Slavery and the Civil War

Nowadays, the American Civil War is often portrayed as a war fought to end slavery – a second American Revolution over the so-called tyrannical enterprise of the South. This common portrayal is, however, far from the truth, as the Civil war was a war to preserve the Union, a war between two nearly equally racist groups, neither of which intended from the outset to end the South’s peculiar institution. The abolition of slavery is the most hailed achievement of the war, yet in reality this so-called milestone of an accomplishment did little for the blacks of the era, leaving them subject to the harsh racism and economic slavery, showing that, despite what Lincoln may have said, America was not truly a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”, and proving that the Civil War was far from a second revolution.

The Civil War may have ended slavery, but this was far from its primary purpose, and the issue was, if anything, utilized as propaganda by the Union. Indeed, the Civil War was ignited over the issue of Union, and through 1862 the preservation of the United States was claimed as the sole purpose of the war. Then came the year 1863, in which the focus of the war, to all outward appearances, appeared to switch over from a mere question of Union to a greater question of racial equality.

On January 1, 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect – this is to say that the federal government had “freed” all the slaves in Confederate states which had not returned to the Union at this point in time. However, this often hailed proclamation was not meant to grant blacks equal rights, so much as it was meant to undermine the South’s economic system, thus theoretically breaking the back of the Southern army. The proclamation, however, did nothing to eliminate slavery in Union states, illustrating the fact that the freeing of the slaves was not so much of a question of human rights as a question of wartime strategy. Despite the extreme limitations of the proclamation, Lincoln and others latched onto it, turning it into the focal point of the Union – a document which proved that American’s were devoted to equality and that they were progressing in such a direction. This was clearly not the case, though it was presented as such, granting the Union with just the moral high ground it needed to justify all its actions against the South.

The Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address became two pieces of propaganda which successfully rallied many to the Union cause, while still making relatively little progress towards the racial equality which both supposedly stood for, illustrating the fact that the Civil War was not a second American Revolution focused on human rights, but rather a war over union in which human rights were invoked as a tool to further Union interests.

Liberties Delayed

Once the war was over, blacks found themselves hardly – if at all – better off than they had been before the clash, and many came to see that racial equality was not as important as it had been made to seem during the war. Poor blacks given land during the war (via Sherman’s Special Order No. 15 or related actions) had it taken away by federal legislation, and many blacks had little choice but to work for their old masters with minimal pay, in a process of sharecropping – slavery in all but name – which drove countless black families into debt for generations. Blacks also found that racism was alive and well in both the South and the North. Racial tensions in 1863 had contributed to racial violence in the New York City draft riots, as poorer New Yorkers feared an onslaught of black workers who would take their jobs.

In the South, blacks who dared take advantage of their newfound rights – and the whites that aided them – soon found themselves falling victim to the terroristic acts of hate-based white-supremacy-toting groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which was responsible for countless anti-black acts of violence during the 1870’s and 1880’s. With Union influence all but gone from the South, the infamous Jim Crow Laws were enacted, as were other laws meant to strip blacks of their new liberties, such as the Grandfather clauses. Such laws, along with the prevalence of racism, served to all but strip blacks of their rights, forcing them into economic slavery, and while the Constitution had been amended in their favor, these amendments would take another century to be realized, and were far from anything worthy of a revolution – showing that the Civil War was indeed far from a second American Revolution.


The American Revolutionary War was a conflict fought on the principle that all humans are entitled to certain rights for which they ought to fight in defense of. The American Civil War, however, was a class conflict fought to preserve Union, and when the issue of human rights arose, it was latched onto as a political tool to further the Union, not as a true ideal for which the Union fought. A second revolution ought to bring about radical changes in the name of human rights, yet while the Civil War brought great change on paper, most of the “advances” in human rights it produced were ignored or legislated out of existence for nearly 100 years. The fact that the Civil War did little to truly alter either the mindset of most Americans or the position of most blacks proves that the war was no second American Revolution, as this time there was no “revolution of hearts and minds” among the American people.

History | United States

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