A Sampler of Civil War Literature
»Guerrilla Action

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The Slavery Question

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December 7, 1861, page 770 (2)

Several of the newspapers are worrying themselves about the slavery question, some of them insisting that our generals shall forthwith proceed to emancipate the slaves, while others demand that slavery, alone of Southern interests, shall be shielded from damage during the war.

Surely this discussion is irrelevant and idle at this time. Events alone can shape the course of the war, including its bearing on the institution of slavery. It is out of the power of the President or of his generals to determine the nature and extent of the changes which the war must produce in Southern society, Southern institutions, and Southern interests. We began the war with protests against the employment of slaves, and our generals uniformly returned fugitives to their masters. There has been no authoritative announcement of a change of policy; but no United States general, with the single exception of General Halleck (who stands precisely where M’Clellan, Heintzelman, and the others stood three months ago), now tolerates slave-hunting in his camp. Military necessity has compelled them all to welcome information brought in by fugitive slaves, and labor wrought by black as well as white hands. Surely after such a beginning the enemies of slavery can afford to let time and Providence work undisturbedly.

It is nonsense to talk of emancipating the slaves by decree, or proclamation of any thing of the kind. You must first catch your hare. The bulk of the Southern people thoroughly believe that our Government and our army are abolitionists. A decree of emancipation would not surprise them or add to their dangers. They are acting as though it had been already promulgated. They would laugh at a paper decree of emancipation, and it would have no more effect than Frémont’s Brutum fulmen, or the paper blockades of old. In effect, wherever our armies penetrate emancipation becomes a fact, from the military necessities of the case; where rebel bayonets rule slavery thrives despite all we may say or publish to the contrary.

The changes already wrought by events in the policy of our generals with regard to Slavery are instructive. General M’Clellan is understood to have been a Douglas man, and entered Virginia with a proclamation announcing his tender regard for the peculiar institution. He has since discovered that the most reliable information he can get comes from fugitives slaves, and slave-hunters don’t succeed, about these times, in finding him at home. General Heintzelman, before Bull Run, was a stout defender of slavery; but when he was placed in command of the most exposed division of the army on Accotink Creek, facing Beauregard, a proper concern for his division produced a wonderful change in his views. Slaves are received with open arms at his camp, and their information has proved most useful. General Heintzelman is wise enough to know that a slave may bring him news which may save the whole army. Virginian slave-owners complain bitterly of his growing tendency toward abolitionism. General Halleck is destined to go through the same improving education. When he finds himself on the march, within ten miles of the enemy, and it is a matter of life and death for him to know the enemy’s force and intentions, he will reconsider the order which now excludes fugitive slaves from his camp for fear they should run back into slavery. Necessity is a most successful schoolmaster.


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