Who really freed the slaves?

April 13, 2012

Lance Selfa and Alan Maass explain how the Southern slavery was overthrown.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN, we are told by the history books we got in high school, "freed the slaves." When you read that phrase, you may have wondered: "All by himself?"

As the president whose election spurred the Southern states to secede from the U.S. and form the Confederacy, Lincoln did play a specific and significant role in the ultimate abolition of slavery.

But he certainly didn't free the slaves by himself. He would have been powerless without the 2.5 million soldiers who served in the Union Army over the course of the Civil War. The conflict between North and South might not have come to a head without the struggle of the abolitionists, who were much more radical than Lincoln in their anti-slavery beliefs.

Most important of all were the masses of slaves themselves, along with free Blacks in the Northern states. Their self-activity--from slave rebellions to participation in the abolitionist movement to their crucial role in the Union army--was critical to the overthrow of slavery.

THE U.S. Civil War represented, as Karl Marx wrote in November 1861, after the war had been underway for some months:

The History of Black America

a conflict between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labor. The struggle broke out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side-by-side on the North American continent. It can only terminate with the victory of one system or the other.

The war threw Southern society into a crisis. The backward Confederate economy, which depended on the labor of 4 million slaves, began to fray at the edges. Since the entire Confederacy included only 9 million people--one-third the population of the North--the activities and struggles of its large enslaved Black population came to play a greater and greater role during the course of the war.

While plantation owners maintained that their "faithful" slaves would rally to the Confederacy's side, slaves resisted the Southern war effort and their masters' attempts to keep them "in line."

The Confederacy attempted to enforce strict labor discipline on the plantation, realizing, as one observer noted at the time, that its economy could not hold out for more than a year against the stronger North unless slaves were made to work harder. State governments and plantation owners set up armed bands of vigilantes to police the plantations. Ever more brutal overseers supervised production.

But slaves did not acquiesce. There were many instances of slaves assassinating overseers. On three Louisiana plantations, slaves killed all the overseers, dividing up the plantations' hogs and chickens among them--effectively taking control. These uprisings were repeated across the South.

Desertions were another form of slave resistance. Large groups of slaves, often several families, would flee the plantations--heading to the free states in the North or, as the Civil War continued and Northern armies marched into the South, reaching the lines of the Northern military forces.

These struggles were extremely important, since they helped to sabotage the Southern war effort. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass called them "the pivot on which the whole rebellion turns."

As the war started turning against it, the Confederacy considered whether to arm Blacks to fight in its army. But the problem was obvious, as a North Carolina plantation owner explained: "Would they not, with arms in their hands, either desert to the enemy or turn their weapons against us?" As it turned out, the Confederacy authorized the recruitment of Blacks only one month before the final battle of the war, at Appomattox in Virginia, where Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender ended the fighting.

Many Blacks who kept their arms, as well as those who retained weapons they received after deserting to the Union army, provided the force to back up African American claims for civil and political rights in the war's aftermath.

This, along with the presence of Union military forces in the South, was critical to the period of Reconstruction after the war, when there was a struggle over whether former slaves would get to exercise the rights they won with the downfall of slavery. In the end, the disarming of the Black militias was part of the ending of Reconstruction in 1877, when the Southern oligarchs returned to power, with the sanction of the federal government. The system of "Jim Crow" segregation was the result.

KNOWING THIS background of slave resistance is important in understanding the role that Lincoln did play in the war against slavery.

Lincoln himself was morally opposed to slavery. But like many other anti-slavery moderates, he opposed taking action in the name of abolition because he expected the slave system to wither away--and he certainly held racist views about the superiority of whites over Blacks, at least until the final years of the war.

In 1860, Lincoln became the presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party. The Republicans represented a range of positions on the slavery issue, from dedicated abolitionists to those who were hostile to the political and economic power of the South, but opposed to freedom for Black slaves. Lincoln was chosen as the nominee because he stood at the center of this spectrum.

In his inaugural address in 186, Lincoln even gave his support to a constitutional amendment passed by Congress that would have guaranteed slavery in the states where it existed. But on one essential question, he was uncompromising--he opposed the expansion of slavery into new states created in the western expansion of the U.S.

Both sides in the North-South conflict knew that if the slaveocracy couldn't expand westward, it would eventually lose its dominance over the federal government, and the institution of slavery would fall. Lincoln's refusal to concede on this question--even after 11 Southern states declared their independence from the union, and after fellow Republicans with stronger anti-slavery credentials urged negotiations with the Confederacy--was decisive.

After the war broke out, Lincoln at first resisted both abolitionist measures and an all-out mobilization to defeat the South. But he was gradually won over as it became clear that both of these were necessary to win the war.

In 1862, Lincoln decided to declare emancipation, with the aim of cutting the Confederacy's economic base out from under it. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in states that were part of the Confederacy, not in the Border States that stayed with the union, but where slavery was still legal--and not even in parts of the Confederacy that had been conquered by the Union Army.

But the effect was decisive, as Lincoln knew it would be, in turning the Civil War into a war of emancipation. Specifically, the Union Army, as it began to move into the Southern states became an army of liberation--because wherever it advanced, the Emancipation Proclamation would be enforced.

The transformation of the North's war aims--from a limited "police action" to put down a regional rebellion to a total war to destroy the military and economic power of the South--in turn transformed the ideas and views of the soldiers fighting the war. Few had started out as abolitionist opponents of slavery, but many ended up as that. And by the end of the war, Blacks were a central part of the Northern army, accounting for over 10 percent of its soldiers.

Lincoln's own views were changed, as well. By the end of the war, he vigorously defended giving full democratic rights to Blacks who had sacrificed so much.

So Abraham Lincoln didn't "win the Civil War" and he didn't "free the slaves." He played a part in both of these. But so did millions of others, including millions of white Northerners, and especially Blacks who fought for their freedom.

A version of this article was first published in the February 1985 issue of Socialist Worker.

Further Reading

From the archives