The role of slaves and abolitionists in securing the Emancipation Proclamation

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“In the North, the Emancipation Proclamation meant the Negro soldier, and the Negro soldier meant the end of the war.” That’s what W.E.B. Du Bois says in his incomparable book Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880.

In this year of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, myths persist about iconic men like President Lincoln and General Grant. Little is being taught, in books or films, about the Black soldiers who fiercely turned a losing war into a victorious one. Or about the abolitionist movement that passionately pressed the struggle to eliminate slavery, the cause of that conflict.

Insurrection. Black slaves themselves started the fight against slavery in early colonial days. They rebelled over and over again during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but were viciously overwhelmed by the plantation aristocracy in the South.

By the beginning of the 19th century, however, rising industrial capitalism in the North was coming to far outpace the mostly agrarian and feudal economic system in the South. As cotton production became more highly technological, this changed the character of slave insurrections. By 1800, slaves were skilled workers, often hired out for wages, and exposed to free co-workers and new ideas.

Blacksmith Gabriel’s planned revolt in 1800 involved a thousand slaves in Virginia. They had made their swords and bullets. Their goal was to overthrow slavery. The plan was discovered, but had a profound impact.

In 1822, freed African-Caribbean slave Denmark Vesey planned an insurrection of mostly urban artisans, which would have been the largest slave revolt in U.S. history. It too had the revolutionary goal of wiping out slavery. And it too was discovered and strangled, igniting relentless persecution of Blacks in both North and South. It also sparked publication of the first Black newspapers, which openly called for Negro rights, slave rebellion, and the organization of the Underground Railroad.

Nat Turner’s armed rebellion in Virginia in 1831 spread terror through the South and shocked the country. Sixty whites and at least 100 slaves died. Slavery was clearly a life-and-death issue to both white and Black Americans, and the time for compromises, gradualism, and debate over extending slavery to the West was over. The young abolition movement shifted to more radical perspectives.

A multiracial movement grows. The abolition movement was the first organized collaboration among rebel slaves, free Blacks, and anti-slavery whites. The road to this merging was paved by the Underground Railroad.

Through its ingenious and perilous escape system, dedicated Black and white anti-slavery organizers like famed “conductor” Harriet Tubman helped slaves reach the North. The “railroad” brought revolutionary Black slaves and their politics into contact with the entire movement.

As with any social justice movement, the abolitionists were politically diverse as a group while constituting for some time a definite minority within the country.

Buffeted by racist propaganda, most anti-slavery whites were gradual abolitionists, often pacifist and religious. But they were abidingly convinced that slavery was a moral evil that must be opposed. Free Black abolitionists such as David Walker radicalized them. His 1829 pamphlet An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World took on the racist ideology of icons like Thomas Jefferson and denounced the hypocrisy of America’s boast to be democratic and equalitarian. It called for the armed overthrow of slavery, and urged Blacks to lead the way.

Widely distributed in the South and North, Walker’s Appeal terrified the Southern oligarchy while inspiring the abolition movement to new heights. It prompted other abolitionists to begin demanding the immediate destruction of slavery, and moved prominent leader William Lloyd Garrison to publish the first white anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831.

On the question of women’s contribution to the movement, historian C.L.R. James writes, “Garrison, the New England intellectuals, the women and the Free Negroes kept abolitionism radical.” As did the towering abolitionist leader and escaped slave Frederick Douglass, who organized and spoke in the U.S., England and Ireland. Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner in Congress and Black feminist crusader Sojourner Truth labored untiringly before, during and after the war to implement the reconstruction of the South, although their hopes for deep-rooted change were ultimately dashed.

Black soldiers win the war. Armed slave insurrections, intensified abolitionist organizing, and then John Brown’s raid on a U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Maryland in 1859: taken together, they incited the Confederate South to fire the first shot in the Civil War to save its 400-year-old “peculiar institution.”

For the first two years of the war, the Confederacy was winning, and expecting England and France to intervene on its side because of their reliance on cotton. It had four million Black workers — $4 billion in human capital — to sustain the South’s economy while poor whites did the fighting.

The North, on the other hand, depended increasingly on reluctant white workers to fight, mostly poor immigrants, and thus had far fewer workers to keep the economy afloat. Yankee soldiers resented that men with money could buy their way out of military service, and didn’t want to fight to free slaves whom they feared would take their jobs. By 1863, hundreds of thousands of soldiers had deserted, and anti-Black riots were spreading.

The Emancipation Proclamation turned the tide. Lincoln finally signed it in January 1863, pressured by abolitionists and concerned that the North was losing. He believed that the proclamation, which only freed slaves located in the secessionist states, would prevent England and France from taking the South’s side, and that it would deprive the South of its workforce. Lincoln had no confidence in slaves being good soldiers.

However, slaves volunteered for the army in staggering numbers. The proclamation meant the North could no longer return fugitives to the planters; a half million enslaved workers left Southern plantations.

Du Bois characterized it as a stunning general strike. His extensive research revealed that the walkout furnished the North with 200,000 exceptional soldiers and 300,000 others in military support. “In proportion to population, more Negroes than whites fought in the Civil War,” he reported.

Just as Black troops won the war for the North, the “Negro people, slave and free” were the “driving force” for the abolition movement, as C.L.R. James wrote. This leadership of U.S. Blacks, side by side with white compatriots whom they respected, challenged, and debated, led to a revolution.

Like so many revolutions of our era, this one left seriously unfinished business. Undoubtedly, when it comes to the next revolution, Black leadership will once again be the driving force for Black freedom — complete and irrevocable.

Monica Hill can be emailed at

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