Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’

Memorial Day 2017

May 29, 2017

Memorial Day was originally a holiday to honor the Union dead in the Civil War.  They should not be forgotten.   The painting below illustrates the Battle of Gettysburg, with Union defenders on the left, Confederate attackers on the right.

A Memorial Day War Nerd: Gettysburg Was The Finest Fight Ever in the World by John Dolan, aka Gary Brecher, for The eXiled.

Thoughts about the Free State of Jones

September 6, 2016

In the “Free State of Jones” movie, Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer who rebelled against the Confederacy, takes refuge in an inaccessible swamp and is helped by fugitive slaves.

Victoria Bynum

Victoria Bynum

Such things happened in real life.   Many fugitive slaves fled, not to the North, which many of them couldn’t reach, but to places such as the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia where their pursuers couldn’t follow.

The Seminole Indians were never defeated because they retreated deep into the Everglades where the U.S. military couldn’t follow, where they were joined by fleeing slaves.

And, yes, some of them did shelter white fugitives (fugitives for good and bad reasons).

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Jones County wasn’t unique as an example of white Southern unionism.  Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones, on which the movie was based, has written another book (which I haven’t read), The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies about white uprisings against the Confederacy in North Carolina, Mississippi and Texas.

I did know about Winston County, Alabama, and there were others.  The whole state of West Virginia was created out of a pro-Union section of Virginia.

Movies such as Glory remind us of the contribution of black troops to Union victory.  Loyal white Southerners also were important to Union victory,  Many of the Union’s best generals, such as George Thomas, were Southerners.

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Newton Knight and the free state of Jones

September 6, 2016

I read THE FREE STATE OF JONES: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by Victoria Bynum after seeing the movie, “The Free State of Jones,” which I liked, in order to see how much of the movie is based on fact.

freestateofjones.bynum.amazon-fsojThe movie dramatized the true story of Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer led a guerrilla revolt against the Confederacy during the Civil War, and was never captured or defeated.

He took his grandfather’s slave as a lover and became the patriarch of an interracial community which continued to exist down tinto the middle of the 20th century.

Victoria Bynum’s book begins with the origins of the families who fought in the Knight Company.  In colonial times, they lived in the backwoods of the Carolinas, and opposed rich plantation owners in the political struggles of those times.

Racial lines were not drawn so strictly in those days as later, and some sons of poor white indentured servants felt they had more in common with black slaves than with slave owners..

During the American Revolution, many wealthy planters such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were rebels, and many poor backwoodsmen were Tories.

After the Revolution, many backwoodsmen migrated into the lawless frontier region that later became the states of Alabama and Mississippi.  They endured great danger, hardship and isolation, particularly the women, but rejoiced in being their own masters.

Slaveowners adopted, taught and enforced a rigid ideology of racism. to a degree previously unknown, Bynum wrote.

Anybody with “one drop” of Negro “blood” was considered black.  White men had a duty to preserve the chastity of white women, lest white “blood” be contaminated.  This was supported by a religious practice that condemned dancing, alcohol and sensuality.

No doubt the slaveowners sincerely believed in these things, but they served a function of keeping the black slaves isolated and preventing them from joining forces with whites.

But, according to Bynum, not all white people followed the accepted code.  Some enjoyed feasting, dancing and drinking, sometimes among black companions.  Some preferred charismatic, revival meetings, sometimes led by women, to the stricter and more authoritarian religion.  There were those who became lovers across the color line.

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Harriet Tubman, an American hero

July 24, 2016

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The following is notes for a lay sermon at First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, on July 24, 2016.

Before the present announcement that Harriet Tubman’s face will appear on the $20 bill, all I knew about her was that she was connected with the Underground Railroad.

I’ve since learned something about her, and come to realize that she is truly a great American – but with a different kind of greatness than that of historical figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Grant or Benjamin Franklin.

It is not just that those others were white, and she was black.  It is not just that they were all men, and she was a woman.  She was poor and illiterate, and earned her living through most of her life by physical labor.  Unlike her, they were commanders and lawgivers at the pinnacle of power.  She showed the power and position are not necessary for greatness.

What did her greatness consist of?  Her greatness consisted of the willingness to risk everything for freedom – first her own freedom, and then the freedom of others.

As a young girl, born into slavery, she resisted efforts to force her to accept submission, and eventually escaped.  Then, at great personal risk, she returned to the place she had been held in bondage, and rescued others.

During the Civil War, she volunteered as a scout for the Union Army and led other enslaved people into freedom.  During the final phase of her life, she supported equal rights for both African Americans and women.

She lived according to the ethic of Jesus in a way that few people today, including Unitarian Universalists, can understand.  She had a deep faith in God, and was guided by her visions of God.  She shared everything she had with those more in want that she was, and trusted in God to provide.

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Newton Knight, an American hero

July 22, 2016

My friend Hal Bauer urged all his friends to see the movie, Free State of Jones.  I saw it, and it is as good as Hal said it is.

The movie tells the story of Newton Knight, a white farmer in southern Mississippi, who led a rebellion against the Confederacy itself.

Newton Knight

Newton Knight

Knight was 6-foot-4 with black curly hair and a full beard—“big heavyset man, quick as a cat,” as one of his friends described him.  He was a nightmarish opponent in a backwoods wrestling match, and one of the great unsung guerrilla fighters in American history.  So many men tried so hard to kill him that perhaps his most remarkable achievement was to reach old age.

“He was a Primitive Baptist who didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, doted on children and could reload and fire a double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun faster than anyone else around,” said [local historian Wyatt] Moulds. 

“Even as an old man, if someone rubbed him the wrong way, he’d have a knife at their throat in a heartbeat.  A lot of people will tell you that Newt was just a renegade, out for himself, but there’s good evidence that he was a man of strong principles who was against secession, against slavery and pro-Union.”

Source: Richard Grant | Smithsonian

Knight hated the 20-slave rule, which gave slave-owning families one exemption from military service for every 20 slaves they owned.  He also hated Confederate confiscations of livestock, crops and food from small farmers.

For a time, his Knight Company drove the Confederate Army out of Jones County and surrounding areas of southern Mississippi.  Contrary to the impression given by the movie title, he didn’t intend to set up Jones County as an independent nation.  He was loyal to the Union.

He didn’t only fight for independent white farmers.  He fought against slavery himself.  He defended the rights of newly-freed slaves after the Civil War.  After the triumph of the Ku Klux Klan, he retreated to his homestead where he lived with his inter-racial family.

I had no idea Newton Knight existed until I saw the movie.

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What’s so remarkable about Harriet Tubman?

June 5, 2016
This is not how Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill

This is NOT how Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill

I knew hardly anything Harriet Tubman before the current announcement that her face will appear on the $20 bill.  During the past couple of weeks, I’ve read books that help me appreciate her for what she was.

What’s remarkable about Harriet Tubman is how she risked her life, not once but many times, in order to achieve her own freedom and the freedom of others—as a gun-toting conductor for the Underground Railroad and then as a scout and spy for the Union Army.

She did all of this at her own initiative and much at her own expense.  She financed her first slave rescue expeditions with money she earned as a cook and cleaner, and her work for the Union Army by making and selling pies and root beer.  A poor illiterate black woman who suffered blackouts probably due to a childhood head injury, she earned the respect of intellectuals and generals.

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She was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, sometime from 1820 to 1825 under the name of Amarinta Ross.  At the age of five or six, she was hired out as a nursemaid to keep watch on a baby; whenever the baby woke up and cried, she was whipped.  Once she was whipped five times before breakfast.

Later jobs included muskrat trapping, field and forest work, driving oxen, plowing and hauling logs.

Once an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight at another slave and hit her instead.  She said the blow “broke my skull.”  She suffered dizziness, pain and blackouts throughout the rest of her life.  A devout Christian, she also experienced strange visions, vivid dreams and premonitions that she thought were the voice of God.

Harriet_Tubman_Locations_MapIn 1849, she escaped to Philadelphia, and adopted the name of Harriet Tubman.  Many escaped slaves changed their names in order to make recapture difficult.   She was married to John Tubman, a free black man about 10 years older than her, but he refused to go with her.

Her position was as precarious as that of an illegal immigrant today.  Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 as well as previous law, she could have been arrested and returned to slavery at any time.

Rather than playing it safe, she returned to Maryland to rescue members of her family, not just once, but at least 13 times.  Slowly, one group at a time, with the help of the Underground Railroad, she brought an estimated 60 or 70 slaves to freedom, and helped possibly 60 or 70 more by showing them the route.

Among them were brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and her aged parents who by that time were free, but were under suspicion of aiding the others to flee.   She sought out her husband, but he had meanwhile found a new partner.

She may have been the only fugitive slave who regularly ventured back into slave territory to bring other enslaved people out.  This is especially remarkable because she went back to a place where she was known by sight to white people in the community.

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Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln

February 12, 2016

Abraham Lincoln was born this day in 1809.   Lincoln’s Birthday was a national holiday until it was absorbed by the meaningless “President’s Day”.

Some question Lincoln’s greatness.  I am not one of them.  The best and truest rebuttal to Lincoln’s critics by Frederick Douglass in an oration delivered at the unveiling of Freedman’s Monument in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., in 1876.

Here’s is the meat of the talk.

Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.  He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.  In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans.

He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.  His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race.  [snip]

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The passing scene – August 20, 2015

August 20, 2015

Struggle and Progress: Eric Foner on the abolitionists, Reconstruction and winning “freedom” from the Right, a conversation with Jacobin magazine writers.

Eric Foner

Eric Foner

Historian Eric Foner pointed out that the abolition of slavery was truly a second American Revolution.  It involved the confiscation without compensation of the most valuable form of property at the time—enslaved African people.

The Civil War is sometimes interpreted as a triumph of industrial capitalism over a backward agrarian economy.  Foner said that, although this is true in a way, the pre-Civil War capitalists got along very well with the slaveowners.

The abolitionists included moderates, radicals, wealthy philanthropists, lawbreakers, politicians, former black slaves and racists who opposed slavery because it was harmful to white people.  Although sometimes working at cross-purposes, Foner said their diverse approaches created a synergy that made the movement stronger.   This has lessons for our own time.

The Last Refuge of the Incompetent by John Michael Greer for The Archdruid Report.

John Michael Greer wrote that a successful revolutionary movement will (1) discredit the existing order through relentless propaganda, (2) seek alliances with all those with grievances against the existing order, (3) create alternative institutions of its own and (4) offer a vision of hope, not despair.

In the USA, this program is being carried out not by what Greer called the “green Left,” but the “populist Right”.

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Ben Grierson, a forgotten hero

May 25, 2015

Originally Memorial Day was a holiday to honor the fallen soldiers in the Civil War.

The war was fought by the South to preserve slavery and by the North to preserve the Union.  But although the North had the better cause, the South to this day has more glamor.

Benjamin Grierson

Benjamin Grierson

So on this Memorial Day, I remember a Northern hero—Ben Grierson—who conducted the most impressive raid of the Civil War, who never turned his back on black freedman afterwards and who, in the words of Gary Brecher, did not have a weak or a mean bone in his body.

I didn’t know anything about Grierson, except for an old movie starring John Wayne I saw years ago, and brief accounts in Shelby Foote’s The Civil War, and James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, until I read Brecher’s article about him.  Brecher is the pen name of the author of PandoDaily’s War Nerd column, and he is not easily impressed.

Grierson was scarred by being kicked in the face by a horse as a boy, and grew up with an aversion to horses.  But when circumstances put him in command of a cavalry regiment, he adapted.

Grierson’s first assignment was chasing guerrillas in Tennessee, where his kin came from, under Gen. Lew Wallace. The one thing everybody knows about him is he wrote Ben Hur, which I had to watch as a child because it was supposedly “Christian,” but Wallace was a pretty good officer, and he set Grierson to work hunting fellow Tennesseans.

Here again Grierson is like this ridiculously perfect officer-and-gentleman type; he crushed the local bushwhackers but the Tennessee ladies loved him for his perfect manners. You don’t get that a lot from ladies you meet while hunting down their kin, but that was Grierson, Mister Ridiculously Perfect.

What he was famous for was Grierson’s Raid.

Grierson left Tennessee in mid-April 1863 with a brigade of about 1700 men from two Illinois and one Iowa regiments. From the beginning he was in enemy territory, which like MacPherson says, is one handicap Forrest never had to face.

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What I was taught about the Civil War

May 25, 2015

civil-war

When I was growing up, I believed that the Civil War was the result of a tragic misunderstanding, brought on by the radical abolitionists of the North and the radical fire-eaters of the South.

I believed that the Southerners were better and more chivalrous fighters, and had better generals.  I believed that the North won only because of greater numbers and better supplies.  I believed that black people were bystanders in a war between white people.

I believed, too, that Reconstruction was tyranny, dis-enfranchising the white people of the South and putting them under the rule of ignorant black people and corrupt Northern carpetbaggers.

I learned that the Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan was the liberation movement of the Southern white people, and not to be confused with the 20th century Ku Klux Klan, which warred on white Catholics and Jews as well as black people.

All this coincided with a strong belief, which I got from my parents, teachers and Sunday school teachers, that all people have equal rights and that people should be judged as individuals and not on the basis of their color, religion or nationality.

Our history was written to make possible the reconciliation of the white people of the North and South, and to conceal the fact that the price of reconciliation was to sacrifice the freedom of the black people in the South.  In all my high school and college experience, I was never assigned a book by a black author.

This may have been the result of growing up in Maryland, a border state, where people had fought on both sides, although a friend of mine, who grew up in Brooklyn, recalls being taught the same version of American history.

The fact is that the Civil War was fought over slavery.  It was not a war for the abolition of slavery, but in defense of slavery.

President Lincoln said that slavery was a bad thing and should not be allowed to spread.  The white Southern leaders said that slavery was a good thing, and should not be restricted.   The white Union soldiers fought to preserve the Union, but the white Southern soldiers fought to preserve slavery.  There also were black regiments fighting for the Union, and their members had no doubt they were fighting against slavery.

Reconstruction was a noble but half-hearted attempt at nation building, and it was a tragedy that it was stopped by means of terrorism—terrorism that was still in place during the civil rights era of the 1960s.

That doesn’t mean that Southern white people were individually worse than Northern white people, as Abraham Lincoln was at pains to point out, or that the Confederates did not fight bravely against great odds.  It means they were part of a bad system whose effects linger today.

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The values of the Old South linger on

November 25, 2014

The Civil War ended nearly 150 years ago, but the underlying attitudes that caused it still exist.

confederate_flagThe planter aristocracy of the Old South were great horsemen and marksmen, had a strong sense of honor and were always ready to fight a duel or a war, while using the gun and the whip to keep a subject population in line.

Their values are echoed in people today who talk of secession and armed rebellion, while abridging voting rights and refusing to accept the outcome of elections as final.  They also are reflected in the automatic defense of any white person, police officer or otherwise, who shoots and kills an unarmed black person.

And in the denial of the obvious historical fact that the South seceded in order to protect the institution of slavery.

I don’t want to stereotype or scapegoat Southern white people or imply that, as a group, they are uniquely bad.  They are not all alike and not all of one mind.  The South has changed profoundly in my lifetime, more than I would have thought possible, and I think credit is due for this.

But having said all that, I think there is a lot of truth in the articles to which I link below.  I recommend them.

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Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

The peculiar institution of American violence by Doctor Science for Obsidian Wings.

The War Nerd: Why Sherman was right to burn Atlanta by Gary Brecher for Pando Daily.

A true history of the Civil War

July 10, 2014

BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson (1988) emphasizes a key fact about the Civil War which some historians try to ignore—that the war was started by the South and fought in defense of slavery.

This book is a history of the struggle over slavery, in its social and political as well as military aspects, from the start of the Mexican War to the end of the Civil War.

The Mexican War itself was fought partly to expand the territory open to slavery (and was opposed by many Northern abolitionists for that reason); during the next decade, Southern politicians tried to expand slave territory by purchasing Cuba and by sponsoring private military expeditions to Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries.

Battle_Cry_of_Freedom_(book)_coverThe cause of the Civil War was the growing Northern opposition to the spread of slavery and the refusal of the South to tolerate any restrictions on slavery.  Although the Southern leaders’ rationale for secession was state’s rights, this was a secondary consideration.  They did not recognize state’s rights in regard to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and they endorsed the Dred Scott decision, which denied the right of a state to forbid slavery.

Some were more frank than others.  Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, said the U.S. Declaration of Independence was in error in saying all men are created equal.

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery … is his natural and normal condition,” Stephens said.  “This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

The war was not initiated by the North to abolish slavery.  Abraham Lincoln’s position was that slavery was a great evil and should not be permitted to expand, but that the federal government had no Constitutional right to interfere with it where it existed.

This was not good enough for the Southern leaders, who saw in Lincoln’s platform a future threat to slavery.  Ironically, if the Southern states had not seceded, slavery would have endured for many years to come.

Subjugation of black people was a matter of principle for the Confederates.  Robert E. Lee refused to permit exchanges of prisoners of war, which would have been to his benefit militarily, because Lincoln insisted on black prisoners being included in the exchanges.

The Confederacy announced that captured black Northern soldiers would be sold into slavery; this was suspended only after Lincoln threatened to put equal numbers of white Southern troops to hard labor.

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150th anniversary of Lincoln’s great speech

November 19, 2013

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Today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, given Nov. 19, 1863, to commemorate the dedication of a cemetery for the Union soldiers who fell at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3 of that year.

It is the best statement of the American political credo ever written except for the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.

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Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Abraham LincolnNow we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.   It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln

November 19, 1863

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The greatness of Lincoln on film

November 29, 2012

I saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie during Thanksgiving week, and liked it a lot.   It was well-written, well-acted and well-staged, and so far as I can tell, broadly true to history. The movie focused on a few months in early 1865 when Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, through Congress.  It showed the two sides of Lincoln, the cunning politician and the idealistic believer in freedom and democracy.  If Lincoln had been less of either, slavery would not have been abolished when and how it was.

An early scene showed two black Union soldiers talking to someone with his back turned; then the camera revealed the person to be Abraham Lincoln, whose expression of good-humored, kindly shrewdness showed Lincoln as I imagined him.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a splendid actor.  After watching him as Lincoln, it is hard to recall he played Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. 

Tommy Lee Jones was great as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical abolitionist Congressman, who is depicted as a man ahead of his time, as he was, instead of as a dangerous extremist, as he usually is shown.  Sally Field (no longer young and perky) gave a fine performance as the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln, as did David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward.

The movie provides much-needed push-back against revisionists who claim that Abraham Lincoln was a power-hungry opportunist who cared nothing about slavery.  There are two versions of this—a left-wing version that says Lincoln was a servant of capitalism and a right-wing version that says the Civil War was really about state’s rights.

The Southern leaders in fact only cared about state’s rights as a means of defending slavery.  They used the power of the federal government to override Northern states that harbored fugitive slaves.  It is true that Lincoln did not run for President as an abolitionist.  A Thaddeus Stevens could not have been elected.  Lincoln’s platform was to stop the spread of slavery into parts of the nation where it did not then exist.  This, he claimed, would lead to the gradual extinction of slavery.  The Southern leaders agreed.  They thought Lincoln such a threat that they led their states out of the Union.

Lincoln wrote a famous letter to Horace Greeley, saying his priority was to save the Union by any means necessary, whether that meant freeing the slaves, leaving them in bondage or freeing some and not freeing others.  This was a correct priority.   Emancipation of the slaves would have been meaningless if the Southern whites has established an independent slave nation.  But when he wrote this letter, the Emancipation Proclamation was in a desk drawer, awaiting a Union victory for Lincoln to issue it.

Critics of Lincoln said the Emancipation Proclamation, which referred only to slaves in areas then in rebellion, did not free a single slave.  This isn’t so.  Many slaves fled behind Union lines to freedom.  The Emancipation Proclamation was based on Lincoln’s claim of wartime authority to confiscate enemy property.  He did not have the authority under law to emancipate slaves generally on his own decision.  This required a Constitutional amendment, which, as the movie shows, he introduced in due course.

Emancipation of the slaves had political and strategic benefits.  It deprived the South of its work force and its moral claims.  Black troops added to the Union strength.  But it had its costs.  Northern whites were divided on this issue.  Southern whites were motivated to fight to the bitter end because emancipation meant an end to their way of life.  Without emancipation, the Confederates might have surrendered before Sherman’s march through Georgia and the rest of the physical devastation of the South.  Or a compromise peace might have been negotiated, as the movie indicates, and the war ended sooner, but with slavery intact.

Click on Lincoln: A More Authentic Wonderment for an appreciation of the movie in the New York Review of Books.

Click on Fact-Checking ‘Lincoln’: Lincoln’s Mostly Accurate, His Advisers Aren’t for historical background in The Atlantic.