One hundred and fifty-one years after the end of the war most Americans believe that the Civil War was all about freeing the slaves. That could not be further from the truth. There were a variety of reasons precipitated the war. For the South the war was about States Rights. Of course, slavery was part of that but the right of each state to govern themselves was their major concern. For the Union the war was about preserving the Union. In both cases diaries, letters and books attest to each reason.
Today, we celebrate Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator but in his letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the influential New York Tribune, we realize that he was a practical politician:
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. 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. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
Just as Lincoln was ambivalent about slavery so too were his generals. Some were outright opposed to emancipation. Others were lukewarm on the issue. But there was a group who were true abolitionists. Let’s look at four of the abolitionist generals who had an impact on the issue. You’ll note that three of the four were ‘political’ generals. Here are two of the four.
John C. Fremont was known as the Pathfinder who led five expeditions into the West. He explored most of the American West including the Rocky Mountains and all of the way to California. He made a great deal of money in the form of gold. It allowed him to purchase land in northern California. In 1850 California entered the Union and Fremont was selected as one of the two United States Senators. However, he only served for 175 days before being defeated for reelection. He was a Free Soil Democrat and was defeated for reelection largely because of his strong opposition to slavery.
In 1856 Fremont was nominated as the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party. His slogan was Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, and Fremont – John C. Fremont. Unfortunately, he was defeated by the Democrat James Buchanan.
Frémont was promoted to Major General and Commander of the Department of the West on July 1, 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln. Frémont brought with him his skills and great reputation as the Pathfinder, and he was focused on driving the Confederate forces from Missouri. His term as Commander of the Department of the West was controversial, at times successful, and lasted until November 2, 1861, when he was abruptly dismissed by President Lincoln for insubordination and corruption charges in his supply line.
On August 30, 1861, Frémont, without notifying President Lincoln, issued a controversial proclamation putting Missouri under martial law. Frémont made this emancipation proclamation in response to the Confederate tactics of guerrilla warfare and to reduce Confederate sympathies in the stronger slave-holding counties. The edict stipulated that civilians in arms would be subject to court martial and execution, the property of those who aided secessionists would be confiscated, and the slaves of rebels would be emancipated.
President Lincoln, fearing that Frémont’s emancipation order would tip Missouri (and other slave states in Union control) to the southern cause, asked Frémont to revise the order. Frémont refused to do so, and sent his wife to plead the case. President Lincoln reprimanded her husband and told Jessie that Frémont “should never have dragged the Negro into the war.” Lincoln responded by publicly revoking the proclamation and relieving Frémont of command on November 2, 1861, simultaneous to a War Department report detailing Frémont’s iniquities as a major general. Although Lincoln opposed Frémont’s method of emancipation, the episode had a significant influence on Lincoln. It helped shape, his opinions on the appropriate steps towards emancipation and in January 1863, Lincoln issued his own Emancipation Proclamation.
Nathaniel Banks was from Massachusetts and gradually became an abolitionist. He was at first moderate on the expansion of slavery, but recognizing the potency of the burgeoning abolitionist movement, he became more strongly attached to that cause. In 1850 Banks became Speaker of the Massachusetts House. His role as house speaker and his effectiveness in conducting business raised his status significantly, as did work he did on the side for the state Board of Education.
In 1852 Banks won a seat in the Congress despite losing party support due to his abolitionist leanings. In 1853 he presided over the state Constitutional Convention of 1853. This convention produced a series of proposals for constitutional reform, including a new constitution, all of which were rejected by voters. The failure, which was led by Whigs and conservative anti-abolitionist Democrats, spelled the end of the Democratic-Free Soil coalition.
In Congress Banks sat on the Committee of Military Affairs. He bucked the Democratic party line by voting against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overturned the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Supported by his constituents, he then publicly endorsed the abolitionist cause. In 1854 he formally joined the Know Nothing cause, was renominated for Congress by the Democrats and Free Soilers, and won an easy victory in the Know Nothing landslide.
At the opening of the 34th Congress in December 1855, men from several parties opposed to slavery’s spread gradually united in supporting Banks for speaker. After the longest and one of the most bitter speakership contests on record, lasting from December 3, 1855 to February 2, 1856, Banks was chosen on the 133rd ballot. This has been called the first national victory of the Republican party.
He gave antislavery men important posts in Congress for the first time, and cooperated with investigations of both the Kansas conflict and the caning of Senator Charles Sumner. Because of his fairness in dealing with the numerous factions, as well his parliamentary ability, Banks was lauded by others in the body, including former Speaker Howell Cobb, who called him “in all respects the best presiding officer [I] had ever seen.”
In 1857 Banks ran for Governor of Massachusetts against the incumbent Henry Gardner. His nomination by the Republicans was contentious, with opposition coming primarily from radical antislavery interests opposed to his comparatively moderate stand on the issue. After a contentious campaign Banks won a comfortable victory.
As the Civil War became imminent, President Lincoln considered Banks for a cabinet post, and eventually chose him as one of the first major generals of volunteers, appointing him on May 16, 1861. Perceptions that the Massachusetts militia was well organized and armed at the beginning of the Civil War likely played a role in the appointment decision, as Banks had also been considered for quartermaster general.
Banks held a number of positions in the Union Army. His initial command was in the Shenandoah Valley where he met and was defeated by Stonewall Jackson. Banks next received command of the defense forces at Washington. Then he moved South where he was given command of the Army of the Gulf. He commanded the Union forces at the successful siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana. In 1864 he commanded the ill-fated Red River Campaign. On April 22, 1864, Grant wired Chief of Staff Halleck asking for Banks’ removal. He was replaced by Edward Canby, who was promoted to major general.