Union and not letting the South destroy it. 

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Republican Stance on Slavery

The Republican platform of 1860 explicitly said there’d be no interference with slavery where it already existed. Lincoln himself affirmed this time and again, including in his inaugural address in March 1861, and in a July 4, 1861, message to Congress. 

The Congress also stated, in a resolution offered by Senator Crittenden of Kentucky, in July 1861, that the war was not being held with the intention to overthrow any established institutions of the Southern states. What was really meant was that this was not a war to kill slavery in the South.

Four officers of the Union in front of their tent with two African - Americans behind them.
There were a number of Republicans who, instead of being against slavery, proactively supported it. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

This resolution was meant to reassure the border states, which had remained loyal to the North, and keep them aligned with the Union as the war went on. Unsurprisingly, the resolution passed, almost unanimously, in Congress. Not only did the Democrats support it, but so did many Republicans. 

Abraham Lincoln’s Take on Slavery

There was no doubt about the fact that Abraham Lincoln was personally very much against slavery. However, it was important for him to be diplomatic about his handling of the situation—he understood the fact that given that he was the president of all the people in the North, he would need to be extremely careful about how he navigated the issue of emancipation, or the connection of emancipation to the war among the different constituencies of the North. 

Like most in the North, Lincoln was well aware of the protection that the Constitution legally offered to slavery. In fact, the North fought the war, to a large extent, based on the idea that the South could not really secede if secession was illegal. 

Lincoln often brought up the fact that the states did not have the right to secede. While he would often have to change his implication according to the situation, he often stated that the states could not secede and were still in the Union.

Learn more about the Confederate States.

Domestic Institutions and the Border States

The fact of the matter was that if the states were still in the Union, the Constitution would still apply to them and slavery would still be protected, and Lincoln wouldn’t have had any power to kill slavery if it was protected by the Constitution. The Constitution left control of what it called ‘domestic institutions’ to the states, and everyone agreed that slavery was a domestic institution, and, by that reasoning, only the states could get rid of slavery. It was not something the president could simply do away with. A majority in both the North and the South accepted this concept in 1861.

The importance that the border states held for Lincoln could not be overstated. He cared immensely about their staying in the Union, especially Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. He believed that if he moved quickly against slavery, he would alienate all of those border slave states. This was also something the Congress wished to avoid. 

Learn more about the role of slavery in causing the war.

The White North and Emancipation

A final element to this dynamic came from the fact that the White North was deeply divided over the issue of emancipation. In fact, many White Northerners, practically all the Democrats, were perfectly happy with the position of slavery. There was no reason that would push them against slavery, and many conservative Republicans were not really all that concerned about emancipation.

Lincoln also wanted to remember the fact that nearly half the free state voters had voted against him in 1860, and that he needed to keep the North united in an effort to defeat the South and restore the Union. Abraham Lincoln believed that by insinuating emancipation into the issues that were being raised by the war, he would risk this unity, and alienate a significant population of the North. 

Therefore, although he personally wished to abolish slavery, he needed to move slowly, gradually, and carefully, if he were to keep any sort of consensus present in the North.

Common Questions about the Place of Slavery in the Early Union War

Q: What did the North aim to accomplish with the war in the beginning?

The North had gone to war in an attempt to save the Union. In fact, the abolishment of slavery was never one of the goals of the war during its first half.

Q: How did the Republicans react to slavery in the beginning of the war?

The Republicans explicitly stated that the existing institutions of slavery, specifically in the South, would not be interfered with because of the war. Lincoln, too, reaffirmed this idea again and again in a number of his addresses.

Q: How did Lincoln handle the issue of slavery in the early years of the Civil War?

Lincoln, in many of his speeches, often reaffirmed the fact that the war was not meant to put any pressure on the preexisting institution of slavery in the South. Although he was himself against slavery, Lincoln wished to move slowly so as not to alienate the border states, which were very important to the Union, especially Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.

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