Military Emancipation

Against the Current, No. 172, September/October 2014

Connor Donegan

The Fall of the House of Dixie:
The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South
By Bruce Levine
New York: Random House, 2013, 303 pages, Paperback edition $17.

Freedom National:
The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865
By James Oakes
New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013, 492 pages, $29.95 paperback.

“EASILY THE MOST dramatic episode in American history,” so begins W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America, “was the sudden move to free the four million black slaves in an effort to stop a great civil war, to end 40 years of bitter controversy, and to appease the moral sense of civilization.”(1) James Oakes and Bruce Levine have given us two new histories of that incredible episode which ought to be widely read.

Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie — his fourth book on the Civil War period — masterfully draws out the contours and hidden fissures of the “solid South” which erupt through the course of war into food riots, armed resistance to Confederate rule, slave rebellion and even outspoken opposition of slaveholders to their own Confederate government (themes also touched on in Freedom National.)

 Like Edgar Allen Poe’s “House of Usher,” these fissures ultimately bring down the imposing House of Dixie. This metaphor serves as a wonderful narrative device but it is historically limited, since — for reasons we will discuss — the South lost the war but the House of Dixie certainly lived on.

While The Fall is a wide-ranging social history of the Civil War, Oakes’ Freedom National is more tightly focused on emancipation and the Republican Party.

Oakes is an influential historian of the South whose previous works include two major books on slavery and slaveholders, a study of the interrelationship between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln; his last was The Scorpion’s Sting: Anti-Slavery and the Coming of the Civil War.

Freedom is a highly informative and at times engrossing read that recounts the course of Republican policies towards slavery and emancipation. Most notably, Oakes provides a deeper understanding of the legal and political strategies developed by abolitionists and how they unfolded over the course of the Civil War. This is not a study of the abolitionist movement as a whole and the role of Black abolitionists in this book is unfortunately limited to wartime events.

Neither book discusses at any length the role of the northern capitalists who maintained a powerful presence in both major political parties. Nor, as I’ll discuss below, do the authors take into account the relationship between settler colonialism and the conflict that repeatedly surfaced as a struggle to control newly acquired territory, finally erupting into violent sectional struggle following the creation of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories in 1854.

What Caused the War?

“These days most scholars agree that the South seceded to protect slavery,” Oakes writes, “but neo-revisionists commonly deny that the North was animated by any impulse to destroy it.” (xvii) While Oakes provides a history of the development of abolitionist legal strategy, Levine provides the broader social context that heightened sectional conflict over slavery.

Levine provides a panoramic picture of southern society, in particular the profits accrued through investments in slave-plantations, the unfathomable brutality required to efficiently exploit and control the labor of nearly four million enslaved persons, and the planters’ deep ideological attachment to racial slavery as the natural basis of republican government and their “way of life.” On the other hand, “middle-class northerners [craftsmen and independent farmers] embraced their region’s distinctive social order” and came to view personal autonomy as an essential pillar of the good society.

As the United States continually acquired new territory to the West of its borders, these two social orders clashed repeatedly over which region’s white population would exploit the soil and win the new Federal offices and power that followed statehood.

The planters’ vociferous reaction to northern attempts to exclude slavery from the prospective state of Missouri instigated anti-slavery activism in the North amongst a small but vocal minority. Planters responded by fortifying their police state, bolstering slave patrols, restricting slave movement and attacking the remaining rights of free Blacks.

Moreover they tried to supress any white with anti-slavery ideas by purging abolitionist material from the mail, barring anti-slavery petitions and speeches from the U.S. House of Representatives and organizing violent attacks on abolitionists North and South. (Levine, 31-32)

Conflict continued to escalate as each side’s actions only inflamed the other. The Compromise of 1850 sought to ease tensions by allowing white male voters in Utah and New Mexico to decide whether to allow or bar slavery in their states. California would enter the Union as a free state, but residents of all free states were now compelled to assist federal marshals in catching Blacks escaping bondage. Tensions eased but neither side was satisfied.

The surface-level tranquility was broken following the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened vast amounts of land (now seven separate states) to settlement while allowing white male settlers in each new state to determine the status of slavery.

If that “popular sovereignty” clause was not inflammatory enough, “proslavery forces in Kansas employed oppressive laws and wanton extralegal violence to muzzle and intimidate antislavery settlers.”

Soon afterwards the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that a master may enter free states and territories for an unspecified amount of time without risk of losing his human property. Further, the Court declared that Congress had no power to outlaw slavery anywhere.

The Republican Party arose in direct response to these events, especially the violent conflagration in Kansas. The Party’s platform aimed to halt the spread of slavery and secure “Free Soil” for free laborers. Many believed that by halting slavery’s expansion, slavery in the South would eventually implode or disintegrate.

By 1860, most northern voters “were now convinced that only a party committed to halting slavery’s expansion once and for all and checking the political power of slavery’s champions could defend their own rights and interests.” (Levine, 36-37)

Among Oakes’ contributions is conveying the extent to which abolitionist legal scholars managed to construct a very new reading of the Constitution. Whereas it had been believed that the Constitution presumed that slavery was legal in any jurisdiction where positive (state or local) law did not ban it, the Republican approach to the Territories rested on the claim that slavery was always illegal until provided for by pro-slavery legislation.

In other words, because the founders suffused the Constitution “with a bias toward freedom intrinsic to the ‘law of nations,’” only when positive law overrules natural law could slavery become legal. Wherever the Constitution was sovereign, as in the territories or Washington D.C., “slavery was presumptively illegal.” (Oakes, 9) (At that time and for long afterwards Constitutional law was often considered inapplicable to local jurisdictions under the doctrine known as “dual federalism.”)(2)

Thus the title of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner’s first speech to Congress, “Freedom national; slavery sectional,” was a call to upend the previous interpretation of the Constitution (‘slavery national’) and halt the expansion of slavery. Republicans later proclaimed they would isolate, undermine and ultimately squeeze the life out of slavery everywhere in the United States.

With the growth of the Republican Party and the booming population growth in the North, planters saw that their political power would only deteriorate over time. Worst of all, if Republicans were powerful enough to win the presidency then abolitionism could eventually be promoted in the South. (Levine, 40-41)

When Lincoln won the presidency with 40% of the popular vote (due to a split Democratic ticket), planters seceded on the ground that the Union was no longer compatible with slavery.

Historical Blind Spots: Colonialism and Abolition

Levine and Oakes offer complementary and often compelling accounts of the sharpening of sectional conflict, but they unfortunately follow the standard practice amongst U.S. historians of relegating any substantive mention of American Indians to a sub-field. This serves to whitewash U.S. history of conquest and genocide and fabricates a purely progressive narrative.

While settler-colonialism was integral to the question of sectional conflict and specifically the rise of anti-slavery sentiment to a mass-level in the North, both books are structured by a colonial ideology that presumes the non-existence or benign disappearance of Indigenous peoples.

The working class of the United States considered the “disappearance” of Indians and the acquisition of their territory to be both divine and inevitable. While northern workers and farmers were right to fear the consequences for labor in the North if the slaveholders continued to roll back anti-slavery provisions, their anti-slavery politics were also driven by the demand for a Homestead Act to provide “Free Soil” from the so-called “public domain.”

Republicans exhorted workers to take action against “the combination which threatens to exclude white laborers from the Territories and hand them over to the sole occupancy of slaves and slave-breeders.”(3)

Levine’s earlier book The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War, chronicles in great detail how German immigrants interpreted politics in the United States using the radical politics they developed in Europe. The book’s premise shares those very assumptions held by the author’s immigrant research subjects — that the soil in the territories claimed by the United States rightfully belonged to white laborers and that the demand for its equitable distribution amongst settlers was progressive.

Yet there were 300,000 American Indians inside the U.S. at that time, most of them within the “Territories.” The Kansas and Nebraska Territories, claimed for the U.S. by Congressional fiat, contained all the ancestral lands of the Plains Indians.(4)

The “law of nations,” so adroitly wielded in the war with the slave holders, never restricted U.S. aggression against Indigenous peoples. Likewise, the doctrine of “freedom national” was itself premised on and arguably instrumental to the ongoing theft of Indian land.

To do justice to the egalitarian vision at the heart of the Black freedom struggle as well as to maintain intellectual integrity in the context of ongoing settler-colonial domination, we must understand that white anti-slavery sentiment was propelled forward by forces internal to — rather than in opposition to — the politics of white supremacy, settler-colonialism and capitalism.

The United States was in the process of acquiring vast amounts of territory through a political and military strategy that aimed to systematically eliminate Indigenous populations. White labor wanted to enjoy the spoils of conquest without having to compete with large slaveholders who tended to monopolise ownership of the best land and dominate state politics. Anti-slavery politics rose to prominence when they did because they were of service to the genocidal ambitions of white settlers and northern capitalists.

The conflict between these two forms of settler-colonialism — plantations and independent farming — was present as far back as the time of the Virginia Colony and Bacon’s Rebellion, when popular militias went on a rampage against Indian neighbors before turning against the planter-class who for reasons of diplomacy had restricted settlers from encroaching further on Indian territory.

Planters learned then that opening Indigenous peoples’ land to settlement by force for white laborers would help release the mounting pressures of class-struggle by providing whites a route to “freedom” that did not require the overthrow of the ruling class, the breakup of the plantations or any challenge to private property.(5)

In addition to Lord Mansfield’s anti-slavery decision in Somerset v. Stewart (1772), the geographical restriction of settlement past Britain’s “Proclamation Line” was likewise a major grievance against the British in the American Revolution.(6)

During the Constitutional Convention, anti-slavery sentiments were also tied to settlers’ lust for territorial expansion. Southern delegates very likely agreed to designate the territory directly to the West of the northern states as “free” in part because they saw it as a measure to quell anti-slavery spirits, a place for whites to enjoy their freedom without competition from slaveholders.

At the same time, “once the northern fears of the expansion of slavery to their west were removed they agreed to the three-fifths rule” which offered planters political representation for three-fifths of every enslaved person.(7)

Anti-slavery sentiment in the North reached a fever pitch when this approach to sectional compromise neared its geographical and demographic limits, bringing both land-hungry sections into struggle over the same Indian territories. If the war was “not about the Territories” but, instead, was over the right to slavery as Senator Wigfall of Texas claimed,8 that was only because all whites involved in the argument considered expanded settlement and Native American genocide to be their “Manifest Destiny.”

Military Necessity and Emancipation

Assessments and explanations of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation still tend to fall into two competing theories.

As Oakes puts it, there are those who consider Lincoln the Great Emancipator, patiently steering a course towards freedom, and those who see him as the Reluctant Emancipator whose Emancipation Proclamation was forced upon him by military necessity after nearly three years of inaction.

Both of these views, Oakes argues, are more mythology than theory and share the false assumption that emancipation began on January 1, 1863 and was the result of one man’s leadership. (Oakes, 329-339) On this question, too, Oakes and Levine offer different but somewhat complementary explanations of the course of events.

Levine tends to lean closer to a version of the “reluctant emancipator” approach that emphasizes the role of military necessity in driving forward Republican policy towards its attack on slavery. Republicans began the war with the intention of maintaining the support of all of the loyal planters and undermining Confederate hopes of attracting the loyal Border States to their cause. This restricted Republicans from taking any action that would antagonize slaveholders.

Levine builds on Frederick Douglass’ view at the start of the war that a successful military campaign would have to attack the source of Confederate economic and military power — slavery. He predicted that the American people and leaders in Washington may “refuse to recognize” this reality “for a time,” but ultimately “the ‘inexorable logic of events’ will force it upon them.”

Levine argues that Republicans “altered that policy [of seeking slaveholder allies] only in response to the pressure of events — and even then they did so at first only hesitantly, incrementally, step by step. They turned their guns on slavery in a deliberate, determined manner only once they concluded that doing so offered the sole means of winning the war.”

Their strategy remained unchanged until the rebellion proved far more determined and the war far more costly than expected. “And,” he adds, “only after the slaves themselves had demonstrated in action that their emancipation could empower the Union war effort.” (Levine, 108)

However, once Lincoln adopted the new strategy of harnessing to the war effort the revolutionary force of enslaved Blacks and relying on northerners who supported their cause, Lincoln “proved himself capable of revolutionary leadership” and the Union Army carried the Emancipation Proclamation as its “revolutionary banner” as it advanced into enemy territory. (This analysis also reflects that of Marx and Engels at the time.)

Oakes, however, argues that the Repub­lican Party’s incremental actions amounted to a steadily escalating attack on slavery that was firmly grounded in two well-developed Constitutional strategies for abolition.

The first scenario envisioned by abolitionists was for gradual emancipation by constructing a “cordon of freedom” around the slave states by practicing the doctrine of “freedom national:” no new slave states, no federal support for slave catchers, no slavery in D.C. and no longer would ships flying the U.S. flag be permitted to engage in the Atlantic slave trade. By stopping slavery’s expansion, abolitionists imagined its “ultimate extinction” peacefully over time (maybe 100 years, according to Lincoln). (Oakes, 26-34)

The second strategy was military emancipation. The Constitutional defense of this approach was developed above all by John Quincy Adams who argued that the laws of war — incorporated in to the law of nations and thus the Constitution — allowed for emancipation as “a legitimate weapon for suppressing rebellions, prosecuting wars, and securing military victory.”

If planters seceded from the Union to protect themselves from gradual emancipation, doing so ultimately made possible — and even drove Republicans towards — military emancipation. (Oakes,62)

During the Civil War, Oakes contends, the Union government pursued both strategies simultaneously. Each had its limitations — containment freed no one but offered the prospect of killing slavery over time; military emancipation freed slaves as individuals immediately but could not legally abolish slavery anywhere. (Oakes, 34-42)

Emancipation began, Oakes states, August 8, 1861 when the War Department issued instructions to carry out the “First Confiscation Act,” confiscating and selling the property of traitors and emancipating all slaves of disloyal masters who came to Union lines. Tens of thousands of enslaved people were emancipated within one year.

As regards the loyalty of the Border States, Oakes reverses Levine’s argument. “It wasn’t the Border States that made emancipation more difficult; it was emancipation that made keeping the Border States from seceding more difficult…What made the Border States such a ticklish problem was that Lincoln was struggling to keep them in the Union while at the same time he was pressuring them to abolish slavery.” (Oakes, 293)

In 1862 Congress banned slavery in the territories and D.C. and finally allowed the British to suppress U.S. ships involved in the slave trade from Africa to Cuba. On July 17, 1862 Lincoln signed the Second Confiscation Act, referred to at the time as “the emancipation bill.”

The bill reaffirmed existing Republican policies “but it pushed much further, to the prospective emancipation of virtually all slaves in the rebellious states” and all slaves within Union held territory. Congress authorized the President to confiscate the property and emancipate the slaves of all rebels who did not cease their activity 60 days after the issuance of a presidential warning.

To Oakes, “emancipation was only one part of a broader Republican assault on slavery,” which included the “cordon of freedom” and political pressure on the border states to abolish slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation then announced two new policies — enticement and Black enlistment. Enslaved Blacks would now be actively recruited or “enticed” to abandon the plantations, depriving the Confederacy of agricultural labor, and to take up arms against the Confederacy, transforming “union soldiers into an army of liberation in the seceded states.” (Oakes, 344)

“By the last year of the war,” Oakes writes, “there were as many as 100,000 blacks in uniform at one time, accounting for nearly twenty percent of the military’s fighting force. Indispensable to Northern victory, black troops were thus indispensable to slavery’s destruction.” (381)

Is the difference between Oakes’ and Levine’s interpretation of Republican policy merely one of semantics and emphasis? Oakes is mostly right to applaud the foresight, legal preparation and sincerity of the radical abolitionists, but he has already been criticized for conflating radical abolitionists and their intentions with (the rest of) the Republican Party which was only interested in attacking slavery directly if and when it became a military necessity.(9)

Republican policy did amount to an “escalation” against slavery, but that mounting attack was nonetheless driven by the course of the conflict. Ultimately, Blacks were only a strategic asset to the Republican Party so long as the South’s ruling class was in rebellion against the Union. African Americans were incorporated into the Republican Party as the ‘enemy of my enemy,’ a fact which portended the North’s subsequent betrayal.

As the reality and then threat of continued civil war receded, as capitalists North and South settled their differences, northern support for African American citizenship rights disappeared.(10)

Restoring Plantation Discipline

Union soldiers were often surprised to see how well informed enslaved Blacks were of the stakes of the war and developments in the North. News of the war and emancipation spread through extensive networks of communication known as the “grapevine telegraph.” News was relayed from plantation to plantation under cover of darkness and hushed voices.

The courage of Black troops, which quickly won them the respect of many prejudiced whites, sprang from their long yearning for freedom and deep sense of duty to destroy the evil that cursed their people. “We are fighting for liberty and right,” one sergeant explained, “and we intent to follow the old flag while there is a man left to hold it up to the breeze of heaven. Slavery must and shall pass away.” (Levine, 166)

By 1864 it was becoming clear to Confederate and Union forces that re-imposing slavery after the war would be nearly impossible. Planters complained that slaves were refusing to follow orders and were cultivating the soil for their own subsistence under the conviction that the plantation and everything on it belonged to themselves, the unrequited producers. And as many of the enslaved were sent deeper into Confederate territory, to be “refuged” or safeguarded from Union encroachment, they brought the spirit of rebellion and knowledge of Union victories to plantations previously insulated from the events of war. (Levine, 158-159)

Oakes and Levine chronicle the common political aspirations that quickly arose throughout the freedpeople: for family reunification, legally recognized and protected marriages, religious independence and education.

But very few in the North supported the most important demand — for redistribution of the land. So long as the planters owned the land, the freedpeople would remain dependent on them for survival. Social independence and self-determination could never flourish without the breaking up of the plantations.

 Yet northern hostility to this approach was already apparent during the war: while there were some cases of independent production, the Union army made it a policy of maintaining strict plantation discipline and very low wages throughout the parts of Mississippi, Louisiana and western Tennessee under its control.

In 1863 General Banks ordered freedpeople to perform “continuous and faithful service” with “respectful deportment, correct discipline and perfect subordination.” Whips were no longer legal means of discipline and later on Blacks were able to choose their employer, but those who left the plantations were forced to labor on public works projects. (This policy generally continued after the war through the Freedman’s Bureau and then the court system.)

While Oakes steers clear of such questions, Levine notes three reasons why the North was generally opposed to land redistribution. First, the need for tax revenue made the sale of confiscated property to speculators and investors far more appealing than progressive redistribution. Second, the influential New England textile industry demanded cotton but free Black farmers tended to produce their own subsistence instead. Lastly, Levine briefly mentions “deeper, ideological bases of support” for the plantation system.

It would seem, however, that the interests of northern capital ran even deeper. If free to choose, Black farmers in the U.S. South (for that matter, farmers anywhere in the world) would not accept the backbreaking tasks of cotton production. As Levine notes in his opening chapter, the South was producing about four-fifths of the cotton consumed by England’s textile industry and “was just as important to the national economy of the United States. Cotton was the number one export commodity of the United States and its supply determined the flow of gold to and from the country.”

 The Boston Board of Trade resolved, and European creditors agreed, that stimulating Southern cotton production was the surest way to stabilize the inflationary U.S. currency and pay the massive national war debt. As The New York Times and other papers opined, Black labor would have to be “regimented” since cotton production required “the white brain employing black labor.”(11)

So was it determined that southern Blacks were to pay for their emancipation with another three quarters of a century of plantation servitude.


  1. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: The Free Press, 1998: 3.
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  2. David J. Bodenhamer, Fair Trial: Rights of the Accused in American History, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992: 69-70.
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  3. Cited in Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor, New York: International Publishers, 1972: 286.
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  4. Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, New York: Owl Books, 2007.
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  5. Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
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  6. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994: 108-125.
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  7. Alfred W. Blumrosen and Ruth G. Blumrosen, Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution, Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Inc.: 214.
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  8. Cited in Oakes, 48.
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  9. Ira Berlin, “Book Review: ‘The Scorpion’s Sting,’ Anti-Slavery Before the Civil War, by James Oakes.’ The Washington Post, May 30, 2014.
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  10. Du Bois 1983, 625-635; William Gillette, Retreat From Reconstruction, 1869-1879, Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
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  11. Gerald David Jaynes, Branches Without Roots: Genesis of the Black Working Class in the American South, 1862-1882, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986: 8-15.
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September/October 2014, ATC 172