Lincoln and Emancipation

When Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, he unwillingly personified the schism that existed in antebellum America. To the South, Lincoln represented tyranny and oppression, the man who could accomplish by executive orders what Nat Turner and John Brown had tried and failed to do by force. Unwilling to suffer under the leadership of such a man, South Carolina and six other southern states severed ties with the Union even before Lincoln was inaugurated.  This characterization was puzzling to Lincoln, who had “repeated that he was interested only in preventing the further spread of slavery into the federally administered territories of the West.”[1] For those in the North who agreed that slavery’s expansion needed to be halted, Lincoln was their best hope to achieve this goal. Most Northern abolitionists, however, mistrusted Lincoln and his motives, and they were disappointed by his failure to emancipate the slaves early in the Civil War.[2] Thus Abraham Lincoln was placed in a most unenviable position, loathed, misunderstood, and mistrusted by nearly everyone on both sides of the slavery debate.

As president, Lincoln moved very cautiously toward emancipation, “more slowly and apparently more reluctantly…than black leaders, abolitionists, radical Republicans, and the slaves themselves wanted him to move.”[3] He did not want to overreach or overstep his constitutional authority, so he sought a solution “that would have a chance of surviving both politically and legally.”[4] Lincoln hoped that by inducing border state legislatures into a scheme of gradual, compensated emancipation, he might avoid a constitutional showdown with Chief Justice Roger Taney and his majority proslavery Supreme Court. The border states did not buy into the scheme, however, and Lincoln decided “it was time to take a further dramatic step.”[5] He approached his cabinet in July 1862 with a rough draft of his Emancipation Proclamation, telling them “that he was not asking their approval on the policy,” but that “he was open to any suggestions they might have on the specific wording.”[6] The cabinet members were divided in their reactions to the proclamation, and despite Lincoln’s admonition that the matter was already settled, several members spoke up either in favor of or opposed to the issuance of such a proclamation.[7] Secretary of State William Seward, while he agreed with Lincoln’s policy on the matter, suggested that the president should wait until the Union army had scored a decisive victory before issuing the proclamation. Otherwise, Seward explained, “It may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help; the government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government.”[8] Lincoln agreed, later explaining that “it would sound like ‘our last shriek, on the retreat.’”[9] He shelved the proclamation and awaited a Union victory on the battlefield. Although McClellan’s defeat of Lee at Antietem fell far short of decisive, it was good enough for Lincoln’s purposes, and a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862.[10]

The differing views of Lincoln’s cabinet toward his Emancipation Proclamation can be explained by the political coalition that the new president had attempted to forge through his selection of government officials. Lincoln had consciously chosen men with a relatively diverse array of political leanings, from moderate Republicans to former Whigs and even border state former Democrats, in an attempt to shore up support from a wider constituency and thereby strengthen his own administration and the young Republican Party.[11] It was no wonder, then, that there would be such a wide range of reactions to Lincoln’s plans for emancipation. It is certainly a testament to Lincoln’s extraordinary leadership that in this case, as in so many others, he was able to harness and corral the strengths of his diverse team toward the decisive achievement of his goals.

[1] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 14.

[2] Allen C. Guelzo, “Lincoln and the Abolitionists,” The Wilson Quarterly 24, no. 4 (Autumn 2000): 60-63,

[3] James M. McPherson, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 200,

[4] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 137.

[5] Ibid., 137-8, quotation on 138.

[6] Ibid., 139.

[7] Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 134-6.

[8] Seward quoted in Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 139.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 160-1.

[11] Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 42-6,; William W. Freehling, Road to Disunion, Volume 2: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 520,

Civil War Diplomacy

There have always been leaders and citizens of the United States who have preferred an isolationist approach to foreign affairs, and that sentiment has ebbed and flowed throughout our history. Colonial North America was often a battleground for European powers jockeying for influence in the western hemisphere and around the globe, with Great Britain, France, and Spain spending enormous amounts of blood and treasure in their attempts to secure an American empire. George Washington in his Farewell Address counseled that “it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her [Europe’s] politics or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”[1] Even today there are those who would prefer to disengage from an increasingly interconnected world, and there is strong grass-roots appeal to solving our domestic problems before we attempt to solve the world’s problems. Unfortunately for the isolationists, the world has rarely been ready or willing to disengage from the United States and despite our best efforts to remain neutral and aloof we invariably find ourselves drawn into international relationships and alliances. The Civil War era was not immune to these disparate impulses, and the chaos here drew European interest that was by turns repelled by the violence or tempted to intervene by either humanitarian or imperialist ambitions. The United States and the Confederacy were both forced to realize that they existed within a wider Atlantic world, with all its commercial, strategic, and political entanglements.  

The diplomacy of the Confederate government was often a haphazard affair, as some constituencies within the South clamored for British and French recognition and others maintained that the Confederacy needed no outside assistance to accomplish its twin goals of winning the war and gaining independence.[2] Those who longed for European recognition of the Confederacy believed that the decrease in cotton exports caused by the Union blockade would force Britain and France to recognize the importance of the commercial interests that stitched the Atlantic world together. When the Europeans still hesitated to get involved, the Davis administration instituted a cotton embargo in an attempt to force the issue.[3] Europe, however, did not feel the sting of withheld cotton shipments since “bumper crops in the two years previous to the war had allowed the two chief benefactors of that trade, Britain and France, to stock huge surpluses that freed them from economic pressure.”[4] Thus, as Europeans began to procure cotton from elsewhere in their empires and Confederate military losses compounded, Britain and France chose to withhold both recognition and direct aid.[5]

The Lincoln administration, recognizing the importance of keeping European powers out of the conflict, attempted to achieve its diplomatic goals primarily by assuring the world that the war was a purely internal matter and that the Confederacy was not a legitimate government that deserved to be recognized by outside observers. The Union made some key missteps that nearly derailed its diplomatic efforts, with perhaps the most important one being the blockade it imposed on southern ports. In Allen Guelzo’s words, Lincoln was “burned” by this blockade attempt because “according to the ‘law of nations’ and the Paris Convention, he could only ‘close the ports’ of the rebels; blockades, with all the rights of prize and capture, could only be imposed on nations.”[6] When Charles Wilkes boarded the British ship Trent and seized two Confederate emissaries, the sensation it caused on both sides of the Atlantic further hampered Lincoln’s diplomacy and threatened to draw Great Britain into the war. Wilkes was feted in the United States while sabers rattled in London, and for a moment “the American people lost their senses and approved an act that was clearly a violation of neutral rights on the high seas.”[7] In the end, cooler heads in the administration prevailed and the two Confederate diplomats were released. Through skillful diplomacy, the threat of European intervention receded and Lincoln was free to suppress the rebellion.

In the end, the great powers of Europe chose not to intervene directly in the war, and it could be argued that this nonintervention was in fact an intervention for the Union. France’s Napoleon III wanted an end to the war, “but he refused to act unless England took the lead.”[8] He continued to meddle in affairs in North America, installing a puppet monarch on the Mexican throne in 1863, but British, Union, and Confederate distrust of Napoleon’s motives ensured that France’s diplomatic overtures bore little fruit.[9] As the war dragged on, the Confederacy lost ground, both literally and diplomatically. Southern hopes for European intervention faded, and the Union was free to act unrestrained by outside interference.

[1] George Washington, “Farewell Address (September 19, 1796),” Miller Center, University of Virginia,

[2] Charles M. Hubbard, “James Mason, the ‘Confederate Lobby’ and the Blockade Debate of March 1862,” Civil War History 45, no. 3 (September 1999): 223,; Henry Blumenthal, “Confederate Diplomacy: Popular Notions and International Realities,” The Journal of Southern History 32, no.2 (May 1966): 151,

[3] Blumenthal, “Confederate Diplomacy,” 152.

[4] Jones, Howard, “Union and Confederate Diplomacy during the Civil War,” Essential Civil War Curriculum, (August 2010): 2, %20Confederate%20Diplomacy%20Essay.pdf.

[5] Blumenthal, “Confederate Diplomacy,” 159.

[6] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 43.

[7] Victor H. Cohen, “Charles Sumner and the Trent Affair,” The Journal of Southern History 22, no. 2 (May 1956): 207,

[8] Jones, “Union and Confederate Diplomacy,” 3.

[9] Ibid., 10-12.

Civil War Economies

The economic issues that the Union and the Confederacy had to confront were not unique to either government, since they were the same issues that any nation at war must face. Financing the war effort while simultaneously minimizing serious disruptions to civilian economic life was a challenge for both Lincoln and Davis, and the Union had numerous advantages. The United States possessed a much larger population overall, and a higher concentration in urban areas, a much more extensive and developed industrial and transportation infrastructures, and a dramatically more diversified economy. The South was able to overcome its numerical disadvantages, at least for a time, and a concerted effort to capitalize on nascent domestic industries was moderately successful.[1] Financing the war, however, was particularly challenging for the Confederacy, and several factors contributed to this. In the end, the Confederacy’s inability to pay its bills may have been the one insurmountable obstacle that Davis faced.

As Roger Ransom pointed out, “No war in American history strained the economic resources of the economy as the Civil War did.”[2] The South was not impoverished at the start of the war, possessing “30 percent of the national wealth (in the form of real and personal property),” but the southern financial sector was not competitive with its Union counterpart, controlling “only 12 percent of the circulating currency and 21 percent of the banking assets.”[3] Furthermore, despite the Confederacy’s insistence that King Cotton would lead them to certain victory, the Union’s increasingly successful blockade of southern ports helped ensure that profits from any cotton that made it to Europe would be negated in the aggregate by costs associated with running the blockade.[4]

Both governments financed their war machines with the usual combination of taxes, loans (in the form of bonds), and currency issued by the respective treasuries. Although the Union struggled to stay afloat financially after initial military setbacks, creative and controversial economic policies pushed through by the Lincoln administration allowed the government to stabilize the economy.[5] These programs allowed the United States to create a more sustainable mix of the three sources of revenue, keeping inflation and public debt at manageable levels. The Confederacy, by contrast, relied very little on taxation, and was unable to borrow enough to pay its bills. It instead issued an ever-increasing number of Confederate treasury notes that were almost instantly worthless and served only to increase inflation to astronomical levels.[6]

The Union began the war with a much more fully developed economy, one that was responsive and adaptable to the exigencies of the war. It was also blessed with leadership willing to take risks and a populace largely united behind the effort. The South did not enjoy these advantages. The uninspired and reactionary attempts of the Davis administration to right its foundering ship only served to exacerbate the situation, as worthless Confederate money spewed forth from southern printing presses. The Confederate economy was almost entirely dependent on the inflexible plantation system, and southern wealth was tied up in land and slaves instead of in factories and banks. Finally, the states’-rights ideology that fueled secession itself helped ensure that top-down economic policies, such as internal taxes and legal tender treasury notes, would be viewed suspiciously, at best.

[1] Jaime Amanda Martinez, “Chapter 3: ‘The Question of Bread Is a Very Serious One’: Virginia’s Wartime Economy,” in Virginia at War, 1865, eds. William C. Davis & James I. Robertson Jr. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012), 41-42,

[2] Roger L. Ransom, “The Economics of the Civil War,” EH.Net Encyclopedia, Economic History Association, February 1, 2010,

[3] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 437,;idno=heb00677.

[4] David G. Surdam, “King Cotton: Monarch or Pretender? The State of the Market for Raw Cotton on the Eve of the American Civil War,” The Economic History Review 51, no. 1 (February 1998): 113,; Stanley Lebergott, “Through the Blockade: The Profitability and Extent of Cotton Smuggling, 1861-1865,” The Journal of Economic History 41, no. 4 (December 1981): 877,

[5] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 444-8.

[6] Ransom, “The Economics of the Civil War,” Figures 4 and 5, and Table 4.

Conscription in the Civil War

In the initial flush of patriotic fervor after Fort Sumter, men in both the Union and the nascent Confederacy rushed to the defense of their respective causes and home states. In the North, Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand militia, and “recruiting quotas were exceeded almost overnight”[1] amid patriotic rallies. Indeed, the response was so overwhelming that state governors offered many more troops than initially requested, with several states holding on to those units for future use by the Union army.[2] Both sides anticipated a short war, with each counting on the righteousness of their cause to propel them to certain victory. American experience in war, and recent wars in Europe, led Northerners and Southerners alike to believe that a single decisive battle would end the present conflict, and the Confederacy was duly elated over its victory at the First Battle of Bull Run. Imagine Southern surprise and disappointment, then, when Lincoln did not waver in his determination to suppress the rebellion and volunteers turned out in droves to his call for three hundred thousand more troops.[3] The war was going to last far longer than either side had anticipated.

As casualties mounted on a horrific scale never before experienced by American armies, both armies were forced to resort to some form of conscription in order to fill their depleted ranks. A year into the war, the Confederacy faced a truly daunting task, since its volunteer enlistments were set to expire just as the Union army was filling up with three-year enlistees. The Davis administration tried several tactics in order to forestall the coming manpower crisis, but none worked sufficiently. Finally, the Confederacy was forced to enact the first military draft in American history, which was richly ironic, given the CSA’s raison d’être—states’ rights and local control of a limited government.[4] There was resentment among some Southerners that, because of an exemption for slaveholders, poor whites would be forced to fight and die for the interests of the elite. Furthermore, the draft did not just apply to those who had not yet volunteered; it extended the enlistments of the volunteers for the duration of the war.[5]

The Union was able to put off conscription until the summer of 1863, and despite earlier Northern enthusiasm for the war, resistance to the draft was widespread. Many poor farmers and laborers, and especially immigrants, feared that the draft would unfairly target them for service, this despite Lincoln’s attempts to appease the lower classes with options for substitutes and commutation. Draft riots broke out among Irish laborers in New York City and German farmers in rural Wisconsin, as well as among various other constituencies in locations around the country.[6] Since the Union cause now focused on emancipation, many Northerners bridled at the thought of dying in a war being waged to free their racial inferiors. Despite their concerns, the data appear to show that Northern immigrants were not overrepresented in the draft, and accounted for only about three or four percent of those taken in the 1863 draft.[7]

When studying conscription policies, one must take into account the respective strategic positions of the Union and the Confederacy. Aside from Lee’s brief foray into southern Pennsylvania, the North did not experience a Confederate invasion and occupation of its territory. The South, by contrast, was subject to an invasion and occupation by Union armies that only grew in size and scope as the war continued. Southern fighting men, therefore, had to concern themselves with something their Northern counterparts did not, that they were not at home defending their families against a ravaging foe.

[1] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 36.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 51-52.

[4] Ibid., 117-8.

[5] John M. Sacher, “’A Very Disagreeable Business’: Confederate Conscription in Louisiana,” Civil War History 53, no. 2 (June 2007): 142,

[6] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 226-8; Adam J. Kawa, “No Draft! Angry Farmers Turn a Wisconsin Town into a Battlefield When They Riot against Conscription,” Civil War Times, 37, no. 3 (June 1998): 54-60,

[7] Tyler Anbinder, “Which Poor Man’s Fight? Immigrants and the Federal Conscription of 1863,” Civil War History 52, no. 4 (December 2006): 349-50,