de facto Emancipation Proclamation of May-August 1861: Events dictating decisions, not vice versa | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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de facto Emancipation Proclamation of May-August 1861: Events dictating decisions, not vice versa

Uploaded: Aug 4, 2019
Too often history classes and books tell us that things happened when they became official instead of when they became effectively inevitable with an explanation of the path to inevitability. Leaders of large organizations, especially governments, have remarked that much of their time is spent responding to events -- events which can box them in by limiting their options and by imposing deadlines.

Sometimes the events driving a particular decision are a cascade of seemingly minor decisions. Other times, they are manipulations. This is common in bureaucracies, both government and corporate (local examples far below). One classic tactic is to present the decision-maker with three options: The one the subordinates have decided upon, and two that are impractical, infeasible, ...

But lessons are best remembered if attached to a story. So here we go.

The ^Emancipation Proclamation^, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on 1 January 1863 after several months of preparation and delay. The Proclamation was delayed until the Union had a significant military victory (Antietam)so that it wouldn't appear to be an act of desperation: Europeans were perhaps its most important target audience. There were some powerful interests in Britain and France that were sympathetic to the Confederacy, although this was probably overestimated at the time. By declaring itself to be anti-slavery, not just anti-secession, the Union aligned itself with popular opinion in Europe. However, the Proclamation did little more than officially confirm a policy established by leaders within the Union army -- with wide support from the troops -- and supported by Congress. I can't imagine any way that any Union political leader could have successfully reversed that policy. This in no way diminishes Lincoln: In a democratic society, policies and laws should not become official until they have broad support from the citizenry. Cultivating support for a policy change is part of leadership in a democracy, whereas imposing policy from above is characteristic of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.

----Contrabands, Benjamin Butler, Fort Monroe----

On the night of May 23/24, 1861 -- one month after the Civil War began -- three slaves who had been leased to the Confederate Army -- Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory -- crossed over to Union-held Fort Monroe, near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay (^map^). A Confederate army officer demanded their return under the ^Fugitive Slave Act^. The general commanding the fort, ^Benjamin Butler^, was an abolitionist, a lawyer, a politician, and a businessman. He rejected the demand on the grounds that Virginia stated that it had seceded from the Union and therefore couldn't invoke that law. Bad rationale: This would have recognized that Virginia, and by implication, the rest of the Confederate states, were no longer part of the United States. This was contrary to the federal government's position, which held that the Confederacy was in a state of rebellion and not a separate country. However, since the slaves were used to build fortifications, they were legally no different from other property being used to support the rebellion, for example, the shovels being used to build those fortifications, or wagons used to haul construction materials to be used in that construction. Lesson: When the answer to a question seems wrong, ask yourself if the problem isn't a result of how the question was framed, and use that assessment as a guide to finding a framing that is "better", that is, more acceptable to you.

"^Contrabands^" came to be used for these escaped slaves because their legal status was ambiguous or uncertain: They were no longer treated as slaves, but hadn't been declared to be "freedmen".
Aside: Although Butler used the concept of "contraband of war", there is no record of him actually using the term. The term "contraband" had long been in widespread use by the US Navy for items being smuggled into the US, including slaves. The importation of slaves had been illegal since 1808, immediately upon the expiration of a twenty-year moratorium that was a compromise in the original Constitution (^Article One, Section 9^). Plus participation by Americans in the international slave trade was largely prohibited by the ^Slave Trade Act of 1794^. However, enforcement of these laws was difficult, and is judged by historians to have been largely ineffective. But I digress (as usual).

News of the events at Fort Monroe "spread like wildfire" (archaic version of "went viral") through the slave population across the South. Other Union Army and Navy took to granting Contraband-status to slaves who crossed over to them.

----Contrabands: Liabilities quickly become Assets----

At first, the Contrabands were seen as liabilities: They needed to be fed and sheltered, and this could, and did, strain the army's supply system. Facing this, some commanders turned back slaves seeking to become Contrabands.

In what seemed to have largely been spontaneous arrangements, the Contrabands took on work supporting the army. They helped dig trenches and build fortifications; they took over cooking and cleaning duties from soldiers; they helped transport supplies; ... This was not just being helpful, but a significant ^force multiplier^ for the Union armies. Recognize that the substantial majority of people in an army are in support role, not combat roles. At the time of the Vietnam War, my recollection is that the ratio was over 10:1. Although portions of the Union army had some training in the state militias, most of the soldiers came from the civilian population. Freeing up soldiers from various support tasks allow them more time for much-needed training.

In the Contraband camps, men started emulating the soldiers' drills, using sticks for rifles as they marched and maneuvered. The commonly used rifles of the day were muzzle-loaders that could fire only 2-3 rounds per minute, and thus success in standard battles often depended on getting large numbers of riflemen quickly into position on the battlefield. Learning the difficult skills of moving in close format was essential for becoming proficient soldiers.

Although using Contrabands as soldiers was initially against official policy, several commanders did so anyway. Most cited was the same General Butler, now in command of the New Orleans garrison where his command was outnumbered by the nearby Confederate units. However, those units were fragmented and never "managed to get their act together", and thus never seriously threatened New Orleans.
Aside: Near the end of the war, Butler commanded the ^Army of the James^ that included multiple "Colored Regiments". Unfortunately, while Butler had demonstrated great skill and initiative in the political aspects of being a general, he had established himself as hopeless in the military aspects. However, his popularity from the former made it difficult for his superiors to remove him, or move him to the side. Aside's Aside: Although "Colored Troops" were about 10% of the Union army at this time, there were a few Union generals who refused to have Colored Regiments in their commands.

I haven't seen any accounts quantifying the rise of Contrabands on a timeline, but less than 2 months after those first three arrived at Fort Monroe, there were enough Contraband camps in various commands that Congress decided it needed to step in and regularize their handling. The ^Confiscation Act of 1861^ was introduced in Congress on July 15 and signed into law on August 6.

The Union's policy and practices on Contrabands adversely affect the Confederacy's war effort: Slaves used near Union troops were at great risk of crossing over. One of the Confederacy's many disadvantages in the war was that its population was much smaller than the Union's, which was magnified by about 1/3 of its population being slaves.

----When did emancipation and abolition become inevitable?----

The Confederate States decided to secede because the national electorate was against slavery. History books are misleading in stating that the ^1860 election^ of Lincoln was a primary trigger in the Confederacy's decision to secede: It wasn't the election of Lincoln, but rather the election of a Republican. Lincoln was probably the most moderate candidate that the Republicans would have nominated.

The Republican Party originated in 1854 as a primarily anti-slavery party, with factions ranging from those wanting immediate abolition to those advocating only for keeping slavery from expanding into new territories.
Aside: The latter (wrongly) believed that slavery would incrementally die out in the existing slave states because cotton was increasingly being grown elsewhere -- particularly Egypt and India -- and that competition would render slave-based cotton farming in the South to be uneconomical.(foot#1) The Republican Party had grown so quickly that in 6 short years that it was able to win the Presidency, as well as many Congressional seats. And it seemed likely to continue to dominate national politics for years -- as it did.

For the factions of the early Republican Party that didn't advocate for immediate abolition and emancipation, the most common rationale was to avoid the slave states seceding and the resulting war. When the Confederacy committed to war, that rationale disappeared.

When I read Civil War history, I was struck by how many of the generals and other high-ranking officers were politicians and prominent citizens with no military background.(foot#2) These leaders seemed to have remained well aware of public opinion back home, and likely continued to be influential with the public. Many of them were already abolitionists when the war began.

Given the many instances of Union Army, and Navy, units taking the initiative to shelter escaped slaves, would they have quietly acquiesced to returning the Contrabands to slavery? I think not.

Also, consider also the behavior of the Army after the war ended: The Army was essential to ^Reconstruction^, which collapsed with the withdrawal of the Army. General of the Army ^Ulysses S. Grant^ undermined President ^Andrew Johnson^ whose policies were returning the pre-war Southern elites to power and were allowing state laws that effectively re-instituted slavery. (Johnson had become President upon Lincoln's assassination)

I would argue that inevitability of emancipation had been reached prior to the passage of the Confiscation Act of 1861, that is, somewhere in the first four months of the war. Think about where you would put it. And who would you credit? To Butler for his rationalization? To the other Union commanders for individually adopting the formulation, creating critical mass? To the Contrabands for taking substantial risks in escaping slavery and creating a critical mass that could not be ignored or explained away? Or to all of them?

----Butler: war-profiteer, possibly treasonous----

The War of 1812, the British blockade of US ports demonstrated how vulnerable the US's dependence on imports made it. By the time of the Civil War, the northern states were much more industrialized but the slave states maintained an agrarian economy that was dependent on imports from the northern states or foreign countries. From the beginning of the war, the Union established, and scaled-up, a blockade system (see ^Anaconda Plan^) and attacked choke points in the Confederacy's limited railroad system.(foot#3)

Success at a strategic level of economic warfare enhanced the efforts of Union armies to cut off the Confederate armies from supplies. During the later part of the war, Confederate armies were often on the verge of starvation, as evidenced by troops being forced into eating ^acorns^. The Confederacy's shortage of salt made it a strategic material: It was a preservative needed for moving meat and fish from the farm to frontlines.

When Butler was in command of the New Orleans garrison, he began trading with the enemy, primarily through his brother and various associates. It was very profitable. Very. Later, when he was in command in Virginia this became especially damaging. While the rest of the Union army was fighting and dying to cut off the Confederate army from supplies, Butler -- again through family and associates -- was trading with the enemy on a large scale, breaking both the strategic blockade and the Union army's encirclement. This likely prolonged the battle and caused the death of many soldiers.

Was this treason? The ^US Constitution has a very restrictive definition^ -- at the time, many governments characterized dissent and opposition as treason and the Founders wanted to prevent this. I haven't seen a parallel to Butler's behavior discussed: While he clearly was providing "aid" to the enemy, did he "adhere" to the enemy? Depends upon its ^legal definition^. My guess is that he fails to meet this, placing him outside the definition of treason. But for me, he committed treason in all but the strictest legal sense.

----Secondary Issue: How should Butler be viewed?----

In the current political environment, you can be disqualified for honors for a seemingly endless set of reasons. You can be disqualified for parts of your life completely separate from the part for which you are being considered for honors. Locally, we have seen someone disqualified because of some of his father's beliefs. Another was disqualified because his last name is evocative of an unrelated person who is evocative of his country, and hence its war crimes, even though that person wasn't a participant in those events.

No question that Benjamin Butler was a deeply flawed individual. That makes him an interesting subject for consideration, discussion or debate on how history should regard him.

You might start by just considering the Civil War period, but then add to the mix what he did after the war. For example, as a member of the US House of Representatives, he was a leader in trying to ensure civil rights for the former slaves. He was one of the managers in the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, both in securing the House's vote to impeach and then in presenting the House's case in the trial before the Senate (equivalent to the role of prosecutors in a criminal trial).

----Lesson for the Here and Now----

Palo Alto residents are often upset by the votes of City Council, failing to recognize that Council members may have been boxed in by what had happened earlier in the process, that is, the basics of the vote were largely inevitable. This maneuver can be done by City Staff (the bureaucracy), applicants (such as developers), and advocates for various programs.

City Council is time-constrained, both in length of meetings and in how much time individual members have to prepare for each meeting. Then there are legally mandated deadlines and ones set by Council.

One category of fabricated inevitability is the "We have given you many options to choose from, but only one -- our preferred one -- is palatable." While there is substantial public opposition to that option, there is minimal time available to "improve" it. Most politicians psychologically need to show the public that they have listened by making some changes. The experienced bureaucrat understands this and includes flaws in unimportant parts of the preferred option -- flaws that have obvious fixes.(foot#4)

Abraham Lincoln: "Hypocrite: The man who murdered his parents, and then pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan.". I would classify it as ^chutzpah^. Over the years, developers have used this tactic. They start with a project proposal that is a non-starter: extravagantly over what the Zoning Code allows. They scale it down in steps until it is merely excessive. Then they, and their supporters, argue that Council must approve it because they have invested so much time, effort and money and have made so many compromises.(foot#5) I can remember only one instance -- way back in the mid-1990s? -- where Council was willing to identify the (minor) developer's behavior as a "self-inflicted" hardship.


When you are considering a decision that is about to be finalized -- made official -- it can be more revealing to examine how it got to that point than to listen to the supposed advantages. Is there legitimate, informed support? Or is it the result of manipulation and maneuvers, but the better bureaucratic infighters winning?

1. Cotton competition:
The leaders of the Confederacy made a bad miscalculation about the cotton market. They didn't ship as much cotton as quickly as they could to the textile factories in Britain and France to generate funds for the war. Instead, they withheld it supposedly on the theory that shortages would cause Britain and/or France to come into the war on their side, at a minimum breaking the Union blockades. However, there was a lot of raw cotton already warehoused in Britain and France, and the new sources were able to make up the differences. While many textile factory owners supported the Confederacy, the populations of those countries was strongly anti-slavery and against cooperation with the Confederacy.

2. Union Army leadership:
- The US had a tiny professional military: The US Military Academy West Point enrolled well under 100 new cadets per year, and graduated in the region of 50-60. A substantial portion of the professional officer corps joined the Confederacywhen their home states seceded.
- The state militias were also small and were often led by political appointees, not experienced officers.
- Many recruitment drives were led by local politicians and other prominent citizens who then became the senior officers of the resulting units.
- Others, such as Benjamin Butler, had the political clout to get appointed by the governors of the various states.

3. Confederacy's dependence on imports:
The Confederacy had only a small industrial base, especially when compared to the Union's, and much of that was in Richmond VA. The Confederate capital was in Richmond because of these industries, and these industries were why the Union strategy in the East (of the Appalachian Mountains)focused on the capture of Richmond. After the War of 1812 impressed on the national leadership just how vulnerable the US was to a naval blockade, the Federal government used tariffs to incentivize and protect developing industries. While the northern states benefited economically from most of the industrial development, the southern states were hit with higher prices because of those tariffs. These tariffs were a repeated source of tension between North and South, and contributed to Southern hostility toward the North and the federal government.

4. Fabricated inevitability: Bureaucratic example:
City Staff (bureaucrats) are required to do public outreach as part of formulating recommendations, but a reality-based public can be in conflict with staff members who favor the professional theory that is currently trending.
Solution:Have the public outreach and ignore the results.As many times as it takes.Until it reaches Council and it is too late.
This has been a topic in various of my earlier blogs, for example, ^Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to: Part 1^, 2013-12-03.

5. Example stratagem by developers:
^Guest Opinion: Rewarding manipulation and intransigence^ by Doug Moran, Palo Alto Weekly, 2006-12-06.

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
What is it worth to you?


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