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The Issue of Slavery During the Civil War

written by: P. Andrew Powe • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 9/11/2012

Slavery continued to be an issue even during the Civil War. It impacted the south in a variety of ways. During the four years of the war the south held staunchly to its agrarian institution and slavery was deeply ingrained in the mindset of the people.

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    Practice of Slavery

    Slavery is determined by many historians to be the primary cause of the American Civil War. The practice of slavery was predominant in the Southern United States that thrived primarily because it supported the agrarian lifestyle. The southern states were primary producers of cotton, Indigo rice and sugar. Cotton was the largest commodity traded on the international market and was by far the most important crop in the southern states.

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    The Antebellum Period

    Antebellum refers to the time period prior to the outbreak of hostilities between the north and the south. Southern states were firmly entrenched in the system of slavery at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Although the practice of importation slaves was stopped in 1807 under president Thomas Jefferson, he himself a slave holder, slavery was still legal. The effect on the practice was not as severe as one thinks. The children of slaves were still considered the property of the slaveholder. As property these individuals were still eligible for sale or trade. Although children and families were broken up most major slaveholder tried to keep families together. It was hoped that this kept the slaves somewhat docile and created one less reason for them to run away. Runaway slaves who were caught were often whipped or physically punished because of the transgression.

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    Abraham Lincoln
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    Slaves as Property

    Under United States law slaves were considered as nothing more than property. Although the were people the value was based on the ability for the slave to work. In theory a slave was only a piece of machinery or cog in the wheel of the plantation. For this purpose consider the slave to compare to the role of a modern-day harvester or planter. Slaves did not carry any rights and were not able to even learn to read. They worked six days a week from sun up until sundown in some aspect of the plantation. Although the vats majority worked in some aspect of the production process slaves also filled other roles on the plantation. Some slaves were blacksmiths, drivers or kitchen help but were no better in rank in the eyes of the owners that the field slaves. Congress even legislated that slaves were to only be counted as 3/5 of a person for census purposes. As property slaves were at the will and treatment of the owners.

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    Slavery at the Beginning of the Conflict

    Hostilities started brewing between the north and south in the 1850's to a point that separation was a possibility. Congress during this time admitted states in a manner that kept the balance of power from shifting to one side or the other. When states were admitted to the Union it generally followed a pattern of one slave state and one free state. Prior to the Civil War compromise after compromise was made to appease both sides. The Missouri compromise stated that slavery was to remain below the southern border of Missouri when dealing with the admission of new states. It was soon replaced by the Kansas-Nebraska act which allowed for territories to choose whether or not to legalize slavery. These actions seemed to only postpone the inevitable war. Slaves during this time continued to try to escape to the north either on their own or through the help of the Underground Railroad. The Underground railroad attempted to help slaves move into Canada where there was no slavery and they were not subject to being returned by bounty hunters. The institution of slaver was still firmly entrenched in the south and there was no belief that the slaveholders would change their minds.

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    Slavery During the Civil War

    The outbreak of hostilities did not stop the institution of slavery. The concept of slavery and its spectre created a rallying call for the Union. Abolitionists created the image that the goal of the war was to end slavery. This was a terrifying image for the southern slaveholders. The slave owners cracked down even harder on slaves under their control at the start of the war. Security measures were increased on the plantations during the work hours as well as in the night-time. The Confederacy intended to maintain the institution of slavery even under the onslaught of Union forces. Plantation owners banded together to increase security patrols and pool their resources.

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    Significant African Americans

    Harriet Tubman was one of the major players prior to the civil war but few know of her role during the conflict. She had escaped from slavery in 1849 but returned to South Carolina to work as a spy for the Union forces. William Jackson was another individual who spied for the Union. He was the coach driver for Confederate President Jefferson Davis and had access to many of his conversations. Although the depth of his work cannot be determined his information was often distributed straight to the War Department. John Scobell was a freed slave that returned back to the south to spy on the Confederates. He was able to blend in to most situations and changed his disguises and work to fit the enterprise for which he was assigned. He could work as a simple laborer or a cook and even posed as a servant to Union representatives that were positioned for spying in the south.

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    International Image

    The primary export from the southern states was cotton. Prior to the war the primary consumer of this raw material was the textile mills in the north. The south did have industry but not to the extent that the north was industrialized. The south hoped to sell the product over overseas but was unable to find suitors. Great Britain found the prospect of purchasing the south's cotton immoral since it was produced by slave labor. The Confederacy had hoped that early victories may change the mind of the British but it was not the case. Britain also had access to cotton from India to supply her textile mills.The Spanish and French were also against the practice of slavery because of their heavily Roman Catholic tradition. The institution of slavery caused the crops that were harvested to sit on docks and warehouses with no takers.

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    In 1862 Abraham Lincoln declared that all slaves held in the states under rebellion to be declared free. In a move that was felt across both fronts Lincoln single-handedly ended the institution of slavery. Although many slaves had heard of the news many did not feel the actual effect. Where it was felt most was on border regions such as Virginia and Tennessee. In these areas slaves had a better opportunity to escape than in the deep south. In occupied areas slaves were freed and then placed under the control of the Union army. When the Emancipation Proclamation was effected slaveholders in the south became even more paranoid about the potential problem of a slave uprising. Despite the potential for disaster the Confederacy continued to use slaves to dig fortifications, latrines and prepare meals. All of this under heavy guard. Guarding slaves actually pulled many soldiers off of the battlefield.