The United States Civil War was fought between the years of 1861 and 1865, and was largely fought over whether or not slavery should be allowed in the U.S. The end of the war saw an end to slavery in the United States and a reunion of the northern and southern states. Over the course of the war, many slaves were freed or escaped from the south and fought for the north to end slavery. Had it not been for these escaped/freed slaves, the Northern Union would not have been able to win the Civil War.
The Civil War is known as one of the United States’ bloodiest wars. The war was fought between northern and southern states, after several southern states seceded in an attempt to protest the national shift towards making slavery illegal. Slave labor and slave trade was a very important economic asset to the south according to the writer Benjamin T. Arrington from the National Parks Service, who writes that “In 1860, the economic value of slaves in the United States exceeded the invested value of all of the nation’s railroads, factories, and banks combined.” This shows how important slave labor and slave trade was to the country, particularly the southern states where slavery was most prevalent. It’s easy to see that there was a lot at stake for the southern states, but the war was lost to the north, and slavery was ended in the United States.
On the political stage at the time was United States President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln was elected in 1860 as the first Republican president, and he entered office with the intention to end slavery in the U.S. Lincoln had struggled with finding a fair way to end slavery that was also within the power of the Constitution. After years of conflict, Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 which stated that “all persons held as slaves in any state… shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Having legally ended slavery, Lincoln continued to lead the country through the Civil War, until he was killed in 1865.
While President Lincoln provided the legal end to slavery, it would not have mattered if the northern states wouldn’t have won the war. Had the southern states won, the Emancipation Proclamation would not have applied to the southern Confederate States of America. Ultimately with the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation completed, the fate of United States Slaves shifted to the war effort. Needless to say, slaves generally were in support of abolition, and by association supported the northern states in their effort. This is evident in the number of slaves fighting slavery in the northern army during the Civil War.
As historian/writer Eric Foner explains in his book Give Me Liberty!, “by the end of the war, however, more than 180,000 black men had served in the Union army and 24,000 in the navy” (416). This is a significant number of people serving in the war, amounting to approximately 10% of the total Union troops. With such a large number of freed slaves serving the Union army/navy, the direct contribution is definitely evident. However, the contribution that is perhaps harder to measure, is the impact that the lack of slaves had on the southern economy during the war. While these slaves were fighting against the south directly, they were also indirectly affecting the rest of the confederacy through reducing the amount of slave labor available in the south.
In addition, a policy adopted by General Benjamin F. Butler had the northern troops treating southern slaves as contraband of war, which granted the military the right to “confiscate” the slaves (Foner 412). While this didn’t directly result in troops fighting for the Union, it did contribute to the loss of slaves in the south during the war. This loss of slave labor would have resulted in a blow to southern economy, and in turn, the southern war effort. Again, these kinds of things can be hard to measure, but it no-doubt contributed to the fall of the south during the war.
Some may argue that because these things are harder to measure and display that they don’t make much of a difference, but that simply isn’t true. There are so many factors working against the south regarding freed slaves, many of which could not or have not been recorded. For example, the number of slaves that simply escaped on their own and went to the north. It is reasonable to assume that many of these slaves may have changed names and identities to remain hidden in the north, not fighting in the war but contributing to the fall of the south. Another example comes from the fact that “not a few passed along military intelligence and detailed knowledge of the south’s terrain” (Foner 412). This is a great example of a contribution that can’t be measured. Foner states that several slaves from the south contributed to the Union effort with information, which is almost impossible to measure but undoubtedly made a difference in the war. Simply because a factor cannot be measured in numbers and graphs, does not mean it made no difference. It is for this reason that these other factors must be considered when talking about slaves supporting the north in the war.
In the end, considering the number of factors present in the war regarding slaves, it is impossible to ignore the fact that these actions and ideas played a major part in the northern victory during the war. One could go so far as to say that the north could not have won the war if they hadn’t had the support of escaped and freed slaves from the south. If not from the number of troops fighting directly in the war, than the other factors like the impact on the southern economy or military intelligence passed on from slaves undoubtedly ensured the northern victory during the Civil War.
Arrington, Benjamin T. "Industry and Economy during the Civil War." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. 4th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014. Print.