Emancipation and Equal Rights: Politics and Constitutionalism in the Civil War Era

By Herman Belz | Go to book overview

3

The Status of
the Freedmen
Beginning of a National Policy

FROM THE VERY BEGINNING of the war, and in ever larger numbers as Union armies advanced, slaves acquired actual freedom. As they did, the future of the Negro people in America came sharply into focus. The Union government at first considered the ex-slaves contraband of war, somewhere between slavery and freedom. The Confiscation Act of 1862, however, declared slaves escaping from rebel masters captives of war and forever free, and the Emancipation Proclamation went further, asserting that all slaves in unoccupied rebellious states were free. While these measures cleared away much of the uncertainty surrounding the contraband theory, they only pointed in the general direction of greater liberty for emancipated slaves. The precise status and rights of the freedmen remained undetermined. On the front lines Union military officers were taking action concerning hundreds of thousands of liberated slaves that resolved in at least a minimal way the question of their status. Meanwhile, in an arena that at times seemed equally chaotic, Congress struggled to develop a national policy toward the freedmen.

Blacks responded with alacrity to war-created opportunities for freedom, asserting themselves in ways that influenced the policies of the Union government. Far from being an inert social mass merely to be acted upon, they fought for their freedom

-47-

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