Episode 16: The End of War and of Slavery
A New History of the American South
Dr Edward Ayers (2018)
Rather than describing specific battles, Ayers limits this lecture to a brief overview of the Civil War, beginning with the stalemate reached by 1862. By this point, Union ships controlled the entire coast along the periphery of the Confederacy. The latter, in turn, still controlled nearly all South’s productive farmland.
As the North pushed into Confederate territory, slaves fled their plantations to seek Union Army protection. Some Union officers returned slaves to their owners while others retained them as guides in unfamiliar Confederate territory. In August 1861, Congress passed a law classifying slaves crossing Union lines as “contraband of war” and banning their return to their owners. Instead they were housed in overcrowded, hastily constructed “contraband” camps, where they experienced tragically high mortality rates.
Meanwhile internal divisions in both North and South continued to hamper the war effort. While northern “Copperhead” Democrats openly opposed emancipation, Lincoln fought with other Republicans seeking to grant former slaves the right to enlist in the Union army. In April 1862, Washington DC officially ended slavery, issuing compensation to former slave owners.
In mid 1862 Lincoln pushed a law through Congress authorizing Union generals to confiscate or destroy southern plantations as. He also issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an Executive Order that took effect on January 1, 1863 that freed all slaves in Confederate states.
Convinced speculators were hoarding flour, in early 1863 poor southern women staged bread riots in Salisbury (North Carolina), Atlanta, Columbus and Augusta. After southern farmers rebelled against “impressment” of their crops by Confederate troops without adequate compensation, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens openly lambasted the tyrannical policies of Jefferson Davis.
The Civil War is still the most costly US war ever, in terms of lives lost. The North lost 365,000 men to wounds and disease and the South (with a smaller population) 260,000. 37,000 Black men serving in the Union army died, and 10,000 Black men, women and children died in contraband camps.
By the end of the war, the southern economy was virtually destroyed, with many cities reduced to rabble, and many acres of farmland abandoned. In contrast, the northern economy was growing robustly with Lincoln’s greenbacks* spurring rapid expansion in business investment and manufacturing.
Congress passed the 13th Amendment (banning slavery in the US) in January 1865, though the war wouldn’t end until May. It would be ratified by 27 of the required 36 states by December.
With the formal status of former slaves uncertain, some former slave owners fled to Latin America, some chained them up to keep them from leaving and others let slaves continued to live in their cabins and work for wages or for a share of crops they produced.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, formed in March 1865 as a US government agency, dispensed free medicine, food and clothing to poor whites and blacks. It also created courts to settle disputes between landowners and former slaves, drew up contracts, and set up public schools.
Southern Blacks themselves were politically divided. More wealthy black teachers, ministers and artisans merely sought equality before the law and the right to vote. In contrast impoverished former slaves were mainly interested in acquiring their own land.
As Congress was in recess (until December 1865) when Vice-president Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency (following Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865) they had virtually no influence over his policies. Under the so-called Presidential Reconstruction program he launched he granted amnesty to former Confederate leaders who signed a loyalty oath, protecting them from seizure of their property and prosecution for treason. He made no provision for Blacks to vote and refused to intervene when former Confederate states enacted Black Codes restricting the rights of former slaves. While allowing them to marry, own (non-real estate) property and sue and be sued, these laws forbade them to change jobs, own or rent land, testify in court or practice certain occupations.
*Greenbacks were emergency paper currency Lincoln issued during the Civil War when both US and European banks refused to grant his government loans at a reasonable rate of interest.
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