Flexing the Sable Arm: Emancipation, Black Troops, and Hard War

By Paradis, James | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Flexing the Sable Arm: Emancipation, Black Troops, and Hard War


Paradis, James, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


AS THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR began, few people could have envisioned the fratricidal carnage and physical devastation to come. Few indeed could have foreseen that this conflict would strike down suddenly the centuries-old institution of slavery and thrust nearly two hundred thousand black men into the armed forces of the United States.

At the beginning of the war, the United States followed a policy that historians Mark Grimsley and Ethan S. Rafuse refer to, respectively, as "conciliation" and "moderation." Northerners reasoned that Southerners were their countrymen before the war and would be countrymen again once the conflict was won and the nation restored. Many Americans including President Abraham Lincoln wanted to avoid any harsh actions against those in rebellion in order to effect an amicable reunification as free of bitterness and resentment as possible. They aimed to crush the Confederate Army, but they wished to leave civilians unmolested and to keep intact the economic and social structure of the South, slavery included.1

At the war's outset Lincoln embraced this approach. He counseled against "radical and extreme measures, which may reach the loyal as well as the disloyal." He also wanted the war to end quickly so that it would not "degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle." His general in chief, Winfield Scott, planned to avoid bloody conflict, defeating the South by blockading its coast and taking control of the Mississippi River. Scott's successor, Major General George B. McClellan, even more strongly supported the kid-glove approach. According to McClellan, not only should the constitutional, civil, and political rights of Southern civilians be protected, but "the people of the South should understand that we are not making war upon the institution of slavery, but if they submit to the Constitution and Laws of the Union they will be protected." He declared that the armed forces of the United States must by their actions prove the government to be "benign and beneficent." Any other policy might "render impossible the reconstruction of the Union."2

Through the early months of the war, the Lincoln administration's policy of moderation ruled out draconian military measures and actions that would hurt Southern civilians, many of whom were presumed to be loyal to the Union. Had the U.S. military achieved final victory in the first year of the contest, it is unlikely that it would have resorted to hard war. The government would have implemented no radical policies and would have made no assault on slavery. The want of military success forced the government's hand.

Between the first year of the Civil War and its concluding twelve months, the conflict was transformed dramatically from a war of civility to a remorseless war of exhaustion. The change came, however, in stages. Congressional legislation and executive actions employing the hard hand of war seemed to mirror the fortunes of the Union armed forces in the Eastern theater of operations. The North suffered a humiliating defeat at First Bull Run (or First Manassas) in July 1861. Barely two weeks after this debacle, Congress passed the first Confiscation Act, which authorized the emancipation of the slaves of rebels as well as those slaves who had been forced to assist Confederate war efforts. The patience of Lincoln and Congress began to dissipate as the policy of leniency and restraint failed to achieve its purpose. Lincoln announced that "those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt."3

Lincoln reevaluated his commitment to a conciliatory policy. McClellan did not. The general in chief reasserted his faith in restraint and rejected tampering with slavery. His attitude raised questions about his commitment to decisive victory, and his inactivity prompted Congress and the president to act more decisively themselves. …

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