False Expectations

Sometimes expectations are premeditated disappointments and other times the fearful ones are like the great many calamities Mark Twain suffered during his life, most of which never happened.

Mark Twain

In late June 1862 Washington brimmed with expectations that the Confederacy teetered on the brink of collapse. The first six months of the year provided a string of apparently unstoppable federal victories in the West. They began in January at Mill Springs in Kentucky and continued with the surrender of 14,000 Rebels at Fort Donelson in February, the ejection of Confederates from Missouri in March at Pea Ridge, and culminated with the repulse of the supreme Confederate counter-offensive at Shiloh in April. Even a Rebel offensive in remote New Mexico was turned back.

In May the South’s largest city, New Orleans, surrendered to a Union fleet that fought past the city’s downstream fortifications. When Memphis was occupied in early June only a single Rebel outpost at Vicksburg prevented Union commerce from flowing down the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers to export markets through New Orleans.

Union prospects were also favorable in the East where Union Major General George McClellan commanded the largest army ever assembled in the Western hemisphere. His troops were so close to the Confederate capital, they could set their watches by Richmond’s church bells. He planned to smash the city’s defenses to rubble once he concentrated heavy siege guns at Old Tavern less than six miles from the town, which he would then take by assault. From the federal perspective, unless something unexpected happened, optimistic expectations seem justified because even the opposing commander, Robert E. Lee, wrote a subordinate, “unless McClellan can be driven out of his entrenchments he will move by positions under cover of his heavy guns within shelling distance of Richmond.”

But the unexpected did happen. In a nearly continuous period of fighting starting on June 26, Robert E. Lee’s smaller army relentlessly drove McClellan back twenty miles to a defensive redoubt on the James River under the protective guns of a Union naval flotilla. Lee’s “trick” was to concentrate superior numbers at the points of attack and to demoralize McClellan with persistent assaults. Once ensconced at the James River, Lincoln could not persuade McClellan to resume an offensive without the latter demanding sizeable, and unavailable, reinforcements.

McClellan’s reluctance enabled Lee to take the initiative and attack a second federal army in northern Virginia, which he routed at the Second Battle of Bull Run at the end of August. During a postscript battle to cut off the enemy’s retreat to Washington, Lee’s men came within twenty miles of the White House. In two months the battlefront switched from the doorstep of the Confederate capital to the porch of the US capital.

Lincoln reasoned that if his generals would not take the initiative militarily, he would do so politically and diplomatically by redefining the war as one to abolish slavery. The revision would not be completely valid because Lincoln would always insist upon reunification as a peace condition. At no time did he agree to stop fighting if Southerners merely freed their slaves. During the first half of the war he only required reunification, whereas during the second half he insisted upon reunion and emancipation.

Lincoln privately suggested emancipation during a July 22, 1862 cabinet meeting. The surprised secretaries had expected to discuss other matters such as the colonization of ex-slaves. Partly because it was awkwardly written in an attempt to reconcile with his earlier anti-abolition actions, after reading it aloud to his secretaries his audience needed a few moments to comprehend the message. He spoke of providing monetary compensation to any state that provided for abolition, presumably even if gradual. Only at the end did he read – as a war measure – that general emancipation would be mandatory in the rebellious areas on January 1, 1863.

War Secretary Edwin Stanton and Attorney General Edward Bates urged immediate adoption. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase felt it might be too disruptive and could promote a slave uprising. He preferred that the generals in the field free the slaves district by district. Secretary of State William Seward, who had prior knowledge of Lincoln’s thoughts, worried the economic effect could “break up…cotton production for sixty years.” Evidently, he fretted that free men could not be persuaded to grow cotton. But Seward was also concerned that the European powers would regard it as an impotent shriek from a losing combatant. The conservative Postmaster General opposed it on the grounds that it would damage the Party’s autumn election prospects.

The meeting adjourned with no decision. However, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner learned of the discussion and pressed Lincoln for each of the next five days to make the announcement. Finally, Lincoln told the senator, “We mustn’t issue it until after a victory.”

While universally applauded today, some of Lincoln’s contemporaries were apprehensive about the proposal. Secretary Chase was not the only leader to worry that emancipation might trigger a slave rebellion. George McClellan was another and believed that Lincoln deliberately sought to incite such an insurrection as a means of winning the war. McClellan was no isolated example. For example, he received 45% of the popular vote in the 1864 wartime presidential election against Lincoln. Moreover, serious Civil War students are aware that in August 1864 Lincoln believed he would lose the election to McClellan. Charles Francis Adams, Jr. who was a Union soldier, grandson, and great grandson of two US presidents even believed it was the prevailing opinion that emancipation would arouse a slave insurrection to promptly end the Southern rebellion.

When it was publicly announced in late September, news of the Emancipation Proclamation infuriated the British and French. The British chargé d’affaires in Washington wrote the British Foreign Secretary in London that the president sought only to offer “direct encouragement to servile insurrections.” Even a Union ally in Parliament, Richard Cobden, said the use of Blacks in the war would provoke “one of the most bloody and horrible episodes in history.” The London Times accused Lincoln of inciting a slave rebellion, as did other prominent British newspapers. The French newspapers were almost as venomous. Historian Howard Jones summarizes the initial British and French reactions:

The Lincoln administration’s tardy stand against slavery…appeared to be a hypocritical and desperate attempt to salvage victory from defeat. The measure, they argued, would justify intervention by inciting slave uprisings followed by a race war that spread beyond America’s border…

In a speech to an abolitionist group in Chicago shortly before publicly announcing the Proclamation in September 1862, Lincoln said that a “moral” justification for emancipation must consider the “possible consequences of insurrection and massacre of the South.”

Eventually, however, there were no such uprisings and the British and French came to credit Lincoln with the moral high ground. The important commonly overlooked point, however, is that informed contemporaries perceived a slave rebellion and multinational race wars as genuine risks. Moreover, Lincoln’s September 1862 speech to the Chicago abolitionists confirms that he also believed there were such risks.

Perhaps reactions from the British, French, and others caused Lincoln to amend the Emancipation Proclamation when it became effective on January 1, 1863. In the second version released on that date the president added: “I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence…”

That language is altogether missing in the first public version released on September 22, 1862. Readers are invited to address the implied question: Why did Lincoln wait three months clarify the point?


If you enjoyed the preceding analysis, you may want to buy one of my Civil War books:

Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Annotated and Illustrated
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies


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