A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Historical Overview

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Four candidates ran for president in 1860. Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas ran on a popular sovereignty platform. Southern Democrat John Breckinridge ran on a platform calling for increased federal involvement in the spread of slavery including a coercive slave code that would use the army if necessary to extend and enforce slavery in the territories. Constitutional Unionist candidate John Bell ran on a platform of avoiding the slavery issue altogether. And Republican Abraham Lincoln ran on a platform of forbidding the spread of slavery to new territories. Breckinridge carried nearly every slaveholding state (with the exception of some Upper South states that went for Bell and Missouri, which went for Douglas), but Lincoln carried the Northern states and won the election. As soon as election results were known, South Carolina called a state convention and in December took the state out of the Union. By 1 February 1 six more states had followed suit, each citing Lincoln's election on a non-extension of slavery platform, Northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, and growing antislavery feeling in the North as the reasons for secession. The seceded states founded a new government, the Confederate States of America, with a capital initially in Montgomery, Alabama, where they swiftly produced a constitution with explicit guarantees for slavery, and where Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the new Confederate Congress began to mobilize an army. By March, when President Lincoln took office, sixty thousand Confederate troops were mobilized, and most U.S. property (such as ports and army garrisons) in seceded states had been seized by Confederate authorities. One exception was Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. When U.S. troops there ran out of food and supplies, Lincoln informed Davis he would be sending a supply ship but no arms. Davis ordered that the fort be fired upon; when it was, Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to serve for ninety days to "put down the rebellion." With that, four more states left the Union, and war commenced in April 1861.

Although disagreement over slavery had sparked war, it was not at all clear in 1861 that the war would end slavery. With Northern opinion divided, and desperate to keep four slaveholding border states (Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri) in the Union, Lincoln and Congress initially emphasized preservation of the Union and downplayed slavery. Yet the "frictions and abrasions of war," as Lincoln would later call them, began to grind at slavery. Within weeks of a Massachusetts regiment's arrival at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, local slaves ran to the fort to seek refuge. When the slaveowner demanded that commanding General Benjamin Butler return the slaves, Butler refused, calling the slaves "contraband of war" and thus subject to confiscation. The War Department approved Butler's actions and the phrase "contraband" stuck: thousands of slaves began to flee to Union lines seeking freedom. They did not all obtain it, but the force of their presence, and their practical contributions to the Union effort through nursing, laundering, digging, and building, turned Union Army opinion in favor of the destruction of slavery. Congress began to take piecemeal action, banning slavery in Washington, D.C., and in federal territories in 1862. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 vowed to emancipate all slaves in areas of the Union that remained in rebellion by 1 January 1863, and the Final Emancipation Proclamation made good on the promise. The numbers of slaves running to Union lines swelled even further. Yet even the Emancipation Proclamation had limitations. Most obviously, it exempted areas still in the Union, since slavery remained protected there by the U.S. Constitution, and so slaves in those states would presumably have to await state action to gain their freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation was a military move that would be meaningless unless the Union won, and would lose authority once a state of war no longer existed regardless of who won. For these reasons, it took additional military and political action to secure a legal end to slavery.

First, the Union had to win the war, and by 1863 it was clear that the key to victory would be manpower. Whoever could keep an army in the field the longest would win. In 1863, the Union Army took advantage of a new source of manpower: black soldiers. Union regiments from Kansas and South Carolina had formed in 1862, but the most prominent black regiments were the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Infantries, formed in 1863 primarily of free blacks from throughout the northern states. The 54th saw action at Fort Wagner in South Carolina right on the heels of important Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, and the regiment's performance, along with reports of valor of black soldiers throughout the Union Army, further solidified growing Northern support for the destruction of slavery as an explicit Union war aim despite lingering opposition among some Northern Democrats. As war continued, Union Army soldiers functioned as de facto liberators: where they went, slavery crumbled as long as the army remained, although reoccupation by Confederate forces invariably led to the re-imposition of slavery. Unconditional Union military victory, the war made clear, would be absolutely necessary to end slavery.

So would legislative action, and Lincoln made such action central to the election of 1864 by running on a platform calling for unconditional Union victory and an amendment to the United States Constitution forever banning slavery throughout the United States. His opponent, George McClellan, promised peace but remained vague on whether peace would be attained by Union victory or by Confederate independence, and also promised to retain constitutional guarantees for slavery. Military setbacks in the spring and summer of 1864 and general war weariness made Lincoln's chances of re-election appear grim for much of the year, but major military breakthroughs in the late summer of 1864, along with the strong opinions of Union soldiers who overwhelmingly supported Lincoln and insisted on the necessity of emancipation in order to win the war and avoid fighting it again, delivered a resounding victory to Lincoln and assured the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Union military victory in the spring of 1865 ensured that the United States would survive as a nation, and that slavery would be abolished nationally.