Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights

By David Brown; Clive Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

A FRAGILE FREEDOM: THE CIVIL WAR AND
THE COLLAPSE OF SLAVERY

When Abraham Lincoln said in 1858 that 'a house divided against itself cannot stand', he expressed a widespread feeling that slavery and freedom could not continue to co-exist within the United States.1 This did not make war inevitable - specific circumstances in 1860–61 triggered the secession of southern states. Even though numerous factors have been cited, however, very few professional historians would deny that slavery was the root cause of the American Civil War. The political problem posed by slavery in the antebellum period caused profound disagreements which eventually became insurmountable. Moderates in both the North and the South struggled desperately to hold the Union together in the 1850s, but with Abraham Lincoln's victory in the presidential election of 1860 that no longer seemed possible.

Slavery would also be critical to the conduct of the war, even though emancipation was not an official Union policy until well after the start of hostilities in April 1861. Modern warfare relied as much on industrial might as it did on soldiers in the field, and the distinctive agrarian character of the South placed it at a huge disadvantage in comparison with the North. Nonetheless, the South tried to make the best of what it had and bondspeople were put to many different tasks by the Confederates. In order to defeat the Confederacy, it became essential to destroy slavery. Secession was undertaken in order to protect slavery from the perceived threat of Lincoln's Republican Party, but ironically it eventually brought the destruction of the peculiar institution. The exigencies of four years of gruelling warfare placed a tremendous strain on southerners, testing the limits of social consensus as class and gender fault lines emerged prominently and divisively.

Freedom was not given to African Americans. Slaves flocking to Federal lines in their thousands not only helped to destroy the institution from within by destabilising the South, but simultaneously forced the Union to consider the controversial issue of emancipation and enlistment of African American soldiers. By taking charge of their own destinies, blacks compelled Abraham

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