Emancipation: A Long, Complex Process

Thomas Nast's famous depiction of the end of slavery in the United States
Thomas Nast’s famous depiction of the end of slavery in the United States

I’m still reflecting a bit on the U.S. military’s agency in destroying slavery. Please bear with me. It is still my contention that the military played a significant role in that crucial event in our history. Something that was mentioned in my conference paper that has not been mentioned here is the fact that the contraband policy–which determined that slaves that had run away from their (Rebel) masters to seek protection within Union military lines were to be protected by the military, not sent back to their masters–was a creation of the military, specifically General Benjamin F. Butler, not the U.S. government. The idea behind it was that since slaves were considered “property” under Confederate (and U.S., for that matter) law, this “property” of the Confederacy could now be confiscated by Union forces for the benefit of the Union war effort as “contraband of war.” We should remember that Abraham Lincoln didn’t even like this measure at first! Eventually, as the United States military began to penetrate deeper into the South, they “systematically uprooted tens of thousands of slaves from their plantations to relocate them in areas safe from the reach of their former masters,” according to James Oakes in his new book Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (pg. 281). (These ‘Contraband camps,’ were actually not very safe for their health, however.)

I often tire of the discussion regarding “who freed the slaves?” because it presupposes that it was one person or entity that was responsible for ending it. On one side we get the crowd who calls (and writes about) Lincoln the “Great Emancipator,” while on the other we get a growing crowd who seem to be arguing that the slaves themselves were almost wholly responsible for freeing themselves (this is an interesting article from Indian Country Today Media Network, which offers a wholly different interpretation on Lincoln’s legacy, by the way).

The reality is that emancipation was a long, complex process that involved Lincoln, the slaves themselves, the abolitionists, the Union military, the Confederacy (which determined that the institution of slavery was safer out of the Union than in it. Oops!], and many, many other actors and agents. Furthermore, I think it’d be impossible for one to put all of these factors into a ranked list and say that “X did this much to end slavery, Y did this much, Z did this much.” In speaking about the military’s agency in emancipation I am not arguing that they did more or less than any other person or organization with an interest in ending slavery. Rather, I’m seeking to follow Gary Gallagher’s steps and establish some sort of acknowledgement for their part in the process.