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When the former colony of the British Empire rose up in rebellion, the ragtag army led by General Washington defeated the battle-scarred war machine of the English army. The founding fathers of the United States of America declared that all men are equal and proceeded to build a great nation. But less than a century later, the words uttered in the Declaration of Independence became the bone of contention between North and South.
The former wanted to abolish slavery while the latter desperately wanted to perpetuate an institution that they desperately needed to sustain their way of life. The Southern states believed that it is their right to own and utilize slaves and then declared that they do not want any part of the Union.
The government was forced to go to war to preserve the Union. In the aftermath of the bloody war, the South was devastated by the scorch earth policy of the North. Looking back it would have been better if diplomacy prevailed and that guns, cannons and bayonets were never used to settle an issue.
In the 19th century the United States went through a tumultuous period. Less than a century earlier, the colony of Great Britain secured its independence after trumping British forces in the American Revolution. But the euphoria that came from realizing that they were free from the encumbrances of tyranny was short lived. In the aftermath of the revolution the American people faced the daunting task of building a nation from scratch.
Nation building in itself is very difficult, but the fledgling Union was also pressured to come up with a resolution to a very contentious issue – the ownership Negro slaves. Whites and blacks saw two divergent perspectives when it comes to this issue and the struggle brought them to the battlefield to settle their differences.
It has to be pointed out that before the New World became the United States of America, there were two major streams of migration that help build it into one of the most powerful nations on earth. The first one came from Europe and the second one came from Africa. The first one was voluntary the second one was forced. Negro slaves came by the boat loads. Slave traders facilitated their transfer into the hands of their masters.
Slave owners purchased them as if they were cattle. These were also plantation owners who had established themselves as successful owners of vast tracts of land belonging to what will be known as the South.
During those times it was not hard to accept the fact that there are those who are supposed to rule and there are those who are supposed to serve. After the establishment of the Union, it did not take long before ownership of Negro slaves became a divisive issue. As a result nation building took a major step backwards.
Instead of going forward capitalizing from the gains of the American Revolution, Northern and Southern states were at loggerhead in their interpretation of the aforementioned Declaration of Independence. This piece of document meant two different things for two opposing forces. Those who are against slavery used the argument that all men are indeed created equal.
The Southern states on the other hand resented the way the government tried to force their ideas – particularly in the area of slave ownership. For them the Declaration of Independence is a reminder that an oppressive government must be challenged and removed from society.
From Old to New
In the 19th century, the world has changed and America has changed. It was already made clear from many declarations as well as the passing of related laws that slavery is no longer an acceptable practice. Slavery had to be abolished.
The Declaration of Independence authored by founding fathers made it very clear that all men are created equal. It is now considered immoral for slave owners to continue enslaving people and treating them like bests of burden.
Even if slave owners will open their hearts and minds to this kind of argument it would be very difficult for them to change overnight. For one, their source of income depended on the use of slaves. Secondly, they have to maintain the status quo where whites are on top and the blacks are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It would be extremely difficult for them to relinquish control.
This simply means that if the white slave owners will have a sudden change of heart and free their slaves, then no one will run their farms for them. What then will they eat and how can they maintain their lifestyle? This was not an easy question for many landholders and slave owners. Thus, they had to believe in the idea that they had the right to continually own slaves.
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Aside from principles of freedom and equality, the abolition of slavery came from the pens and speeches of former slaves as well as sympathizers in the North. Many of the slaves could not wait for the government to rescue them. So they ran away to the North.
In the prelude to the Civil War the national government facilitated the abolition of slavery in many parts of the country. Northern states began to change their policies in favor of Negro slaves. Thus, it encouraged some to escape and flee the South. They were known collectively as abolitionists.
Many of the abolitionists believe in the power of the written word to influence and open the eyes of the many. They continued to do so before, during and after the Civil War. Negro slaves who learned how to read and write while still in bondage used found the chance to use their talents when they were able to escape from their masters.
Through their writings they exposed the wickedness of slavery and this helped many to realize that it is imperative to support the cause of the abolitionists. While there were former slaves who used the pen to fight slavery in the South there were also those who were daring enough to help those fleeing slaves and gave them protection from those who wanted to bring them back to the their owners.
Influential leaders shaped history through their words and actions and one of them was a woman named Harriet Tubman. This lady displayed unusual courage as well as intelligence in maintaining an underground network for helping slaves on the run. When the Civil War erupted she served as soldier, nurse and spy for the Union Army. Before the war Tubman was very successful in leading the Underground Railroad.
This is a network comprised of homes and families willing to risk their lives to aid fleeing slaves. They are mostly Quakers, New England Yankees, and free blacks (Calore, 2008, p.23).
While a system was in place, for the Underground Railroad to work there is a need for an able “conductor” a sort of a guide that will help Negro slaves travel 15 treacherous miles before they cross the border between North and South. One of the most daring and resourceful conductor was Harriet Tubman.
Tubman was a former slave and came from pure African ancestry. This explains her tenacity and willingness to risk her life just so she can help a great number of Negro slaves escape the horrible life of bondage that she is well acquainted with.
Her popularity is not only aided by her success but also by the strategies that she employed to ensure that her party will never be tracked down and apprehended by their slave masters. According to one report Tubman carried a loaded pistol and threatened the fleeing Negro slaves in her care that she will shoot those who will lose heart and turn back.
Her experience in the Underground Railroad gave her mastery of the terrain that crisscross between North and South as a result, “The Union army, realizing that she had extensive knowledge about the geography and many routes in and out of Confederate territory, recruited her to help in their efforts in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida” (Eggleston, 2003, p.122).
She proved an invaluable help to the Union army as her expertise would help them save time and also to formulate the correct strategies in fighting the Confederate army.
Her life became an inspiration to many and prompted others to serve in the cause. Tubman was unselfish. She could have died doing all those subversive acts. It is common knowledge during those days that slave masters hired slave hunters whose sole task was to track down, apprehend and drag slaves back to where they belong.
Tubman could have had a chance encounter with a slave hunter but she was able to elude all of them. At the end she was responsible for helping many achieve freedom. Aside from Tubman there was also another influential figure and his name is Frederick Douglass.
Slave owners and their sympathizers can conjure clever arguments against the preservation of the slave system but when Douglass slave spoke out about the cruelty and depravations experienced by Negro slaves it is hard not to agree with his indictment of the said practice, which according to him undermines the greatness of America and he said:
The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and byword to a mocking earth (Lowance, 2003, p. 222).
The words of these great men and women created tremendous pressure so that the Federal Government could no longer ignore the plight of the Negro Slaves. The Union challenged the South to give up their slaves. The South made a move that forced the North to declare war. When the South made known their desire to secede, it was only a matter of time before Union soldiers would invade the South. America was plunged into Civil War.
Douglas, Tubman and other writers and intellectuals were the inspiration of those who were in bondage to aspire for freedom and new identity as freed men and women. But aside from eloquent speakers and gifted writers, Negro slaves were also inspired by those who were drafted by the Federal Government to fight the Confederate Army.
At first it seems that Negro slaves would have to be content to stay at the sidelines and be mere spectators to a war that will determine their destiny as American citizens. But it did not take long before the Union Army decided to recruit them and made them a part of the fighting force that will help liberate their brethren who were still in bondage.
Those who were living as free men in the Northern states were conscripted into the army (Donovan & Griess, 2002, p.21). But officially the first recruitment of blacks took place in the occupied areas of the South and this was made possible by an act passed in July 1862 (Donovan & Griess, 2002, p.21).
This is clearly a strategic move as well as a political one. There is need for more troops and what could be a better solution than to use newly freed slaves in the fight to free others.
The recruitment of former Negro slaves into the Union army was a significant event. When they took on the uniform of the North it was the acceptance that they so desired. According to one local newspaper, “It is an honor understood by our fathers who fount on the plains of Chalmette in 1815 … he who defends his fatherland is the real citizen, and this time we are fighting for the rights of our race” (Tunnell, 1992, p.71).
A more excited response was recorded when someone said that, “From the day that bayonets were placed in the hands of the blacks … the Negro became a citizen of the United States” (Tunnell, 71). But freedom came at a price and no one knew how to deal with the aftermath of the Civil War.
Shaping U.S. History
According to Ron Eyerman, “Four million slaves were liberated at the end of the civil war. The exact figure was 3, 953, 696, which represents about 12.6 percent of the total American population and 32 percent of the Southern population” (2001, p. 23). This is a sizable portion of the population. This figure also means that the whole economic landscape was significantly altered by the event.
The South was devastated and crumbled at the onslaught brought upon by Union soldiers (Franklin, 1994, p.2). On the other hand the Negro slaves were freed and the emancipation that they had hoped for had finally arrived.
It was supposed to be a story book ending. Freedom loving Union troops attacked the Southern states and liberated scores of Negro slaves. If it was a chapter in world’s best fairy tales book, the last scene would have depicted slaves packing up their belongings and leaving their master’s home for good, never looking back excited to chart their own destiny.
But it did not end that way. Everyone was so preoccupied with the idea of freeing the slaves that no one had the time to figure out the consequences of such moves.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the following eyewitness account made it very clear that was should have been avoided, and he wrote, “Fields were laid waste, cities burned, bridges and roads destroyed … even most of the woefully inadequate factories were leveled … and if the Union forces did not loot quite as many smokehouses and pantries as they were blamed for, what they did do emphasized the helplessness of the once proud Confederates” (Franklin, 1994, p.2).
This could have been averted if only both sides were willing to make a compromise. Yet they did not and even today the impact of the U.S. Civil war can still be felt. Even before the first volley was fired men and women of insight were able to see that a Civil War will serve only to bring the Union close to the brink if extinction.
In the period following the Civil War, in a time known as the Reconstruction, whites and blacks continued to have differing perspectives in the aftermath. The Negro people in the time of Reconstruction were suddenly aware of their rights and yet at the same time fearing that they will never experience the real meaning of freedom. Thus, many of them migrated to the Northern states.
On the other hand while the white people in the South grudgingly accepted defeat as well as the political and economic ramifications of that defeat, they also knew very well that the newly freed slaves will remain second class citizens especially in their states. It would require a successful Civil Rights movement and the passage of time before white and blacks can see eye to eye with regards to equality and human rights.
Importance of Studying History
Without a correct understanding of history one can simplify the events of the U.S. Civil War and say that it was merely a fight for freedom in behalf of the Negro Slaves. Although there is much truth to this statement, much has been left unsaid. It is also important to show that the war was destructive to both blacks and whites.
It is a sad commentary to the post-slavery period that there are many former African-American slaves who were not able to capitalize on freedom. And no one can blame them. They were taken captive from their ancestral land and then placed in an environment where they were treated as animals.
It only takes a few years for the mind to adjust to the new surroundings. And therefore when freedom came, the man has already turned into a non-thinking drone unable to do anything without the guiding whip of the harsh taskmasters.
One of the first African-American intellectual, George Washington Williams wrote about the sad plight of the newly freed slaves, “Here were four million human beings without clothing, shelter, homes, and alas most without names.
The galling harness of slavery had been cut off of their weary bodies, and like a worn out beat of burden they stood in their tracks scarcely able to go anywhere” (Eyerman, 2001, p. 23). So for every single African-American who was able to rise out of poverty and ignorance there are other countless poor souls who could not figure out the meaning of freedom.
A correct understanding of history will reveal the evils of war. As a result policy makers in the present time will gain wisdom by studying history. They will realize that war must be used a last resort. There are times when war is indeed inevitable. But it must be made clear that war brings with it a destructive force that no army or population can control. In many instances the destruction and the emotional wounds far outweigh the gain.
The U.S. Civil War was one of the most important events in the history of the United States. It was a war that threatened to destroy the Union. In hindsight it would have been better if North and South laid down their differences and worked hard to find a way to resolve their differences. The destruction of the South and the sudden emancipation of Negro slaves created an economic backlash.
The South struggled to rebuild while former Negro slaves are faced with the dilemma of freedom without resources to use in order to create a life of dignity and respect.
Ironically, the war did not solve their problems; it even required a Civil Rights movement in order for the members of the Negro race to experience total emancipation. However, it must be made clear that in a situation where two opposing forces are adamant about the righteousness of their respective stance, there is no other option but to go to war.
Calore, P. (2008).The Causes of the Civil War: The Political, Cultural, Economic and Territorial Disputes Between North and South. North Carolina: McFraland & Company, Inc.
Donovan, T. & T. Griess. (2002). The American Civil War. New York: Square One Publishers.
Eggleston, L. (2003). Women in the Civil War. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Franklin, J. H. (1994). Reconstruction After the Civil War. IL: University of Chicago Press.
Lowance, M. (2003). A House Divided: The Antebellum Slavery Debates in America, 1776-1865. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Tunnell, T. (1992). Crucible of Reconstruction. LA: Louisiana State University.