James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig continues his look at Buchanan’s presidency. He argues that Buchanan had prepared for the possible secession of states in the South – and that it was almost impossible for him to avoid South Carolina’s December 1860 secession following Abraham Lincoln’s election victory in November 1860.

You can read the first article in the series on James Buchanan and Bleeding Kansas here.

President James Buchanan’s cabinet, circa 1859.

President James Buchanan’s cabinet, circa 1859.

Perhaps the most trying period in James Buchanan’s career came when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860 a month after Abraham Lincoln was electedpresident.  It has often been recollected that the nation’s fifteenth president simply let the nation dissolve under his watch - that the nation’s president was too weak and tired from age to effectively stop the secessionist threat in the South as President Andrew Jackson had thirty years prior during the Nullification Crisis. However, this was certainly not the case as President James Buchanan had prepared for such a scenario in October 1860.


Preparing for Succession

Before Lincoln was elected, Buchanan knew that if the Illinois Republican became president the South would most likely secede.  On the election he stated that, “throughout the presidential canvass, the cotton states openly declared their purpose to secede should Mr. Lincoln be elected.” This caused much alarm for Buchanan, who turned to General Winfield Scott, the commander-in chief of the armed forces for a review of the military and its outposts in the South. This was not the action of a weak president. At the time, the President only had sixteen thousand troops to defend against secession should the South decide to do so.  When General Scott completed his review, he warned Buchanan that many of the forts in the South including Fort Sumter and those along the Mississippi River lacked sufficient troops to defend against secession.  He writes that “Fort Moultrie and Sumter, (in) Charleston Harbor, the former with an insufficient garrison, and the latter without any…should be immediately so garrisoned as to make any attempt to take any one of them by surprise ridiculous.” General Scott also advised Buchanan to send five available companies to reinforce five of the eight forts that he mentioned in his report. However, they would still be understrength in repelling an attack against their station.  

Buchanan recognized the threat to the nation but being a man of the Constitution, realized that he had little power to move troops without the approval of Congress.  If he did so without congressional approval, he feared that he would only provoke the South and start the secession movement.  Buchanan did not want to start a war that he knew he was ill prepared for. He sent a request for Congress to raise five additional regiments that could be used to reinforce the Southern garrisons, but his request was ignored by Congress. Leaning on the advice of his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, he did not pursue the matter to find out why. However, Floyd was being investigated by Congress for spreading troops thinly throughout the South to render the army useless if war did break out. The trial was suspended for lack of evidence.  Just before he resigned, Buchanan recalled that Floyd had ordered federal artillery sent to a Southern fort, but the President himself stepped in and revoked the order. Floyd had resigned because Buchanan refused to order Major Anderson from Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded. 


Buchanan’s Dedication to the Constitution

In his December 3, 1860 annual message to Congress, Buchanan put emphasis on the impending desire of South Carolina to secede from the Union upon Lincoln’s election that November.  He stated that the “election of any of our fellow citizens to the office of president does not itself afford just cause for dissolving the Union…how then, can the result justify a revolution to destroy this very Constitution.” In a deep effort, Buchanan tried to clarify the seriousness of secession to the integrity of the Union and what the Constitution represented.  He also stated, “in order to justify secession as a Constitutional remedy, it must be on the principle that the Federal Government is a mere voluntary association of states, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties.” At this point, Buchanan called out the legality of secession as unconstitutional, but his role as president gave him no power to take action against it.  This again, demonstrates his sincere dedication to the Constitution and the powers it gave.  As Buchanan explains, “apart from the execution of the laws, so far as they may be practiced, the Executive has not authority to decide what should be the relations between the federal government and South Carolina…he possesses no power to change the relations heretofore existing between them, much less acknowledge the independence of that state.”

In Buchanan’s defense he was correct, his oath of office required under Article Two Section One of the Constitution states that the president will “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of (their) ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” James Buchanan lived by the oath he took as president and executed the laws of United States as given to him by the Constitution, no powers were given against slavery and secession.  If those actions were considered acts of war, only Congress would intervene to put an end to that situation.  Buchanan urged the nation to put an end to the secessionist cry but felt as if his actions were misinterpreted. As Buchanan recalls of himself, “his every act had been misrepresented and condemned, and knew that whatever course he might pursue, he was destined to encounter their bitter hostility.  No public man was ever placed in a more trying and responsible position…without giving offence both to the anti-slavery and secession parties, because both had been clearly in the wrong.” At that point, in December 1860, only a few weeks before South Carolina officially declared its secession, James Buchanan, the Fifteenth President of the United States, felt powerless to prevent the impending Civil War.


What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions before South Carolina’s secession? Let us know below.

With the Union’s Army of the Potomac finally defeating Robert E. Lee, you’d think the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg would have elated Abraham Lincoln. Instead, for him, the battle produced a harvest of bitterness and disappointment. Lamont Wood, whose book Lincoln's Planner: A Unique Look at the Civil War Through the President's Daily Activities (Amazon US | Amazon UK) was recently published, explains why this American Civil War battle produced such feelings.

A depiction of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives.

A depiction of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives.

After two years of indecisive yet bloody warfare, Lincoln glimpsed victory in July 1863. Out West, a Union army was besieging Vicksburg and it looked like the Union would soon control the Mississippi River. Another Union army was advancing in central Tennessee, while on the coast the Union siege of Charleston looked promising. With the addition of Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, surely victory was within grasp.

But there was no follow-through.

As reflected in his collected wartime papers (and recounted in “Lincoln’s Planner”), as the battle unfolded on July 1 and 2, 1863, the president spent a lot of his time in the War Department’s telegraph office, reading dispatches from the front as they arrived.


Independence Day

On July 4, Independence Day, a Saturday, and the day after Pickett’s Charge, both sides at Gettysburg stood in place during the morning, Lincoln put out a press release congratulating his army, asking that, “He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude.” That night he helped mount a fireworks display at the White House.

But that was as upbeat as things got.

Meanwhile, torrential rains began falling at Gettysburg and Lee began pulling his army out of Pennsylvania. From out of left field, the Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens showed up under a flag of truce at Fortress Monroe, asking to come to Washington to talk to Lincoln, supposedly to discuss prisoner exchanges. (Presumably, Stephens’ real motivation was to be on hand should the Administration become favorable to peace negotiations following Confederate successes in Pennsylvania.)

On July 5 (Sunday) Lincoln attended a Cabinet meeting where they discussed Stephens’ request, which Lincoln discounted. Lincoln (accompanied by his 10-year-old son Tad) then visited wounded general (and Republican friend and all-round scandal magnet) Dan Sickles, who had been evacuated to Washington after losing a leg at Gettysburg.

Back at the telegraph office, Lincoln saw a report about a Union cavalry raid the previous day that destroyed a Confederate pontoon bridge across the Potomac at Falling Waters, West Virginia. Lincoln bypassed the chain of command and directly telegraphed Gen. William French asking if the rain-swollen Potomac could be forded. The answer: no.

The enticing implication was that Lee was stuck on the north side of the Potomac, unable to retreat to Virginia, and subject to momentary destruction by the pursuing Federals – a development that could wrap up the war.


Too Quiet on the Potomac

The next day (Monday, July 6) Lincoln attended a morning Cabinet meeting and convinced them to ignore Stephens—if the Confederate vice president really wanted to talk about prisoner exchanges, there were existing channels for that.

And then Lincoln’s hopes were shattered by the arrival of Gen. Herman Haupt, the chief railroad engineer of the Union army, who pulled into town from Gettysburg on one of his trains and rushed to the White House. He told Lincoln that he feared Gen. George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, was going to let Lee get away. Haupt had spoken with Meade Saturday and heard Meade say that his army had nearly been defeated and needed rest. Meade noted that since Lee did not have a pontoon train his army would be stuck on the north side of the Potomac, implying that an immediate pursuit wasn’t necessary. Haupt told him that the Confederates could throw together a temporary bridge by tearing down buildings for lumber, but Meade wasn’t impressed.

Lincoln then spent the afternoon back in the telegraph office, and what he saw confirmed the fears raised by Gen. Haupt. He returned to the White House about 7 and wrote to Gen. Henry Halleck, his chief of staff, complaining that the messages he saw indicated a policy of herding the enemy forces across the river rather than trapping and destroying them. “You know I did not like the phrase… ‘Drive the invaders from our soil,’” Lincoln said.

The next morning (Tuesday, July 7) Gen. Meade finally had his infantry march in pursuit of Lee. Lincoln was back in the telegraph office when notice arrived from Vicksburg of the Confederate surrender there on July 4. (Grant’s army did not have a direct telegraph connection with Washington.)

The city erupted into celebration and a crowd eventually gathered outside the White House demanding a speech. Lincoln made his longest-known off-the-cuff address, with themes he would re-use in the speech he gave four months later at Gettysburg, such as, “On the 4th the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal turned tail and run.”

The day after (Wednesday, July 8) Gen. Meade’s infantry caught up with Lee’s cornered army, but there was no major action. Lincoln was heard to complain that Gen. Meade is “as likely to capture the Man-in-the-Moon, as any part of Lee’s army.”

Thursday was equally frustrating, as Lincoln returned to the tasks of the Executive Branch, while things remained all quiet on the Potomac. Friday, the opposing armies probed each other, while Lincoln sent a telegram to an old friend back in Illinois, saying that the rumors were true and Lee had indeed been defeated at Gettysburg.

Saturday (July 11) Gen. Meade reported that he had decided to attack the trapped Confederates, and Lincoln’s mood was seen to improve.

Then, Sunday, Gen. Meade pushed the attack back a day, saying he needed time for reconnaissance. “Too late!” Lincoln groaned when he read the message.

On Monday, July 13, Lincoln sent a thank you letter to Gen. Grant for his recent victory at Vicksburg, noting that he had been worried about Grant’s plan to operate away from the Mississippi and take the city from the land side, but “you were right and I was wrong.” (Grant took a month to respond.)



Getting away

That night, Lee’s army slipped across the falling Potomac.

The next day, Lincoln wrote a thank you letter to Gen. Meade, as he had done to Gen. Grant. But the tone was radically different. “I am very – very – grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country… I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely... Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

He filed the letter away, and never sent it.

As Lincoln feared, the war did drag on, lasting nearly two more years. The main impact of Gettysburg was that Lee would never again launch a major offensive.


What do you think of this article? Let us know below.


Lamont Wood is a journalist and history writer. He has been freelancing for more than three decades in the history, high-tech, and industrial fields. He has sold more than six hundred magazine feature articles and twelve books. He and his wife, Dr. Louise O’Donnell, reside in San Antonio, Texas. His book, Lincoln's Planner: A Unique Look at the Civil War Through the President's Daily Activities (Amazon US | Amazon UK), is available here.

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most published figures in history. Hundreds of books have been written regarding his most important legacies on the United States. With all of that publishing there are still many misconceptions about Abraham Lincoln that are taught today in schools and in popular culture. Some misconceptions are obviously inaccurate, while others can be intelligently argued in several directions. Here are the debates around ten of the most common ‘misconceptions’ about Abraham Lincoln as shared by Scott M. Hopkins.

A close-up of the official White House portrait of President Abraham Lincoln.

A close-up of the official White House portrait of President Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln the Rail Splitter

Most students of history today are confused when they hear the term rail splitter. It had nothing to do with creating railroad tracks, but actually building rail fences. The task was difficult in the 19th century without the use of modern equipment. It was immensely important in keeping livestock managed and property lines separated. Lincoln excelled at the task as a youth and retained the skill as an adult. The chore lent itself to Lincoln’s peculiar physical attributes; tall and lanky, skinny legs, with robust arms, and mammoth hands.

What many people do not realize is that Lincoln actually hated his backwoods upbringing. Even as president he would outperform his own Union Soldiers in exercises of physical endurance, many half his age. Still his preference was for being indoors and reading. In fact he often did extra manual labor to be paid in borrowed books, then subsequently more labor in order to pay them off when he accidently destroyed the treasured texts he had borrowed. Even during the election, Republicans desperately sold the idea of Lincoln as the backwoods hero. City slickers loved the rail splitter image. Lincoln hated it.


Abraham Lincoln the Atheist

Like many Americans before and after him, Lincoln struggled with his religious faith. The traditional frontier Baptist tradition he was raised with left him with many more questions than answers. His uncertainty should not be confused with Atheism though. As a child Lincoln made great efforts to memorize passages of scripture and to orate them to his siblings and mother.

Following the demoralizing death of his mother Nancy Lincoln in 1818 to milk poisoning, Lincoln denounced Jesus as the Christ repeatedly in public settings. It was further worsened when his first love, Ann Rutledge, died in 1835. He fell into a melancholy state many today might term depression. Some even worried about him taking his own life. William Herndon, a close friend and the earliest biographer maintained Lincoln was not a Christian, though many more biographies have surfaced challenging that. However, towards the end of his life he made several public announcements for the praise of a higher power. He even attempted to contact the spirit of his dead son, Willie, in séance rituals.


Abraham Lincoln Started the Civil War

This topic is contentious in the southern half of the United States as it is commonly understood there that Lincoln was an aggressor to a peaceful separatist movement, known as the Confederate States of America. It does not help that the majority of battles took place in the South, Reconstruction was a failure, and that much of the wealth of the South was invested in slavery, which immediately put businesses, industries, and families out of business at the end of the war. At the height of the Lost Cause movement Lincoln blaming was beginning to receive immense respect among historians.

States’ rights are usually cited as one of the main reasons that Lincoln can be blamed for starting what is still sometimes known as The War of Northern Aggression. Just as states had the right to vote for or against slavery, there is the belief that they could vote to leave the Union. Lincoln held that the secession of South Carolina in December of 1860 - before he would take over the White House - was firmly illegal and pledged not to start the war, but do everything to prepare for it. Imagine today if Donald Trump were elected president. Should states have the right to leave the Union because a majority of people disagree with the candidate who won?

Ironically, Abraham Lincoln advocated for minimal punishment for the Confederacy at the conclusion of the war. His desire to return to investing in infrastructure and creating jobs in the South cannot be measured as he was assassinated before his ideas could become reality.


Abraham Lincoln: The Classic Rags to Riches Story

It is true that Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky (it’s where we get Lincoln Logs from) and that his father barely completed enough labor to provide for the sustenance of his family, let alone save much money. He also spent much of his youth in the frontier of Indiana in another log cabin.

As a teenager though he learned the importance of entrepreneurship after taking a raft to New Orleans and earning a two fifty cent silver coins from two merchants that he assisted with travel of their cargo. He applied himself to his work thereafter, managing a shop, delivering mail, surveying, and even leading a militia in the Black Hawk War of 1832. None of this gave him wealth, nor did his hard work at teaching himself law pay the dividends it does today. Wealth only came to Lincoln through chance that his wife, Nancy Todd Lincoln, came from a prominent Kentucky plantation family with money invested in land and slaves. Even so, Lincoln himself never lived lavishly.


Abraham Lincoln owned Slaves

According to historian and East Carolina University Professor Gerald J. Prokopowicz in Did Lincoln Own Slaves And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln it is one of the most commonly asked questions by all age groups, races, and creeds regarding the fourteenth president. It’s puzzling to consider why someone would have had such an inclination. It is well documented that Lincoln often supported the end to slavery, but only when he supported an end to rebellion and a return to the Constitution. Nevertheless, he never harbored any desire in owning slaves, despite his wife’s immediate family background.

The case that is sometimes made to argue that Lincoln owned slaves is that during a White House function, short on labor, the Lincolns hired a group of ex-slaves to assist with serving guests. The history suggests that they may not have been ex-slaves as the White House thought, nor were they compensated financially, leading to a slavery connotation. The hiring was handled by the White House staff and not Lincoln, and nor were his staff aware of the workers’ situation.

Lincoln detested slavery and wanted its demise ever since he experienced the sight of it on one of his riverboat trips as a teenager to New Orleans. He never owned a plantation property to necessitate slaves and preferred to do the majority of manual labor himself, even while at The White House.


Abraham Lincoln Would Vote for My Party Today

One of the most politically charged assertions is when non-historians attempt to pigeonhole Lincoln into their political party today. Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, right at the time of the founding of the party and was the first Republican President of the United States. Initially Lincoln was a Whig, though the party dissolved prior to the 1861 election over the issue of slavery. The formation of the Republican Party was almost exclusively made up of abolitionist former Whigs, hell-bent on ending the spread of slavery into new states and territories.  

Still many of his efforts can be argued to be more in line with today’s Democratic Party. Most notably Lincoln introduced the country’s first income tax, spent lavishly on infrastructure and public assistance, and promoted social justice initiatives like attempting to buy all slaves and then relocate them to Liberia for freedom’s sake. Interestingly much of Lincoln’s support in the election of 1861 is today firmly Democrat, while the South, who failed to put him even on the ballot, is firmly Republican.

Lincoln would not fit conveniently into either party today as his political views were often changing as the Civil War changed. He made decisions that he knew were best for the country and its future. Although he filled his cabinet with Republicans, they were all his most fierce competitors and differed from him in many ways, as evidenced in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s essential Lincoln text, Team of Rivals. Lincoln viewed each competitor as the best at what they did and took advantage of their skills, regardless of personal relationship, social, or political persuasion. In fact, his class of politicising is rarely seen today amongst the careerists and party loyal.


Abraham Lincoln the Abolitionist

We cannot take away the magnitude of what Abraham Lincoln did to end the Civil War and end slavery. His disgust at slavery was apparent and those closest to him knew he waited for each opportunity to rid the United States of it. Ambitious steps like the Emancipation Proclamation – which didn’t actually free slaves – are not the same as the Abolitionist Movement. Abolitionists were on the front lines and often had no support or funding.

Founded in the Atlantic States, the Abolitionist Movement advocated an end to slavery and largely equal rights for black men and women of the United States. It had its roots in Evangelical churches. It was a tireless and often dangerous commitment. Not only was it unpopular prior to 1861, helping slaves through the Underground Railroad was illegal - often leading to business and political suicide. Well-off business owners, church preachers, and hardworking mothers risked everything and often lost everything hiding slaves and defending the equality of others. Many eventually made their way to Canada where slavery was expressly illegal.


Abraham Lincoln Was a Racist

Those that understand Lincoln know that he was not an Abolitionist and certainly did cooperate with slavery until he could remove it. Children of several different generations learned of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator in school. That title is largely dismissed as inaccurate today. Many in the 1960s - namely prominent black journalist Lerone Bennet Jr. - have labelled him nothing more than a typical racist of the time. That was in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement.

The claim set off a firestorm of controversy as several prominent historians arguing both sides began to take shape. Besides the political and war reasons for withholding the end of slavery, Lincoln made a number of outright racist comments during the Douglas Debates in rural Illinois. Comments like: “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” He went on to deny the possibility for intermarriage, blacks to public office, and suggested separation was the best possible outcome.

Today the belief by most historians is that Lincoln was a realist. Many of his decisions while President were motivated by aiding the Union war effort and reuniting the country as whole. They see him shaped and melded by the Radical Republicans of his party. And they recognize that many of his efforts to end slavery and granted citizenship to blacks were revolutionary and hardly necessary for the president.


Abraham Lincoln was Homosexual

One of the most important jobs for historians is to teach subsequent generations of what life was like before them.  As we are further removed from that time it becomes more difficult. In Lincoln’s time, men slept with other grown men when it was feasible. Beds were expensive and it was impractical for Lincoln to have attempted to rent his own room and own bed in rural Illinois in the 1840s.

So when Joshua Speed offered Lincoln a room to rent it was Joshua’s room that they shared. On the lawyer’s circuit, the traveling band along with the judges shared a room and bed because they could rarely find an establishment in backwoods Illinois equipped like a hotel is today. It took time for many of these communities to populate themselves and commerce was slow to adjust. Fortunately for the judge, he was so large and overweight, he had his own bed.

Besides sleeping together, those who believe Lincoln was homosexual, cite the many ‘love letters’ exchanged between Lincoln and Speed as evidence of an erotic relationship. In Lincoln’s age it was not uncommon for two men to have shared such an intimate relationship that was not based on eroticism or sexual attraction. Writing to each other in eloquence, respect, and a desire to see a friend again were quite common. Expressing it through letters was nothing to be ashamed of.


Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Freed all Slaves

The accuracy to which Lincoln’s achievements are  taught in primary and secondary schools is haphazard, with this topic perhaps the most misunderstood and poorly taught. The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Confederacy to be free. It did not actually make them free. That required a slave owner to acknowledge the proclamation as law. Border States such as Lincoln’s home state of Kentucky were not necessarily required to follow the new Proclamation, nor were Union states and territories like Maryland or Washington, D.C.

The Proclamation set a precedent though. Lincoln took a gamble in making it public after months of drafts and consultation with his cabinet. He wanted to only release it upon high Union morale and only when he could sell it both as the right thing to do, but also as a way to help win the war. It nullified the Fugitive Slave Act which required northerners to return runaway slaves to their masters and allowed the Union to prevent slaves from assisting the Confederacy on the battlefield with supplies and chores vital to their efforts.

Even more important to teach was that not all of America rejoiced at The Emancipation Proclamation. One more egregious error taught in our schools is that all of the North was in unison in opposition to slavery. After Lincoln’s announcement many families began to question what their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers were fighting for. Certainly they would not fight for African Americans, who experienced segregation and black codes – prohibitive living and working laws – in big cities across the North.


Scott M. Hopkins is a personal property appraiser focusing on numismatics. Do you have a rare coin at home that you believe might make you rich? Send Scott a message on his website. He will give you a thorough understanding of what to do with your rare coins.










Slavery finally came to an end in the United States during the 1860s. But who should take credit for freeing the slaves? The slaves themselves or the Union Army that defeated the Confederacy in the US Civil War? Hannah McDermott tells us what she thinks…

Fugitive slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia. David Edward Cronin, 1888. Many fugitive slaves joined the Union Army in the US Civil War.

Fugitive slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia. David Edward Cronin, 1888. Many fugitive slaves joined the Union Army in the US Civil War.

In a letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln declared that his ‘paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery’.[1] Yet by the end of the American Civil war the enslavement of blacks had been formally abolished thanks in part to legislation such as the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the post-war 13th Amendment to the Constitution. In popular memory, the man responsible for these great changes to American society is Lincoln; remembered as the ‘Great Emancipator’ and depicted as physically breaking the shackles binding African Americans to their masters. Though it is true enough that the inauguration of this Illinois statesman and his Republican administration provided Southern slave owners with an excuse to push for secession and defend their property from what they claimed to be an imminent threat, Lincoln was very clear in his presidential campaign and at the outset of his presidential term that his aim was not to touch slavery where it already existed, but simply to prevent its expansion. Was the President, therefore, as integral to the demise of black enslavement as has been suggested?

If the role of Lincoln as the driving force is to be questioned, it follows to ask what other influences were at play. More recently, some historians have done just this. In the wake of the social and political upheaval of the later 20th century, the American academy has produced a ‘new social history’, of which has led to a separate branch of Civil War historiography looking to the role of the slaves themselves in securing their own freedom. Historians such as Ira Berlin have emphasized the grass-roots movement of black slaves during the war, and their personal fight for freedom through escaping to Union territory and challenging the status quo. However, it is difficult to view these historical people and events in complete isolation. Thus, in this essay, I will examine the actions of slaves in conjunction with that of the Union army and also the administration in order to illustrate how the process was more complex and multi-layered than simply one person, or one group, as the harbinger of emancipation.


Slaves and the Escape to Union Lines

Slaves were far from the passive and docile creatures that some pro-slavery activists liked to suggest. A steady trickle made the passage North even before the Civil War began, where their presence shaped the anti-slavery activities of white northern men. Frederick Douglass, for example, was a former slave who had managed to escape from his southern house of bondage in 1838. Douglass brought a unique perspective that would influence the abolition movement since he was able to express the hardships of enslaved blacks, as well as demonstrate the intelligence and capabilities of African Americans to northern audiences.

It was during the Civil War, however, that the number of slaves running away from their masters reached its peak and was largely based on the knowledge that refuge could be sought within the lines of the Union army. Prior to the Fugitive Slave Act, those who escaped to ‘free soil’, non-slaveholding regions, were considered to have self-emancipated; during the war, proximity to free soil was increased as the Union lines crept further and further south.[2]

From the outset of war, thousands of African Americans flooded Union camps, sometimes in family units, and left army generals wondering how they should respond. After entering Kentucky in the fall of 1861, General Alexander McDowell McCook appealed for guidance from his superior, General William T. Sherman, on how he should respond to the arrival of fugitive slaves. McCook worriedly declared to Sherman that ‘ten have come into my camp within as many hours’ and ‘from what they say, there will be a general stampeed [sic] of slaves from the other side of Green River.’[3] General Ambrose E. Burnside faced a similar situation in March 1862, describing how the federally occupied city of New Bern, North Carolina, was ‘overrun with fugitives from surrounding towns and plantations’ and that the ‘negroes…seemed to be wild with excitement and delight.’[4] Such encounters would continue throughout the war as slaves made the decision to leave behind their life of enslavement for the hope of a better life with the advancing ‘Yankees’.


The Union Army: Active and Passive Advocates of Emancipation

Though it is clear that slaves made the personal decision to runaway, it was one that was facilitated by the context of war. While there were exceptions to this, including stories of slaves found hiding in swamps only 100 feet from their master’s homes, most had a destination in mind when they fled. Archy Vaughn’s escape is a case in point. One spring evening in 1864, Archy Vaughn, a slave from a small town in Tennessee, made a potentially life-changing decision. As the sun went down, Vaughn stole an old mare and travelled to the ferry across the nearby Wolf River, hoping that he would be able to reach the federal lines he had heard were positioned at Laffayette Depot. Unfortunately for the Tennessean slave, luck was not on his side. Caught near the ferry, he was returned to his angry master, Bartlet Ciles, who decided that an appropriate form of punishment for such misbehavior was to castrate Vaughn and to cut off a piece of his left ear. [5] In spite of the barbaric outcome, that Vaughn was hoping to ‘get into federal lines’ is demonstrative of how many slaves departed plantations on the basis that they would be able to seek refuge within the lines of the Union army.[6]

Indeed, the role of the Union army was crucial to the shaping of the future of fugitive slaves. Though this took various shapes and forms, it is a contribution that makes it impossible to view the road to freedom as one that slaves traversed alone and unaided. Some generals took a pragmatic approach to the situation they faced when entering slave-holding territory. General Benjamin Butler and his ‘contraband’ policy are noteworthy in this instance as examples of the army capitalizing on the events of the war. In July 1861, General Butler wrote a report to the Secretary of War detailing his view on how runaway slaves should be treated by the Union army which would become known as Butler’s ‘contraband’ theory. Here he made an emphatic resolution, decreeing that in rebel states, ‘I would confiscate that which was used to oppose my arms, and take all the property, which constituted the wealth of that state, and furnished the means by which the war is prosecuted.’[7]  Hinting at the two-fold benefit of adding to the workforce of Union troops and damaging the rebellion’s foundation simultaneously, Butler’s theory that fugitive slaves were ‘contraband’ was the first to explicitly express the potential gains to be made from legitimizing the harboring of ex-slaves.

Other generals were more vocal of their hatred towards slavery, and more aggressive in the tactics they employed. One incident was General John C. Frémont’s proclamation of August 30, 1861, which placed the state of Missouri under martial law, decreed that all property of those bearing arms in rebellion would be confiscated, including slaves, and that confiscated slaves would subsequently be declared free.[8] Frémont’s proclamation at this stage in the war was provocative and quite blatantly breached official federal policy; slaves could be emancipated under martial law when they came into contact with Union lines, and this had certainly not been the case here.[9] Lincoln ordered that the general rescind the proclamation, but its initial impact was not lost, for it had signaled the possible direction that the focus of the conflict could be turned toward, and substantiated southern beliefs that the northern war aims were centered around an impetus to rid the nation of the evils of slavery.

Frémont was not alone in pushing the legal and political boundaries set by the administration, and similar occurrences repeated themselves throughout the war. Even when blocked by Lincoln, as in the case above, abolitionist Union officers were essential in the changing direction of the war. Whilst not all Union troops were politically motivated, the combination of those realizing the value of slaves in bolstering the war effort and those of an anti-slavery persuasion like General Frémont was an effective tool in aiding and sustaining the freedom of slaves across the United States.


The Republican Administration and Emancipation

In studying the response of the Union military it is easy to come to the conclusion that the federal government often lagged behind or was slow to respond to what was already happening within the Union army, or even that they were less supportive of the plight of the slaves during the war. Indeed Lincoln and his administration are often criticized on their attitude towards making the Civil War a war to free the slaves, particularly by historians who place the responsibility of slave emancipation on the efforts of the slaves themselves. Berlin describes the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation as ‘a document whose grand title promised so much but whose bland words delivered so little’, and further states that it freed not a single slave that had not been freed under the legislation passed by Congress the previous year in the Second Confiscation Act.[10] First of all, that the First and Second Confiscation Acts were the products of the administration should be noted. The Second, as referenced by Berlin, declared that any person who thereafter aided the rebellion would have their slaves set free.[11] Secondly, the notion that the Emancipation Proclamation was in essence no more than a grandly worded document without any backbone is false when it is understood how the proclamation’s inclusion of black conscription had wider repercussions for the Union military effort and the attainment of black freedom. Though examples of blacks serving in the military are visible before Lincoln’s proclamation, for instance Jim Lane’s 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry formed in 1862, the new federal policy made this a much more frequent occurrence. This is also to say nothing of the emotional and moral impact such a document made on the psyche of the African American community.

Though it can be conceded that the Emancipation Proclamation positively contributed to emancipation efforts, it would be wrong to claim as James McPherson does that Lincoln played ‘the central role’ in ending the institution of bondage.[12] The same is true for evaluations of subsequent abolitionist legislation, notably the Thirteenth Amendment. Oakes’ emphatic declaration that the amendment, which formally prohibited slavery across the United States, ‘irreversibly destroyed’ slavery is correct in highlighting the importance of an anti-slavery constitutional amendment but simultaneously overshadows the role played by non-political actors in the fight for freedom.[13] The movement of slaves towards federal lines and the protection they were then given is surely comparable to the effects of the Thirteenth Amendment, despite being described by Carwardine as ‘the only means of guaranteeing that African Americans be “forever free”.’[14]

Instead, as this essay has demonstrated, the freeing of slaves during the Civil War is best understood as a multi-layered, interactive process. Slaves were not passive participators; they could and would act on the opportunities to leave behind a life of slavery for one of freedom. Though things might not always go to plan, as Archy Vaughn’s violent tale illustrates, the impetus to leave among enslaved African Americans was strong. Nevertheless, they did not free themselves. The action of slaves alone was not enough to ensure freedom, and the slaves themselves knew this. The decision to seek refuge with the federal army is indicative of how slaves predicated their choice to leave from the very beginning on the support of Union military power. Members of the federal forces were also not passive agents in the emancipation journey. While General Frémont, for example, may have identified the need to destroy slavery from the very beginning of the conflict, by the end of the war there was a shared sentiment among the Union forces that the use of ex-slaves in the fight against the South, menial tasks and armed battle included, was a vital component of the war effort. The federal administration realized this too; implementing policies that further aided and legitimized the support given by the army to slaves, as well as enhanced the contributions made by slaves to the achievement of Union victory. Slaves were freed, therefore, through the interaction of the mutually reinforcing interests of fugitive slaves and the Union war effort. It was this collaboration that enabled the mutually beneficial outcome in which the Confederacy was defeated at the hands of an emancipating Union vanguard.


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1. To Horace Greeley, 22 August 1862 in Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955) v, 389

2. James Oakes, Freedom National: the Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: London, 2013), pp. 194-96

3. Ira Berlin et al (eds.), Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (New York, 1992), pp. 13-14

4. Ibid., pp. 35

5. Ibid., pp. 112-113

6. Ibid., pp. 113

7. General Butler’s “Contrabands”, 30 July 1861 in Henry Steele Commager and Milton Cantor (eds.), Documents of American History, 10th edn (New York, 1988) i, 396-97

8. Frémont’s Proclamation on Slaves, 30 August 1861 in Commager and Cantor (eds.), Documents of American History, i, 397-98

9. Oakes, Freedom National, pp. 215

10. Berlin, ‘Who Freed the Slaves?’, pp. 27-29

11. Second Confiscation Act, 17 July 1862 in United States, Statutes At Large (Boston, 1863) XII, pp. 589-92

12. James McPherson, ‘Who Freed the Slaves?’ in Drawn with the Sword (New York: Oxford, 1996), pp. 207

13. Oakes, Freedom National, pp. xiv

14. Carwardine, Lincoln, pp. 228

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

In the northern reaches of our world, summer is well under way. So what better way to enjoy it than to read a bumper edition of your favorite history magazine, History is Now? The new issue features a wide range of articles, including the tragic story of Mary Todd, the wife of Abraham Lincoln.

The new issue of History is Now magazine is out now.

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Here is what our editor has to say…

It has arrived! Summer is here and to celebrate we have a bumper issue for you that features a wide variety of amazing events and topics in history. Perfect while you’re on the beach.

We start with a fascinating look at the life of Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s wife. She suffered great loss and in many ways her life was like a Greek Tragedy. We’re then going to keep the magazine’s international focus and look at a very personal memoir from somebody who visited Berlin in the days after the Berlin Wall fell down in 1989. The article features a history of the Berlin Wall too. After that, we have the tale of the travelling executioner. Sound odd? Well it is an intriguing tale of how the state of Mississippi executed people in the 1940s and 1950s, with an even more intriguing executioner.

The focus then remains on American history with an article about the death of Mormon Saint Joseph Smith in 1844, followed by a look at the history of the naming of the US Civil War. There were a variety of debates until very recently around the name for the conflict that this article considers. The Civil War plays a part in the article after that too as we take a rather unique look at slavery in the Northern states of America.

Moving on, we arrive to a conflict between Pancho Villa of Mexico and the American Army, specifically General Pershing’s Punitive Expedition of 1916. To complement that piece, we include a podcast on World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. The penultimate article considers how European and American fur-traders interacted with third gender Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest region. This well-researched article is certainly thought provoking. And finally, in our photo-essay, we take a personal look at how the Vikings have influenced a modern-day woodcarver.

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With all of that, I’m sure that you will enjoy this month’s History is Now magazine.

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George Levrier-Jones

In this article, Helen Saker-Parsons considers the enduring legacy of Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the founders of modern-day Italy. In his own lifetime he led armies and had numerous relationships. He was also adored by the great men of his age – and later ages. 


What makes a person more important, the legacy they leave or the reputation they hold whilst alive? For Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 -1882), one of Italy’s founding fathers, his popularity since his death is only matched by the accolades he received when alive. At the time many women sought locks of his hair, some left their husbands and a few aristocratic ladies risked their reputations for him. American generals wanted him on their side in the US Civil War; Russian peasants carried his icon; Balkan revolutionaries waited for him to lead them and an Anglo-French dispute erupted when a bullet went missing in his ankle. In Italy there are streets, piazzas and buildings that bear his name. In England he was the inspiration for a football (soccer) kit, and more significantly, for a biscuit. So why is the ‘French’ mercenary soldier heralded as an Italian and international hero?

Giuseppe Garibaldi by Gerolamo Induno

Giuseppe Garibaldi by Gerolamo Induno

Garibaldi was born in Nice in 1807, a town that vacillated between France and Italy throughout his life. He started his career as a merchant seaman and his travels brought him into contact with Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy movement, la Giovine Italia – whose main aim was to bring about the Risorgimento or creation of a united Italian republic. It was his role in the failed Mazzini insurrection in Genoa in 1834 that forced his exile to South America and was to shape the person that became the legend. For twelve years Garibaldi combined sea-faring with guerrilla warfare in South America, fighting for the independence of southern Brazil and Uruguay. He discovered an aptitude for military leadership and a fascination for the gaucho traditions of his new home: adopting their fashions of red shirts and ponchos. When the Revolutions of 1848 broke out across Europe, he returned to Italy and led a heroic defense of the Republic of Rome against French and Papal forces. This brave but ultimately disastrous attempt won him fame and fans – both of which increased further after his conquest of Sicily in 1860. The world spoke of the charismatic commander who led an army of volunteers known as “The Thousand.” This army adorned red shirts like the gauchos and lassoed stray animals, but also vanquished a large professional army, swept across southern Italy and entered Naples in triumph - all within four months. Popular support for Garibaldi in Europe and the Americas reached near-hysterical proportions.



When exiled to America, in the early 1850s, Garibaldi’s host in Staten Island was Antonio Meucci, the man often accredited with inventing the first telephone but now also renowned for having employed Garibaldi in his candle factory. Garibaldi’s reputation stretched further in the Americas; US President Abraham Lincoln even offered him the role of Major General in the US Army. But Britain was not to be outdone in its adulation. Having no Civil War to fight it honored the hero in other ways. In 1864 ‘Garibaldimania’ swept through England as Garibaldi paid a visit. After alighting from his train in London the newspapers reported it took him six hours to travel three miles through the crowds. Potteries in Staffordshire released popular figurines of him. Nottingham Forest football club, founded in 1865, designed their red kit in honor of him. But arguably more impressive was the honor bestowed by a Bermondsey factory, Peek Freans, which in 1861 gave their new biscuit his name - although the reasons why are disputed. In 1854, when visiting Tynemouth, Garibaldi allegedly sat on an Eccles Cake and flattened it, thus producing the familiar looking snack. Others claim that it was so-called because it had the appearance of the raison bread served to his troops, or more grotesquely that it resembled bread and berries soaked in horse’s blood which the redshirts were given and which attracted the flies.

Garibaldi’s international reputation was not merely on the political stage; it was also on the personal one. He proved a hit amongst the world’s women, as they adorned red dresses and blouses in honor of the Garibaldini. He showed a certain penchant for younger ladies and was already in his thirties when he acquired his first wife, a married Brazilian teenager: Anna Maria Reveira da Silva (known as Anita). Anita had been forced to marry a local shoemaker at fifteen, but he left her for army service. Whilst still only eighteen in 1839, she had been standing on a hill when Garibaldi’s ship sailed into port. He had spotted her through his telescope and on disembarkation made it his mission to find the woman who had entranced him so. He succeeded and she immediately fell for his charms, left with him, gave him a child, and eventually became his wife three years later, once widowed. She travelled to Europe to fight alongside her hero husband and bear him several more children. But in 1849, when fleeing Rome and heavily pregnant, she succumbed to malaria and died.



Garibaldi’s love-life throughout the 1850s was less committed with several alleged engagements, at least one illegitimate child, and a marriage which lasted a day. His lovers were varied. They included the Englishwomen Emma Roberts and Jesse White, an Italian countess called Maria della Torre (the rebellious daughter of the Count of Salasco), and a divorced German baroness - Esperanza von Schwartz (who refused his proposal in 1857). He completed the decade through a dalliance with the housekeeper from Caprera (the island he bought in 1854 with money earned in America), Battistina Ravello, with whom he had a daughter in 1859. He began the next decade with his second marriage to Guisippina Raimondi, but he left her the following day having heard rumors she had spent the night before with another man and/or was five months pregnant with his child. Garibaldi was able to continue his merry-making simultaneously with his political campaigning. In 1879 he combined a trip to Rome to organize parliamentary opposition with having his 20 year marriage annulled so he could marry for a third time. Francesca Armasino had already borne him several children, and continued his preference for younger woman. She had arrived on Caprera in 1867, aged nineteen, as a nurse to Garibaldi’s grandchildren.

Garibaldi was a charismatic man with many honorable policies. He aroused the admiration of contemporary intellectuals such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, as well as subsequent ones: the historian AJP Taylor describes him as the ‘only wholly admirable figure in history.’ He had seen for himself the hard democracy of the pampas, where all men were treated as equals. He was a republican foremost, but somebody who accepted the role of the monarchy as a means to an end. He called for the legal and political emancipation of women, racial equality, and the abolition of capital punishment. He was a tireless combatant against the clerical power of the Catholic Church, which he saw as the bastardization of religion, and instead adhered to the beliefs of St. Simonianism whose creed was: "from each according to his capacity: to each according to his works; the end of the exploitation of man by man; and the abolition of all privileges of birth.” Indeed, in 1861 he refused Abraham Lincoln’s requests to join his army when Lincoln would not make the abolition of slavery one of his war aims.



Flattery and public adulation, however, never deflected Garibaldi from his chief objective, which was to free Italy from foreign oppression and bring about its unification. He had moved some way from the ideals of la Giovine Italia, believing that unification under the Piedmontese monarch was more viable than a republic. These aims were partly fulfilled in 1860 with the annexation of southern Italy to the Kingdom of Piedmont and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy, but neither Venice nor Rome and the Papal States formed part of the new political entity. Garibaldi was determined that Rome, the symbol of a united Italy, should be at the heart of the Kingdom of Italy. Although the Italian government was reluctant to launch a military campaign against the Pope, Garibaldi resolved to take matters into his own hands - with the aid of three thousand Garibaldini. Thus in August 1862 a sea of red marched on Rome in open defiance of Victor Emanuel II to whom he had previously pledged loyalty. Fearing international reactions, the Italian government hastily dispatched troops to stop his advance. The two armies came face to face on the mountain of Aspromonte in Calabria on August 29, 1862. When the regular troops opened fire, Garibaldi could not bring himself to shoot at fellow Italians and ordered a cease-fire. During the confusion he received three gunshot wounds, one of which entered his right ankle. Briefly imprisoned for treason in Spezia, Garibaldi continued to inspire support and sympathy from all quarters: Lady Palmerston sent him an invalid bed in which to recuperate. Without the benefit of x-rays, visiting physicians were unable to conclude whether the bullet remained in the ankle and it brought eminent experts from France and England in to dispute. Eventually the French won by inventing a porcelain-tipped probe that stained with the presence of lead and proved the existence of the bullet.


But the French were not to win against the Prussians in the war of 1870-71, and Italy took advantage of the French defeat to finally expel the last of the French troops from its land and achieve its Risorgimento in 1871. The ultimate success might have owed more to the pragmatic politician Camillo di Cavour than Garibaldi, but it is the latter who remains the resonating romantic hero. Garibaldi was a visionary; many of his ideals became reality. Italy has remained unified despite some toing and froing of territory during the two world wars and in spite of examples of extreme regional rivalries (especially over who has the best cuisine!). But another of Garibaldi’s dreams has also been theoretically realized – that of a unified Europe. He also believed that this would best be led by Germany. And so Garibaldi could add ‘visionary’ to his long list of admirable qualities. And if he were alive today, of which long-lasting legacy would he be most proud? I think he would be impressed with the achievements of the European community and Italy’s role within it. Europe as a united, peace-making body has progressed with the times in the post-war era; unfortunately the same cannot be said for the lowly ranked Nottingham Forest!


Helen Saker-Parsons is the author of a book about an Allied soldier who is captured and held prisoner in Italy during World War II. The fascinating book, A Captive Life, is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Helen has also written a historical fiction book related to World War I, Searching for Cecil. It is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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