The U.S. Military and Emancipation: A Question of Agency

The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Red States free.
The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Red States free. (Click to Enlarge)

I enjoyed presenting my paper and meeting several historians throughout the states of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee at the IAH Conference today. As mentioned two days ago, the central argument of my paper was that the U.S. military has played an active role in shaping the constructs of social policy throughout our history, and that more research is needed to understand the military’s influence in these matters. After my presentation an audience member asked me a very good question that is worth further elaboration here. He asked how I was able to determine a difference between the agency [the power of choosing or determining a course of action] of the federal government and the military in shaping social policy. If I understood the question correctly, he is basically asking the following:

“Isn’t the military supposed to take orders from the Chief Executive?”

“Is it fair to say that the military played a role in shaping social policy when in actuality they were merely enforcing the orders of the federal government, the true agents in calling for emancipation during the Civil War and the end of segregation during the Civil Rights movement?”

On the face of it, the answer to both is yes. When looking at events during the Civil Rights movement, the question of agency and the U.S. military is tougher to answer. However, the circumstances surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation and the military’s part in helping to enforce the act demonstrate that the military did have a fair amount of agency in helping to destroy the institution of slavery during the Civil War.  It was not merely an act of the military “enforcing orders” from the President. I’ll explain why.

In looking at the relationship between the military and the executive branch during the Civil War (and, by extension, the period from 1776-1898) we must internationalize our context and compare/contrast the military-executive relationship with a wider range of countries. When we do this, we see that the United States and their republican form of government are the exception to the rule of governmental structures during this period. We must remember that England, France, Austria, Hungary, Russia, the areas that would eventually become the countries of Italy and Germany, and many other countries still had a monarchical form of government at this time. Furthermore, we have to keep in mind the fact that the power of these monarchical regimes relied on the military to enforce the King’s actions. In sum, these Kings greatly relied on the military for legitimacy. If the King took an action that the military didn’t like, there was always a possibility that a military coup would overthrown the King’s government and put in its own puppet regime. You can see here that there were many successful military coups in the 18th and 19th centuries, and this was the world in which the United States was attempting to maintain a form of government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” to quote Abraham Lincoln.

The world was watching the Civil War and waiting to see what would happen to this republican form of government. Would it perish? Would Lincoln be overthrow by the Union military when things starting going bad in 1862? Would a new Northwest Confederacy emerge?

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, there remained a sense of uncertainty about how the act would be received in the border slave states (Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Maryland, and Delaware) and the Union military. Rumors spread that thousands of soldiers were going to throw down their guns and go home in protest against a war for abolition. Such concerns in Lincoln’s mind led him to prevent John Fremont from issuing his own Emancipation edict in Missouri earlier in 1861.

Given the high number of recent military coups that had occurred in Europe and the widespread criticism Lincoln received for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, I’m not convinced that the process of having the Union military enforcing emancipation is as easy as “following orders” from the President because the military-executive relationship was tenuous and unstable. Turning the war into one for abolition was risky and could have possibly led to a coup against the Lincoln government from the soldiers of the border and/or western states. If the Union Army refused to enforce emancipation, what would have happened?

According to Reid Mitchell, following the Emancipation Proclamation, “some soldiers were jubilant, others horrified, and still more accepted the war’s transformation with troubled minds.” That last part is notable. Many soldiers put their own feelings aside and simply soldiered on. Let us look at a letter from Andrew Bush, an Indiana soldier in the 97th Indiana volunteer regiment, for his reaction to Emancipation:

We have not much news here but much anxiety is felt for northern news amongst some of the soldiers in regard to the welfare of old Hoosier. It is reported frequently amongst us that Indiana is about to form a government [the aforementioned Northwest Confederacy] of her own with some other of the western states… Some of our boys are jubilant over the news; they think that if old Indiana should slip out of the Union they would get to go home; but they will find out that they are in mistake for us soldiers don’t belong to Indiana, for we are sworn to obey the president of the United States and we are in his service and he can hold us in spite of anything that we and our friends can do.

I don’t like old Abe’s proclamation but I can’t help myself at this time. If I had thought that it was the idea to set the negroes all free they would not have got me to act the part of a soldier in this war. But as it is I am willing to fight for the Union if it will cause the freedom of the last beastly negro in the South for I don’t think that they are human. I am in for anything that will cause Union and peace of our once happy government.

Andrew Bush did not care one ounce for African Americans, but he helped to end the institution of slavery in the country by being a Union soldier. Following the Emancipation Proclamation he refused to lie his gun down because his nationalism and belief in a republican form of government overrode his personal views. “We are in his service,” Bush claims. There were no further questions to ask. This was not a European country ruled by an oppressive king and his strong military, but a government ruled by the people and the ballot box, and this was the ideal Bush believed he was fighting for. Such letters reinforce my argument that many members in the military–guided by a strong sense of nationalism during the Civil War–put aside their personal views and decided to support Lincoln’s controversial measures during the deadliest war in American history. So it seems to me that the military did have an element of agency in helping to end slavery in this country. In the words of Gary Gallagher, they became “an army of liberation.”

P.S.: It did NOT take me this long to answer the question at the conference!