The Influence of African Slaves and European Countries
in the US Civil War
The Dred Scott Case: The Legal Framework of Slavery
Dred Scott was a slave taken by his owner, an army officer, to an unorganized territory where slavery had been forbidden by the Missouri Compromise. He was sent back to Missouri where he sued for his freedom as having been a resident of free soil. The case reached the Supreme Court which published its decision on March 6, 1857.
On three grounds, the US Supreme Court denied Scott’s claim for freedom: 1) as a Negro he could not be a citizen of the United States, and therefore had no right to sue in a federal court; 2) as a resident of Missouri, the laws of Missouri had no longer any effect on his status; 3) as a resident of the territory north of 36° 30’ he had not been emancipated because Congress had no right to deprive citizens of their property without due process of law (Morison, 593). The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was therefore unconstitutional and void.
This important decision of the Supreme Court formally legalized slavery in unorganized territories, paving the way for the debates of 1860 between Lincoln and Davis (Greenberg, 433). The ultimate outcome would be the US Civil War or as some historians call it the “Brothers’ War.” Technically speaking, this was the first modern warfare in history.
Abraham Lincoln began his term of office as president of the United States with a clear objective of abolishing slavery from all states. He was bitterly opposed by Southern politicians who argued that slavery was a natural phenomenon. They added that by force of nature, slavery would wither away, as in the case of the British Empire (this is though not the case). From the perspective of the historian, slavery was an important economic input in the South (Greenberg, 437). African slaves (and their descendants) were a cheap source of labor. Large plantations, often owned by landowning aristocrats and politicians, were mostly tilled by slaves. A large portion of the income of the South was derived from these plantations. It is therefore correct to assume that the Southern opposition was the result of the federal government’s measures to end slavery, as it would endanger their livelihood.
To make the issue more complicated, Southern politicians attached the issue of the “right to secede from the Union”, an issue that Lincoln refused to react (in his mind, the right of secession was never intended by the founding fathers). War was now eminent. The South began to initiate enlistment of able-bodied men. Whole divisions were being formed in the North and South borders. The capture of Fort Sumter finally initiated the war. Lincoln addressed the nation by arguing that the bonds of slavery should be broken in order for freedom to exist. Lincoln saw no reason to postpone the war against the South. In his mind, this was the only solution to restore the Union and forever abolish slavery. As the philosopher William James put it:
What law and reason were unable to accomplish, had now to be done by that uncertain and dreadful dispenser of God’s judgments, war. War, with its abominably casual, inaccurate methods of destroying good and bad together, but at last unquestionably able to hew a way out of intolerable situations, when through man’s delusion or perversity every better way is blocked (Morison, 615).
Whatever the nature of war is, the fact is the US Civil War was fought between two opposing ideologies. One ideology was basically utilitarian in nature, the other of assumed virtuosity. To the Lincoln government, the possible result of the war would naturally determine the shape of American society; whether it is slave free or not. Hence, from the start of the war, the president employed the service of the slaves as soldiers. It was his way of showing confidence in the ability of the slaves to influence the course of war. Lincoln also asked European countries for assistance if not direct alliance.
Contributions of African Slaves (or their descendants) in the War
After the declaration of war against the rebel states, President Lincoln issued orders to form volunteer corps consisting of emancipated slaves. These volunteer corps would serve as rearguards of the Potomac Army, sent to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Before the end of the war, almost 100 000 freed slaves volunteered for the Union army. Although disliked by many Union officers, the Negroes were praised by Lincoln in the battles of Fredericksburg and Antietam. As one writer noted, “the Negroes seem to enjoy the natural freedom to which God bestowed upon them; on which almost every white man hates” (Toynbee, 406).
For many historians, the greatest contribution of the slaves in the war was their incomparable support to the emancipation act. A large section of the slave population adopted a cynical and sneering attitude toward the Proclamation; many of them were avid supporters of President Lincoln. In any case, the slaves were jubilant of the celebration in Boston where Emerson wrote ‘Today unbind the captive, so only are unbound, lift up a people from the dust, trump of their rescue, sound!” (Morison, 654). This expressed joy was transformed into national fervor when another 50 000 slaves enlisted in the Union army. In general, this was a show of gratitude to Lincoln who sacrificed the security of a nation for “mere slaves.”
Contributions of Foreign Powers in the War
At the start of the war, both France and England were ready to assist the Confederates in terms of increased export of arms and ammunitions. Both countries though refused to either intervene directly or make alliance with the Confederacy. Spain offered no help for both the Union and Confederate states. In the summer of 1864, the confederacy began losing the war. Its coastal cities were effectively blockaded by Union warships. In the famous battle of Gettysburg, the Confederates were defeated by strong Union formations. This forced the Confederacy to adopt a defensive strategy; the idea was to draw the Union forces deeper into Virginia and smash their flanks by rearguard actions. This proved unsuccessful since most Union forces diverted their attacks west.
This formally changed the relationship between the Confederacy and the European powers. When the Confederacy began to ask for more arms (in exchange for cotton) from England, the latter refused. England hoped that by pleasing the Union, an invasion of Canada would be prevented. The plea fell into deaf ears. Instead of supporting the Confederates, the British parliament voted for strengthening trade relations with the North. Lincoln’s proclamation was also praised by some delegates of the parliament. To quote:
The erasure of that foul blot upon civilization and Christianity – chattel slavery – during your Presidency will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity. Accept our high admiration of your firmness in upholding the proclamation of freedom (Toynbee, 411).
Napoleon did the same for France. He sent the French fleet to assist the Union navy in the blockades around Confederate ports, although this was greatly resented by Lincoln. In any case, the change of allegiance of European powers significantly influenced the outcome of the war.
It is quite clear from historical texts that the Negroes (a derogatory word) or slaves contributed to the Union cause. The same case can be said of foreign powers (although this was essentially driven by greed).
Greenberg, E. Created Equal: Struggle for Democracy. New York: Longman, 2005.
Morison, S.E. The Oxford History of the American People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Toynbee, A. History of the World. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989.