Nothing beats primary source materials. Yet entrenched opinions can cripple one’s understanding of the past. Fueled by such distortions as personal agendas, sectional bias, and political correctness, we can easily come to believe … what we want to believe.
Consider the Emancipation Proclamation. Pulitzer Prize winning author and Lincoln scholar Mark E. Neely, Jr., accurately noted in a talk delivered at the 50th anniversary of The Civil War Roundtable of Chicago in 1990 that “Lincoln’s taking the initiative on emancipation and his rather desperate military reason for doing so, were perhaps the one part of the difficult history of the proclamation on which all sources privy to the inner workings of the administration agreed at the time.”
Desperate military reason for doing so?
Yes. When Lincoln first mentioned emancipating the slaves to Secretary of War William Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on July 13, 1862, Lee had just defeated McClellan’s advance on Richmond in the bloody Seven Days Campaign. Welles wrote that Lincoln “dwelt earnestly on the gravity, importance, and delicacy of the movement, [and] said he had given it much thought and had about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union…”
And all sources privy to the inner workings of the administration concurred with Lincoln?
Yes. Secretary Welles further clarified Lincoln’s stand: “…until this time, in all our previous interviews, whenever the question of emancipation or the mitigation of slavery had been in any way alluded to, he had been prompt and emphatic in denouncing any interference by the General Government with the subject. This was, I think, the sentiment of every member of the Cabinet, all of whom, including the President, considered it a local, domestic question appertaining to the States respectively, who had never parted with their authority over it.”
So what had changed?
Continued the Navy Secretary, “the reverses before Richmond, and the formidable power and dimensions of the insurrection, which extended through all the Slave States, and had combined most of them in a confederacy to destroy the Union, impelled the Administration to adopt extraordinary measures to preserve the national existence.”
But did Lincoln really have no initial intention of freeing the slaves? And was his primary purpose only to rob the South of manpower … to weaken the Confederacy?
Yes. Recall Lincoln’s famous 1862 response to Horace Greeley on the war’s purpose: “If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”
Cynics from both sides of the fence, fronting opposing biases have decried Lincoln’s response to Greeley as either the words of a racist who cared little about enslaved people or as proof that the war had nothing to do with slavery. But as award-winning Civil War author and professor Gary Gallagher correctly points out, Lincoln’s letter “stands as a straightforward expression of his consistent commitment to and invocation of Union to rally the largest segment of the loyal states’ white population—which at the same time signaled the president’s willingness to consider emancipation as one tool to suppress the Rebels.”
But was Emancipation simply another tool to suppress the Rebels?
Two years after his famous letter to Greeley—and despite what “modern day historians” may tell us—Lincoln’s primary war purpose had not changed. In an August 1864 interview with former Wisconsin Governor Alexander Randall, the president reiterated, “My enemies say I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done.”
The Emancipation lever?
Sure sounds like a tool, doesn’t it? But scholastic bias, political correctness, and no little bit of academic career fear have carved other “meanings” from Lincoln’s original—and sole—intention to save the Union. Despite what Lincoln and his cabinet would say, as Mark Neely concludes, “Now, almost no one seems willing to believe it.”
But what if McClellan had defeated Lee, taken Richmond, and ended the war in the Spring of 1862? Ponder the musings of Princeton professor and Pulitzer Prize winning author James McPherson:
“During the preceding four months, Union arms had won a series of victories on land and water that had the Confederacy on the ropes. One more big victory, this time by the Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, might well have captured Richmond and won the war. If this had happened, the Union might have been restored with minimal change and minimal destruction in the South—and without the abolition of slavery.”
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