Few of the mythologies in American history are as firmly entrenched in the modern psyche as that of the civil war. The American civil war has become synonymous with the anti-slavery movement. The head of the union, Abraham Lincoln, is known universally as the great emancipator. The circumstances leading up to the civil war suggest, however, that there were other factors motivating the North and that abolition came to dominate union policy only gradually, and only when it was beneficial to do so.

The election of 1860 caused a crisis of confidence in America. Whilst Lincoln and the Republicans clearly won the election, they enjoyed virtually no support in the South. Southern politician were highly fearful that the North would attempt to abolish slavery, which was the economic foundation of their society. Consequently, seven states, comprising the cotton belt, seceded from the union. The South’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes of Secession placed the issue of slavery squarely at the centre of the crisis.” It is highly idealistic to presume that freedom for blacks was a high priority for Lincoln at this time. It seems far more rational to assume that the prospect of losing one third of the Union’s territory and population was the chief motivation to go to war.

The prospect of forfeiting such a significant and vital section of the home market was clearly unacceptable to Lincoln and the Republicans. The notion of allowing slavery to continue in the South was clearly an acceptable policy. It is with no small irony that, just prior to the war, the great emancipator “went so far as to push through congress and start ratification by the states of an amendment to the constitution guaranteeing southern slavery forever. That would have been the thirteenth amendment!”

Whilst Lincoln was willing to protect southern slavery, he was firmly opposed to its expansion. It is curious to note, however, that the source of Lincoln’s vehement opposition to the expansion of slavery lay not in a desire to protect blacks but to protect the existing democracy and governmental institutions. A Kentucky senator, John Crittenden, proposed a popular compromise which could have avoided the conflict so dreaded by Lincoln. Crittenden’s plan guaranteed southern states the right to continue slavery and “extended the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean.” Foner notes Lincoln’s response:

We have just carried an election … on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance that the government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices … If we surrender, it is the end of us and the end of government.


Lincoln’s objection makes no mention of slavery and concerns itself entirely with the ethos that, the elected government must be allowed to rule.

Even after hostilities broke out, emancipation was not a policy or even a high concern for Lincoln. The Republicans continued to court the pro-Union slave owners in border states. For the first year of the civil war “Northern military commanders even returned fugitive slaves to their owners, a policy that raised an outcry in antislavery circles.” The eventual decision to assume an abolition policy was forced upon Lincoln, not adopted.

The war did not begin well for the Union. Peter Camejo offers reasons as to why the north was initially balked by her, seemingly inferior, southern neighbour:

The Northern capitalists were incapable of subordinating their individual greed to the needs of the struggle, and the whole war was a saturnalia of corruption … Incompetents were given army commissions – generals were appointed by the hundreds on the basis of bribes or their connection to the ruling class. The top command was totally disorganized for a period … Such errors were paid for in blood by the plebian farmers and workers in uniform and caused widespread demoralization.


After several rushed and disastrous battles, the Union found itself being invaded by an increasingly confident Confederate army. It was during, and perhaps because, of this setback that Lincoln began to look for new potential allies. The African Americans, had already surprised many by their unwavering enthusiasm for, what they considered, a war for freedom. Consequently, at some point “during the summer of 1862, Lincoln concluded that emancipation had become a political and military necessity.”

The question of who should be credited with the triumph of emancipation is incredibly blurred. Despite the historical temptation to honour a single leader as the banner bearer of freedom, this paradigm ignores the enormity of the contribution from other quarters. Lincoln, despite his contributions, was never a passionate emancipist. Lincoln was far more concerned with preserving the Union and occupied a mediatory role between the two wings of the Republican Party. Hofstadter notes that Lincoln’s “program flowed from his conception that his role was to be a moderator of extremes in public sentiment.”

When conceptualising the American civil war, historians should hold the theme of inclusion as a vital tool in forming a rounded understanding. The role of blacks and anti-slavery groups has been somewhat marginalised in comparison to the mythology lavished upon Lincoln. It was, however, the efforts and reactions of these two groups which, effectively, forced Lincoln’s hand. As Foner explains, “slaves themselves took actions that helped propel a reluctant white America down the road of emancipation.”

The final myth which shall be discussed in this article is concerning the lot of African Americans after the civil war. It is commonly held that 1865 brought about the birth of black freedom in America. This article, however, throws into question the very meaning of freedom. Congressman James Garfield asked in 1865, “Is it the bare privilege of not being chained? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion.” Freedom for blacks meant, not only the absence of oppression but, the provision of opportunity. In a practical sense, “like rural people throughout the world, former slaves’ ideas of freedom were directly related to land ownership.” African Americans wanted a redistribution of land after the war. They argued that in order to be truly free they must be allotted some of the land which they had been slaves on for nearly two and a half centuries. In the summer of 1865, however, President Andrew Johnson ordered nearly all land to be returned to its original southern owners.

The failure of Johnson to come to the aid of the former slaves should come as no surprise. The Republicans had not entered the war to benefit blacks, and now it was over they remained indifferent to their plight. The northern politicians were far more concerned with appeasing the South. Consequently, Johnson only required a pledge of allegiance to the Union for southern whites to receive amnesty. The desire to reconcile the southern states to the North and restore a sense of unity and nationhood outweighed the cry of justice for blacks. The resulting situation for freedmen was that practically all of them “entered upon their new life with no advantages of any kind. These people had no learning except the lore of plantation, no property except the rags on their backs, no experience except in following orders.”

It is not to be suggested that the black community did not benefit following the end of hostilities in 1865. Black churches and schools were greatly strengthened and many families were reunited. Yet, even small gains for blacks were strongly opposed by southern whites. The fifteenth amendment, for example, provides that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Whilst the states could not deny the vote to former slaves, they could, and did, create non-racial voting laws aimed at excluding blacks. As the majority of freed blacks were poor and illiterate, many southern states introduced poll taxes and literacy tests. So it can be seen that although African Americans were free, they did not, and arguably still do not, enjoy the same kind of freedom as whites.

Piercing the veil of mythology is arguably the most difficult obstacle in regard to American history. Groups, such as the colonial pioneers and founding fathers, and historical figures, such as Jefferson and Lincoln, have reached such iconic stature in the American psyche that the myths have a taken on a life of their own. Similarly, certain themes, especially freedom and liberty, have become so sacred in the modern American imagination that their original meaning is often overlooked. 

It is crucial, therefore, in conceptualising American history to keep a keen eye on the facts. The meaning of freedom and liberty today, and to whom it includes, is vastly different to the meaning understood by figures in American history. Historians must read the primary records within the context from which they were written. When the modern paradigm of thought is forced upon isolated quotes from American history a breeding ground for mythology and half truths is created. Finally, the historian must endeavour to be inclusive of the black, Indian and female stories in American history. For without these a rounded understanding of American history can never be achieved.


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