Behind the Lens: A History in Pictures

Slavery and the Civil War

By Stanley B. Burns, MD 

Editor’s Note: This essay series is written by Mercy Street's Medical, historical and technical advisor, Stanley B. Burns, MD of The Burns Archive

For many, the Civil War was about only one issue: slavery. For others, it was about preserving the Union. It must not be forgotten that there were slave-holding states in the Union. John Brown and other radical abolitionists wanted a war to free the slaves and instigate insurrection. Thousands of abolitionists such as Henry Ward Beecher and Frederick Douglass worked for decades to show that slavery was wrong. President Abraham Lincoln noted:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

The decision to free enslaved people would come slowly and from many sides.

According to the census of 1860, the total population of the thirty-four states and eight territories was close to 31,500,000. There were no slaves in nineteen states, and only two in Kansas and fifteen in Nebraska. Four million slaves inhabited 15 states and territories. Delaware held 1,798; Maryland held 87,189; and Virginia the most with 490,865 slaves, owned by 52,128 slaveholders. There were 3,181 slaves in Washington, D.C. Generally, it has not been recognized that in Southern states, along with the 4 million slaves, there were about 400,000 free African Americans. While they did not have equal rights, many were successful business people and some were extensive slaveholders themselves.

Freeing enslaved people was not an easy undertaking. Many in the government and politics hemmed and hawed over the process and implementation. In 1861, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, while in Command at Fort Monroe, a Union stronghold at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, did not want to return three slaves that presented themselves at the fort. Butler, an attorney before the war, decided the three slaves were “contraband of war” and refused to return them to bondage. All over the battlefront, runaway slaves began presenting themselves to Union forces. The Union instituted a policy of hiring, and using them in the war effort. In August, the US Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1861 making legal the status of runaway slaves. It declared that any property used by the Confederate military, including slaves, could be confiscated by Union forces. To put teeth into the act, Congress passed a law in March 1862 prohibiting the return of slaves. By war’s end, the Union had set up over 100 contraband camps in the South.

Union officers took the initiative to actually free slaves. General John C. Fremont in August 1861 declared that the slaves owned by Confederates in his conquered territory in Missouri were free. The order was negated by Lincoln, and Fremont was fired. He was replaced by General David Hunter. In May 1862, Hunter, who by now was in charge of a larger southern geographical area, abolished slavery in the area under his command. Lincoln negated that order as well. However, in June 1862 Congress started the process by abolishing slavery in Washington, D.C. September 22, 1862, five days after the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), as Union forces drove the Confederates out of Maryland, President Lincoln, using an executive order, issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It stipulated that if the Southern states did not cease their rebellion by January 1, 1863, then the slaves in those states would be free, as the Proclamation would go into effect. When the Confederacy did not yield, President Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation freed only the slaves in the states in rebellion against the Federal government. It did not free the slaves held in Union states. At the end of the war on December 6, 1865 the US Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery through the United States.

Aurelia Johnson, a Contraband, Speaks With Miles, an Enslaved Boy (Episode 3)Aurelia Johnson, a Contraband, Speaks With Miles, an Enslaved Boy (Episode 3)

As Seen in the Series

Mercy Street is set in the spring of 1862 and depicts African Americans at a critical time when laws and ideas are changing regarding slavery, slave ownership and freemen. Like many African Americans, the Philadelphia freeman Samuel Diggs went south to help in the war effort; enlisting in the army was still not an option. He found employment at the Mansion House Hospital. Also working there is Aurelia Johnson, a contraband who had escaped slavery from North Carolina.

Belinda and others held by Alexandria, Va. owners are at the cusp of freedom, as they live behind Union lines; if they ask, they can be freed and considered contraband. However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is still enforceable. It requires that officials and even citizens of free states aid in the capture and return of escaped slaves. Only ardent states rights pro-slavery activists enforced this law. This complicates the situation of slaves who have successfully escaped to Virginia. This is a time of deep feelings regarding slavery and freedom. 

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