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Abraham Lincoln invited the audience at his Second Inaugural Address to join in gratitude for what Union armies had accomplished when he said, early in the speech, “The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.” The “all else” included emancipation, the topic to which the president devoted what became the most quoted sections of his speech.

Lincoln realized a fact that should also be apparent in the early 21st century—namely, that among contributory elements including the Emancipation Proclamation, congressional legislation and the actions of hundreds of thousands of African Americans in the Confederacy, the impact of U.S. military forces stood out as the absolutely essential factor.

Historians over the past 30 years have dealt with the Union Army’s role in bringing emancipation in a fascinating way. The most prominent debate features those who identify slaves as the primary actors and those who concede Lincoln should not get all the credit but insist he should get a good deal of it. Advocates of both positions typically nod toward the Union Army as a critical agent in the process—and then ignore it while focusing on either slaves who fled to Union lines or Lincoln’s actions.

The Freedmen and Southern Society project at the University of Maryland has offered the most powerful case for self-emancipation in five volumes of rich documentary evidence. Once disentangled from the idea that the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment are the keys, goes the argument, “the story of slavery’s demise shifts from the presidential mansion and the halls of Congress to the farms and plantations that became wartime battlefields. And slaves—whose persistence forced federal soldiers, Union and Confederate policymakers and even their own masters onto terrain they never intended to occupy—become the prime movers in securing their own liberty.”

This interpretation rescues black people from their position as passive recipients of freedom imbedded in the old image of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. Any reasonable assessment of the evidence leaves no doubt that both enslaved people and Lincoln played important parts in the drama of emancipation—so also, of course, did Congress with the Confiscation Acts and other legislation.

But there can be no doubt that none of the other actors would have been successful on a broad scale without the U.S. Army. No matter how desperately slaves wanted to be free, the chance to escape was negligible unless a Union military force had reached their area. Freedom remained no more than a tantalizing mirage in the heartland of Alabama, almost anywhere in Texas and in many other parts of the Confederacy where there was no established, sustained Union presence. Similarly, without the projection of Union military power, Lincoln’s Proclamation and congressional acts were mere words on paper to both slaves and slaveholders in the Confederacy.

The number of soldiers in U.S. Colored Troops units from the various Confederate states underscores the importance of Union military forces. Federal armies exercised the greatest control for the longest time along stretches of the Mississippi River and in parts of West and Middle Tennessee. The Confederate states credited with sending the most black men into Federal service all bordered the Mississippi: Louisiana sent 24,052, which constituted 31 percent of its black men between the ages of 18 and 45; Tennessee 20,133—39 percent; and Mississippi 17,869—21 percent. In contrast, Texas, which experienced almost no Union incursions, contributed 47—a statistically insignificant .001 percent of its 36,202 black men in the crucial age group. Georgia, which had the second largest slave population in 1860 but relatively little long-term Union occupation, accounted for just 3,486 enlistees—4 percent of its total pool. And Virginia, where the Army of Northern Virginia prevented Union forces from establishing long-term control over most of the state until 1865, contributed only 5,919—6 percent of its 101,428 military-age black males.

People at the time grasped the correlation between the arrival of Union military forces and the opportunity for slaves to escape from bondage. I will quote just one of countless examples. Robert Gould Shaw, then a captain in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, wrote to his mother on September 25, 1862, when news of Lincoln’s preliminary proclamation of September 22 had made its way to the home front and the armies. “So the ‘Proclamation of Emancipation’ has come at last, or rather, its forerunner,” Shaw observed. “I suppose you are all very much excited about it. For my part, I can’t see what practical good it can do now. Wherever our army has been, there remain no slaves, and the Proclamation will not free them where we don’t go.”

The men in Union armies did not present what we would consider an ideal collective portrait for a liberating force. White soldiers were racists by our standards—as was virtually everyone else in the mid-19th-century. Moreover, the vast majority of white troops supported emancipation for what seem in 2010 to be the wrong reasons. They did not embrace it as a stand-alone war aim of intrinsic value. First to last, the mass of the loyal soldiers (and civilians) supported a war for Union. Emancipation represented a tool to help realize the great goal of Union, to punish the oligarchic Southern slaveholders who had caused all the trouble in the first place, and to remove any future threat arising from an institution that had, in one way or another, menaced the viability of the nation from the moment of the constitutional convention until 1860.

Whatever the attitudes of its troops, the Union Army must be considered a bright thread in the tapestry of emancipation. Slighting the role of citizen-soldiers—whether to emphasize the movement toward freedom of hundreds of thousands of African Americans, or Abraham Lincoln’s continuing importance or some other factor—prevents true understanding of one of the transformative moments in American history.


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.