Abolitionism in the Civil War

Becky Higgins May 20,2009


Abolitionists in the Civil War promoted the idea of annulment of slavery in the United States and overall wanted slaves and Americans to be equal. The
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (1863)
most interesting abolitionists, however, were those that were not a prominent part of society. The Northern mindset during the war was against slavery,but their reason for opposing slavery was not entirely based upon wanting equality of races or even freeing the slaves.

The word "abolition" is often paired with the Civil War. Three major types of abolitionists existed in the United States. Slave abolitionists, women abolitionists, and racist abolitionists were all for the abolishment of slavery but they had very different values and did not necessarily protest because they wanted slaves to be equal. The Civil War was the first major battle where the United States had to split friends, families and former alliances because of their view on slavery. Although initially the war was about preserving the Union, the main disagreement between Southerners and abolitionists was the issue of slavery.

Abolitionists were normally Northern males that worked with the government and President Lincoln and wanted to preserve the Union. Two groups stood out as unique and interesting, slave and women abolitionists. These groups contained United States citizens who may have not been noticed in society, but were taking great strides to free the slaves and create a perfect Union. Another unique group of abolitionists were "racist" abolitionists. They wanted the eventual abolishment of slavery but did not necessarily feel that people of another race were equal to them.

Background Information

The Civil War is remembered today as a war about slavery. Southern slaves were the major work force for the South and the backbone of their economy. The South was used to its conservative, traditional ways, and slavery was the most cost-efficient and helpful form of labor for the South. On January 1, 1863 Lincoln created the Emancipation Proclamation. This bill stated that the War was not just to preserve the Union but also the complete annulment of slavery. This completely changed the stakes of the war. Abolitionists were ecstatic and had more hope. Slaves were enlightened and began to escape quicker to the North to join the Union war efforts
Sam Sewall: a reformed abolitionist who helped during the Civil War
. The South was enraged at this new law. It was the first time a president, not congress, had declared war. Usually the word abolition immediately sparks reference to the Civil War. This is because the Civil War was the first time that abolitionists were so actively present in war efforts and so strongly against a particular side. War efforts included serving as a spy, serving as a nurse or doctor , or helping build war machines and technology .

Cititizens that were considered abolitionists strongly protested slavery and promoted the idea annuling slavery. These liberal morals existed earlier than the antebellum period, when the North began to industrialize. Although the majority of abolitionists lived in the North at the time of the Civil War, several Southerners and all slaves supported the abolition of slavery. Most abolitionists were wealthy respectible men in society, but other types of abolitionists existed in the background. Many abolitionists were affected by their previous personal expieriences with slavery, oppression or inequality and supported aboltionism as a redemption process for themselves. One example is Sam Sewall (1652-1730). He was a major judge in the Salem Witch trials and a common accuser. After the hysteria he publicly apologized for his false accusations and horrid actions. During the time of the Civil War, he became a prominant abolitionist and was strongly opposed to slavery.

Abolitionists predominately gathered in the North, but some Southerners opposed slavery as well. Cassius M. Clay (1810-1903) was a Southern abolitionist nickamed "Cash" was born in Clermont Kentucky. Clay was known as an emancipationist moreso than an abolitionist because he wanted to abolish slavery but keep within the boundries of our constitution. He delivered many speeches as the representative for Madison County, Kentucky; most of which included discouragement about slavery.
One important fact to note is that not all abolitionists wanted slaves to be equal to them, but they still approved the annulment of slavery. The reasons for this may have been that they wanted the North to keep it's strong political power and thriving industries and wanted the South to pose less of an economic threat. The term for this particular group of abolitionists will be referred to as "racist abolitionists."

Slave Abolitionists

Although the vast majority of slaves wanted freedom, only a select few were courageous enough to rebel against their masters, escape, or become abolitionists. Slave abolitionists had a unique view on the Civil War and felt more passion for the abolition of slavery because they had been former slaves and knew friends and family still trapped in slavery. However, realizing that freedom was imminent, many became rebellious and rowdy and felt harsh consequences for their actions. After any slave revolt occured, masters toughened rules held against their slaves because they knew that in a fight or a war against the slaves, they would be destroyed. Southerners kept slaves illiterate, without names, and separate from their families as ways to make them seem sub-human and unimportant.

Nat Turner (1800-1831) was born in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner became a preacher and encountered many "visions" that guided his actions. His most life-altering vision was on May 12, 1838, where he claimed God came to him and told him to rebel against the "Serpent" (which he conceived were the Southern masters.) On August 22,1831 led a group of six slaves to kill their master and rebel against white Southerners. More than fifty white Southerners were killed in the revolt. Nat Turner was later captured and hanged in Virginia. Turner was an example of a slave abolitionist who used fighting as a way to protest slavery, but other (former) slaves tried different tactics.

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was born a slave in eastern Maryland. His original name was Frederick Bailey, but as he (later) travelled to escape slavery he changed his last name in honor of the people who had helped him. During his time as a slave he found that literacy would be the key to freedom. He vowed that he would learn to read and promptly escape slavery. Douglass promoted peaceful justice in many of his public speeches, but was a determined abolitionist. After he escaped and was residing in the North, Douglass wrote a book describing the tragedies and horrific daily memories of his slave life. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, inspired and informed many United States citizens of the realities of slavery.
Frederick Douglass in his later years

Women Abolitionists

Women were extremely useful as spies and abolitionists during the Civil War because it was not expected of them. During that time, a woman's life consisted of being the weaker partner of a husband and wife. Some southern women may have felt a stronger opposition to slavery because they were around slaves constantly. Many Northern women may have been against slavery because their husbands were too, or they felt sympathy.
Lydia Maria Child
Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) was born in Medford, Massachusetts to a large family of Calvanists. In 1824, Lydia wrote her first novel, Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times. Citizens had mixed feeling about the book at the time of it's publication because it showed Native Americans as sympathetic people, rather than sub-human. William Lloyd Garrison was an inspiration to Child and in 1831 she joined the Massachusetts abolitionists and the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. An Appeal in the favor of that class of Americans called Africans was Child's second book written in 1833. General uproar commenced at the publication of this book and caused Lydia to lose her job as writer for a children's magazine. Child was just happy that she was making a difference in society and getting the word about the realities of slavery out. Child worked as editor for the National Anti-Slavery Standard and continued to assist in abolitionist movements.

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (1823-1886) was born on March 31 in Stateboro, South Carolina. In 1840, she married James Chesnut Jr. who was a prominant landowner of the time. Her husband had a strong political position in government, and oddly, worked for Jefferson Davis, the president of the United States of the Confederacy for a while. Both Chesnut and her husband did not believe in slavery and thought it was injust and cruel. However, Southerners were not happy with the election of Lincoln as the new President. In 1860, her husband quit his occupation as senator because he did not believe in the general Southern morals and values expressed in the governmental meetings. Mary realized that tension was building within the "two" governments and knew an imminent collision of the two forces was approaching. She began to record a diary in the winter of 1861. Chesnut had a unique view of the war because her husband worked in government, therefore she witnessed major political events such as sessions of the Confederate Provisional Conferences. Her diary was also unique because it provided an abolitionist's inside view on specific Southern turning points during the war.

Harriet Tubman was born as a slave on the Edward Brodas plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her exact birth date is unknown because slaves' birthdays were not celebrated or recorded by their masters. Even if a slave heard the date, they could not record or recognize it in writing because they were illiterate. She was born Arminta but as a child was nicknamed "Minty" and later nicknamed "Moses." When Harriet was only twelve years old she was struck in the head by a weight that her master had thrown at her. She had been trying to save another slave. From this experience, she would have seizures and dizzy spells for the rest of her life. During the antebellum period, she helped over 300 Southern slaves escape to freedom in the North and created the system that we now know as the "Underground Railroad." She worked hard jobs in the North to get money to support her lengthy trips. Tubman risked her life hundreds of times to help out women, men, and children alike living on plantations. Her efforts continued during the Civil War (1861-1865). The Underground Railroad continued and was the main transportation for slaves which helped the abolitionist cause. Harriet was very close friend's with John Brown and helped initiate the attack on Harper's Ferry. Her efforts continued on the battlefield. She worked as nurse, spy and cook for the Union, and helped show them useful Confederate targets. Even after the war, her efforts continued as a women suffragist. Similar to the other two women, she had a book published based on her experiences during the Civil War and the rest of her life.

Racist Abolitionists

Many abolitionists promoted the abolition of slavery because they wanted to save the North's political status and power. The North's economy was primarily based around industry and manufacturing, and was rapidly moving forward in technology. With Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the South's agricultural industry grew and the need for slaves was even more prominant. Northerners were afraid that the South would gain too much power in the United States government and the country would become even more separated. Racist abolitionists were still key in Civil War efforts. They helped the Union and lead protests along with all of the other types of abolitionists. However, they did not believe in equality for blacks and whites. In the Civil Rights movement, a century later, this topic would resurface. The Civil War may have solved the issue of slavery, but free black citizens would be discriminated against for decades to come. Although not many racist abolitionists openly expressed their distaste for the other race, some had extremely contradicting values. Many reformed soldiers were racist. Committing to fight in the Civil War meant that they received good food, training and clothing along with feeling like a hero. These soldiers did not think to join the war efforts to create a race equality.

Example: Hinton Rowan Helper was born near Mocksville, North Carolina on December 27, 1829. His first book, California Land of Gold: Reality vs. Fiction described his (failed) attempt during the Gold Rush. Oddly, in that book, he refers to abolitionists as "meddling." In 1857 he published
Helper's book that changed the Civil War
his most famous novel, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet it.

Excerpt: "It is expected that the stupid and sequacious masses, the white victims of slavery, will believe, and, as a general thing, they do believe, whatever the slaveholders tell them; and thus it is that they are cajoled into the notion that they are the freest, happiest and most intelligent people in the world, and are taught to look with prejudice and disapprobation upon every new principle or progressive movement. Thus it is that the South, woefully inert and inventionless, has lagged behind the North, and is now weltering in the cesspool of ignorance and degradation."

At that time, Hinton was an abolitionist attempting to help Lincoln win the election. In the book he talks openly about secession and possible war. The book was extremely radical for that time. People threatened him because of his extreme abolitionist opinions in the book. Ironically, Hinton wrote several other books that were extremely racist and in them stated extremely inappropriate phrases referring to slaves and blacks in general.

Abolitionist's Role in the War

Abolitionists worked with the union army as well as in secret to help promote the annulment of slavery. On the battlefield abolitionists worked as nurses to tend to the sick and give them hope. They also worked as prominant slaves, sneaking into Confederate troops and leading them to awaiting Union armies. Generals were astounded when Harriet Tubman lead an army of 800 soldiers to a Confederate hideout. Many abolitionists did not work on the actual battlefield. They worked closely with Lincoln to help keep abolitionist ideas in government and lead large protests to spread he word of slavery.

Without abolitionism as a key factor in the Civil War, the issues of slavery would have have been pushed aside and eventually, Americans would have had to deal with it centuries later. These brave citizens risked their lives to recreate the perfect union and try to bring equality in America. Obviously, the South struggled after the war was over, but eventually industrialized and found new ways to make profits. Abolitionism defined the Civil war and was the largest test to see if our nation really is the "land of the free."

Harriet Tubman Animation Video

-Racist Commercial: what United States might have been like today/Confederate Family

Fun Sites about the Civil War!!!