Seeing the Round Corners

January 15, 2018


Last week’s edition began as a review of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as it related to the American Indians, but more specifically about Lincoln’s hero status and discussion of whether abolishing slavery was the sole purpose of the Civil War. 

As most readers would agree, books written by various historical writers in most cases are their interpretations to make their case as did Allen C. Guelzo (discussed in last week’s edition of Seeing the Round Corners. Guelzo’s goal was to show the emancipation [of slavery] was Lincoln’s foremost plan from the day he first took office.)

Excerpts from Lincoln’s own correspondence and the Emancipation Proclamation in last week’s column warrant repeating for ease of reference for today’s continuing review:

Lincoln’s own words in his correspondence to Horace Greeley:

  • “. . . my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, 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.” (Point-of-information: Note Lincoln’s words “freeing some and leaving other alone . . .” are clarified in the excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation appearing later in this column.)

 “The Emancipation Proclamation applied to the “States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day, in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:”

  • Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, (including the City of New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northhampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
  • ‘ . . . that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are and henceforth shall be free . . .  .’”

      There was also the argument that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves, that “the slaves themselves who by running away put pressure on Lincoln and Congress to ‘catch up’ with the reality of self-emancipation.”

Guelzo points out that such an argument was backwards because Lincoln “didn’t have the power on January 1, 1863 to free every slave in the Confederacy, but he did have the authority to do so, and in law the authority is as good as the power.” Guelzo also expressed his belief that the Emancipation Proclamation was the reason many slaves in the territory not under federal control were persuaded to run away.

Self-emancipation was almost a groundless concept without the Emancipation Proclamation and the legal freedom it purported to confer. Defeat of the Confederacy would have meant the Confederacy retained legal title to its slaves and Southerners left no doubt before the Civil War or during Reconstruction they would reclaim as many as possible of their self-emancipated runaways. Federal courts in post-Civil War decades left no doubt they would have helped do so.   

There were also other “conflicts” at play in the days after issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s commanding general of the largest Union Force, the Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan, who historians found to be managing the battles opposite to the philosophy of his commander-in-chief. McClellan pursued a fight path for the war to end in a negotiated peace. Lincoln’s observations of McClellan and his subordinates raised suspicions that “the emancipation might trigger a military coup. General Robert E. Lee’s successes in a series of battles against McClellan (known as Seven Days) gives further credence to military historians’ evaluation of McClellan as a general – “constantly outfought and out generaled by his Confederate counterpart, General Robert E. Lee.”

Lincoln found himself in the position of having a general fighting a war contradicting his commander-in-chief’s goal and purpose of the Civil War – “McClellan argued against confiscation of rebel property and interference with the institution of slavery.” McClellan’s statements and later correspondence to his wife further confirmed Lincoln’s conclusions/suspicions that “emancipation might trigger a military coup.

One interesting event author Allen C. Guelzo (author of of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation:  The End of Slavery in America) does not include in his book is strongly demonstrative of McClellan’s disloyalty to his commander-in-chief. McClellan send his representative to a prisoners-of-war negotiation with the Confederates being the issue at hand, but yet again, McClellan exceeded his authority.

McClellan authorized his aide, Colonel Thomas Key, on terms for overstepping the issue-at-hand – prisoners-of-war negotiations. Instead, McClellan authorized negotiations “with the enemy on the terms of ending hostilities and to explain to that enemy the policies and objectives of his commander-in-chief without letting the latter know that he was doing so.”

McClellan’s actions were dealt with harshly as his “lack of aggressiveness” resulted in one of his corp commanders being court martialed for failure to provide appropriate assistance to John Pope’s Army of Virginia “being handled roughly by General Lee at the Second Manassas.”

Historical scholars have long debated the accuracy of such theory, but excerpts from McClellan’s own correspondence to his wife support the theory – “ . . . the possibility of a ‘coup’ after which everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned and my enemies will be at my feet,” but McClellan did not limit his sentiments to his wife.

McClellan was quite brazen about his intent and sentiments, but seemed unaware that Lincoln and his cabinet knew of McClellan’s intent to put “his sword across the government’s policy” with loose talk by “officers of rank” heard speaking openly of “a march on Washington to clear out those fellows.”

As such spread throughout Washington, the vast expanse between Lincoln and his general became so obvious Lincoln realized action would be necessary and began dismissals of responsible officers (and ultimately McClellan himself).

When a question was voiced about why the rebel army was not bagged immediately after Spartanburg (Antietam), the aide’s reply was “that is not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.”

Lincoln’s remarks to John Hay were that “if there was ever a ‘game’ even among Union men to have our army not take advantage of the enemy when it could, it was his object to break up that game.” Lincoln proved to be adamant about his position, and after a long bout of inactivity, relieved McClellan of his commanding general post of the largest Union force, the Army of the Potomac

The events leading up to McClellan being relieved of his duties raises these questions here in modern day times:  Would the results have been any different if McClellan had not been working so as to keep both sides in “the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery?”

Would the Civil War have ended sooner with fewer lives lost?

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