Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

  • James Oakes
  • W.W. Norton & Co.
  • 596 pp

On the heels of the popular film Lincoln comes this in-depth and well researched narrative of the passing the 13th Amendment.

Reviewed by Robert I. Girardi

Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, by James Oakes, explores the concept of emancipation from the earliest vestiges of the abolitionist movement in America. Examining the legal foundation for emancipation and the precise wording of the Constitution, Oakes takes the reader through the history of emancipation and Abraham Lincoln’s role in bringing it about, culminating in the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which finally and irrevocably abolished slavery in the land of the free.

The Emancipation Proclamation has defined Abraham Lincoln as one of our best presidents. His legacy as the Great Emancipator is ingrained upon our consciousness, although his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation is often criticized both because of  his perceived delay in declaring it and its limited scope as a war measure. Oakes presents the road to emancipation with extensive research and a clearly written and compelling narrative, which shows that far from being the cautious and reluctant emancipator he is sometimes characterized as, Lincoln was actively engaged in the destruction of slavery from the minute he won the presidency. In fact, based on the evidence and the way it is presented, one can argue that the Southern secessionists who broke up the Union upon Lincoln’s election were prescient in their opinion of his motives and the implications of the 1860 election to their peculiar institution.

Oakes shows the reader Lincoln’s systematic and deliberate steps to dismantle slavery. The first efforts were taken as war measures. Benjamin F. Butler, a Democratic politician and the first Union general to actively interfere with the return of fugitive slaves, was instrumental in formulating the early war policy with respect to the status of slaves. Butler learned that the escaped slaves who were coming into his lines had been working on fortifications for the Confederacy. Butler reasoned that it would be folly to return slaves if they were going to be used against him; rather, seizing them as contraband of war meant that the Union could benefit from their labor. Thus, runaways could earn their freedom by escaping, and deprive the owners of their financial interest and the Confederate war machine the benefit of their labor. Because Butler was acting strictly within the confines of the military sphere, Lincoln endorsed his acts, and runaways quickly came to be referred to as “contrabands.”

On the other hand, when John C. Frémont declared the slaves in Missouri to be free, Lincoln compelled him to rescind his order. Although Lincoln was castigated for this by radicals and other anti-slavery advocates, he was adamant that military commanders could not make political policy — that was reserved for the commander in chief and the government. Lincoln similarly repudiated an emancipation edict issued by his friend, General David Hunter. Lincoln correctly viewed these instances as usurpation of government authority by the military, but did his best to further the cause as well as he could. This led to the passage of the first and second confiscation acts, which served to correct the mistakes made by Frémont and Hunter and to give the military more latitude in drawing slaves away from their masters. It forbade the army from returning slaves to their masters and it encouraged slaves to flee.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued as a war measure, and it was limited in its scope to those areas not under Union control. Thus, loyal border states like Kentucky, Delaware and Maryland were unaffected; nonetheless, it revolutionized the Union war effort. No longer just a war to restore the Union, it was now a crusade for freedom. The proclamation also authorized the active recruiting of freedmen into the ranks of the Union army. This served the twofold purpose of giving the freedmen a stake in their own future and paving their way to citizenship.

Critics of Lincoln fail to measure the true impact of the proclamation and instead concentrate on its limitations. The critics tend to divorce themselves from the issues of public opinion and latent racism. But Lincoln understood the need to keep the army and the loyal Democratic opposition, as well as the slaveholding border states that did not secede, true to the Union war effort. Lincoln adroitly navigated these issues while furthering the emancipation cause.

Yet by 1864, it was clear that all of these matters, which were clearly limited war measures, would not be sufficient to guarantee the death of slavery. As Union success seemed more assured, the possibility of victory without the destruction of slavery loomed. Lincoln personally presided over the movement to adopt the 13th Amendment. Although he did not live to see its full ratification, his adroit management of the negotiations and politicking that made it happen is proof of his skill as a politician and is the true measure of his greatness. Oakes provides a fascinating, in-depth narrative of the process of passing the 13th Amendment.

Oakes’s book is a masterful piece of scholarship that will challenge the notion that emancipation of the slaves was an afterthought enacted to revitalize a stagnant war effort by the Union forces. Instead, as a war measure, emancipation was the other side of the military coin in saving the Union. This is a must-read book for anyone seeking a greater understanding of the complicated and politically charged nature of emancipation.

Robert I. Girardi is a past president of the Civil War Round Table of Chicago. He is on the board of directors of the Illinois State Historical Society and has written or edited 10 books on the American Civil War, including The Military Memoirs of General John Pope, Campaigning with Uncle Billy, The Civil War Memoirs of Sgt. Lyman S. Widney, 34th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and Gettysburg in Art and Artifacts.

comments powered by Disqus