Hidden Connections: Jubilee: from Slaves to Freedpeople

Slave emancipation in the United States

"When war was begun,” the former slave Booker T. Washington recalled in 1901, “every slave on our plantation felt and knew that, though other issues were discussed, the primal one was…slavery. Even the most ignorant members of my race on the remote plantations felt in their hearts, with a certainty that admitted of no doubt, that the freedom of the slaves would be the one great result of the war, if the Northern armies conquered.” And so it was. Nearly two and a half centuries after the first Africans were brought ashore as slaves at Virginia, and almost ninety years after a revolution that laid claim to the principle that “all men are created equal,” slave emancipation was finally accomplished though a bloody, four-year civil war that cost over 600,000 lives, left the Southern landscape and economy devastated, and upended the foundations upon which the American republic had been built. 

Although, as slaves sensed from the beginning, slavery was at the root of the conflict between North and South, President Abraham Lincoln proved a reluctant emancipator. Though morally repulsed by slavery, Lincoln sought in the early period of the war to reach a settlement that would have restored the Union “as it was”—with slavery intact. He offered compensated emancipation to slaveholders in the ‘border states’ in an attempt to dissuade them from joining the Confederacy, and on several occasions countermanded orders by Union commanders aimed at undermining slavery, measures that alienated him from abolitionists like Wendell Phillips and the escaped slave Frederick Douglass and from the most forthright antislavery elements in his own party. 

But by late 1862 events had pushed Lincoln beyond slaveowners were consistently rebuffed. The conventional military strategy pursued by his military command delivered few decisive victories.
Increasingly the clamour from abolitionists and others that the war could not be won without a frontal assault on slavery matched the judgment of the most perceptive among the Union military leadership. And above all, the four million slaves held in bondage in the South insisted by their actions that emancipation and Northern victory were inseparable. Slave ‘contrabands’ escaped to Union lines at every opportunity, bringing valuable intelligence and offering their services as laborers, scouts and, eventually, soldiers. On the first of January 1863 Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect—freeing those slaves held in Confederate territory, opening the door to the enlistment of black troops and registering plainly Confederate surrender in April 1865, some 180,000 African Americans had served in the Union military. A grateful Lincoln freely acknowledged that without their contribution, the Union could not have prevailed. 

Slaves Escaping to Union Lines - Cape Fear River, North Carolina, 1863

Slaves Escaping to Union Lines

Frank Leslie Illustrated Newspaper

Zion School for Coloured Children, Charleston

Zion School for Coloured Children, Charleston

Harper's Weekly

The Massachussetts 55th US Colored Regiment Marching through Charleston, February 1865.

The Massachussetts 55th US Coloured Regiment

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

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