In the last few days, I have read two erroneous statements made about the Emancipation Proclamation and Union soldiers fighting to end slavery.
In an article about Juneteenth, a reporter wrote that on June 19, 1865, that Union General Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and told the slaves that by virtue of the Emancipation Proclamation, they were free. An article in USA Today said, “On June 19, Americans around the country will celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation in the USA.” The article was later corrected to: “Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Juneteenth’s relation to slavery. It celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation, but the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t apply to all states in the USA. The 13th Amendment brought an end to slavery.” Thanks for the correction. To learn more about this celebration, please read the 2015 Juneteenth Celebrated with Joy, Sorrow, and Courage. To learn more about the Emancipation Proclamation and laws dealing with Black Rights, please read Lincoln Freed the Slaves and Other Myths.
In President Trump’s commencement speech to West Point cadets on June 13, 2020, the President referred to West Pointers who fought in the Civil War. However, he only referred to those West Point graduates who fought for the Union between 1861 and 1865. Trump called them, “American patriots … who fought a bloody war to extinguish the evil of slavery within one lifetime of our founding.” Let’s review the reasons why we fought the Civil War. For a brief overview, please read the Causes of the Civil War. There are many reasons why we fought this war and they differ depending on where you stood in the military hierarchy.
Government: Preserve the Union and Put Down the Rebellion
- Officers: Preserve the Union, Advance in the Military, and Enhance Their Resume (political officers)
- Soldiers: Preserve the Union, Avoid Condemnation from Community, Friendship, and Participate in a Great Adventure (“See the Elephant”)
- No one fought to free the slaves!
- Government: Preserve Slavery as the Foundation of their Wealth and Maintain Southern Society. The initial statements from seceding states sited preserving slavery as the primary reason. Please read Why Virginia Seceded.
- Officers: Loyalty to State Rather Than Country (Lee refused position to lead Union Army because he would not fight against Virginia), Defend Confederacy from the North (South named war the War of Northern Aggression), Preserve Family Wealth, and Enhance Personal and Family Reputation
- Soldiers: Defend Confederacy from the North (South named war the War of Northern Aggression), Avoid Condemnation from Community, Friendship, and Participate in a Great Adventure (“See the Elephant”). Not to defend slaveowners’ rights (“It’s a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight)
Update and Correction
I received an interesting response concerning my statement “No one fought to free the slaves!” My comment was way too broad. I would rephrase it to read “Most Northerners did not fight to end slavery, but to save the Union.” My original comment was based on things I have read which indicated this was a widespread attitude. Certainly, US Colored Troops fought to end slavery. Of course, I don’t know what every Union soldier thought. I would point out the New York City draft riots in which Blacks were killed.
Union Soldiers Condemn Slavery – “Although the attitudes of many white Union soldiers toward slavery and emancipation ranged from indifference to outright racial hostility, others viewed the issue as central to their participation in the war. The following quotations, taken from letters, diary entries, and contemporary newspaper interviews with white Union soldiers, reveal the attitudes of those who viewed slavery as both a primary cause of the conflict and a key rationale for fighting.”
Why White Soldiers Fought to End Slavery – “Historians agree that most Union Army soldiers, no matter what their national origin, fought to restore the unity of the United States, but emphasize that: “… they became convinced that this goal was unattainable without striking against slavery.” - James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, p. 118. McPherson’s book adds that witnessing the Southern slave system first-hand significantly strengthened the anti-slavery views of white Union soldiers, leaving them appalled by the system’s brutality: “Experience in the South reinforced the antislavery sentiments of many soldiers. One Pennsylvanian Union soldier spoke to a slave woman whose husband was whipped, and was appalled by what she had to tell him of slavery. He stated that “I thought I had hated slavery as much as possible before I came here, but here, where I can see some of its workings, I am more than ever convinced of the cruelty and inhumanity of the system.” – Ibid., pp. 36-37.
The Civil War Was About Slavery. Confederate Leaders Were Totally Clear On This. – “I would save the Union,” Lincoln wrote. As for enslaved Africans, they were just pawns in his war strategy: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. … What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.” This link contains quotes by Confederate leaders on slavery.