top of page
  • Writer's pictureLogan

Vespasian Warner’s War: Emancipation to Emancipation

A belated happy Juneteenth and July 4th, everyone. This blog comes later than I’d like, but it was important to me that I do my homework on today’s topic. Emancipation and Abolitionism are huge topics and I wanted to be sure I could touch on as many of the different personalities, groups, and historical currents that drove the Union to not just reunify the country, but towards “a new birth of freedom.”


Vespasian Warner’s War: Emancipation to Emancipation

On August 30th, 1861, John C. Fremont, in his capacity as commander of the Union armies in Missouri and Southern Illinois, issued the “first” Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in Missouri owned by Confederate soldiers free. 12 days later, he was ordered to rescind it, by Abraham Lincoln himself. The Union, at that date still insistent on fighting a war only to prevent secession, was already finding it difficult to fight a war and leave slavery untouched. General Benjamin Butler, stationed at the Union-held Fort Monroe in Virginia, had already taken in escaped slaves as war contraband, and now had several questions, which he asked for clarification on from the Lincoln administration in a letter dated July 30, 1861. The escaped slaves Butler was sheltering were seized on the logic they were property, and therefore war contraband, but did that mean they were now slaves owned by the Federal government, a government now run by an abolitionist party? Or were they free? What was to be done with slaves taken in as war contraband if it turned out they hadn’t been used as laborers for the CSA, or if they fled a loyalist master? The passage on August 6, 1861 of the Confiscation Act, allowing for the capture and emancipation of slaves directly employed as laborers for Confederate armies, answered some of these questions, but not all.

Drawing of General Butler meets with Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend, escaped slaves who he decided to shelter at Fort Monroe.
Above, General Butler meets with Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend, escaped slaves who he decided to shelter at Fort Monroe.

Fremont’s order answered more of these questions, by freeing all slaves of Confederate soldiers, regardless of whether they labored as army auxiliaries like cooks and craftsmen, or on a plantation. It also implied answers to even more: This order interfered with slavery quite significantly in a state it was established in, and a state which had technically remained in the Union to boot. These implications alarmed Lincoln, who had campaigned in 1860 on leaving slavery intact where it already existed and who was at that time still trying to keep the border states, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, from flipping to the Confederacy. Lincoln was a moderate Republican and abolitionist, and hoped in 1861 still to find a path forward that would allow the gradual abolition of slavery, a path which privileged the comfort and convenience of those not in bondage at the expense of those who were. But with each new slave that escaped to the camp of a General Butler, new questions arose that demanded answers, as the soldiers came face to face with the full cruelty of slavery and the humanity of those in bondage. Day by day, the war created new abolitionists.

A poster publicizing Fremont’s order for martial law, which would free the slaves of anyone convicted of treason.
Above, a poster publicizing Fremont’s order for martial law, which would free the slaves of anyone convicted of treason.

Abolitionists certainly existed from the moment enslaved people arrived in the future United States, in 1619—the slaves themselves undoubtedly being the first to hold beliefs that would later be classified as “abolitionist.” A few others of a like mind existed, scattered across the social fabric of Colonial and, later, newly independent America: the Quakers and the occasional social theorist, but these individuals only cohered into a movement in the evangelizing days of the Second Great Awakening religious movement in the early 1800’s. The earliest work was done by people like Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker who evangelized abolitionism across New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and founded many anti-slavery societies as he went, as well as the first successful anti-slavery newspaper. Nat Turner’s famous slave rebellion in 1831 led to the decline of anti-slavery societies in the South, but they prospered in the North, despite an increase in violence and rioting directed at free blacks and abolitionists in the years following. In 1835 alone, 328 chapters of the Anti-Slavery Society formed, more than doubling the number of active chapters. As the movement grew, speakers like Lundy became professional, coordinated in where they visited, and paid for their work. One of the most successful and important of these lecturers was Frederick Douglass, whose speeches combined his extremely well-polished rhetorical skills with his personal experience of enslavement and escape to the North—a unique perspective in a movement where most of the membership were northern whites. Besides speakers, newspapers like William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator and books like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped the abolitionists stay connected to the movement and bring the evils of slavery closer to home, though hardly anything churned out more abolitionists than encounters with the Slave Power itself.

Abolitionist papers and speeches would often make out the “Slave Power,” a term coined to describe the political influence of the slaveholder class, as some sort of diabolical cabal, a conspiracy working behind the scenes of national politics to advance its own interests. In reality, no such conspiracy was needed; the institutions of US government which our high school civics classes tell us are to protect the rights of the political minority, are, in fact, easily able to be leveraged to impose minority rule on the country, entirely within the bounds of the Constitution. So it was with the slaveholder class—small enough their whims should have had no bearing on the national politics of an ostensible democracy, but wealthy and well-connected enough for much of its membership to enter politics, all with a strong sense of what would advance their class’s interests. Long before slavery became a defining national issue, it was a defining issue for slaveholders in politics, who protected their interests from the country’s founding. The 3/5ths compromise, written into the Constitution, is indicative of this, counting enslaved people partially as people for the purposes of apportioning governing power, but leaving them treated as property in all other respects. In the early US, when slave states like Virginia were the most populous, the slaveholding class had an utterly dominant hold on politics. Even as free states’ population outgrew slave states’, the slavers’ ability to work as a coherent political force let them marshal the entire legislative weight of slave states as an indispensable king-maker in national politics. As a result, from 1789 to 1861, southern slaveholders controlled the presidency for a combined 49 years, and the only presidents ever reelected were slavers. In the same period, 2/3rds of the Speakers of the House were southerners, meaning at most times before the Civil War, slaveholders were in a position to actively advance their interests through national law. Even when they weren’t in power, the balance of slave states and free states set by the 1820 Missouri Compromise, and the Senate apportioning 2 senators to each state, let slaveholders stall or kill in the Senate any potential legislation that might hurt their interests. If anything counter to their interests somehow did pass, the Supreme Court could be counted on to strike it down, as southerners held an unbroken majority of Court seats from the moment of its establishment to 1861.

A map produced for the 1856 presidential election, with information on how the Slave Power used unequal representation to maintain its grip on US Federal policy.
Above, a map produced for the 1856 presidential election, with information on how the Slave Power used unequal representation to maintain its grip on US Federal policy.

With this power, the slaveholders were able to destroy practically any feasible path to emancipation or even containing of slavery. In the 1830’s, Congress passed a gag rule prohibiting the discussion of any anti-slavery proposals put to the body. The Post Office also banned anti-slavery literature from being mailed to slave states. As the anti-slavery movement made northern politicians more willing to challenge slaveholder domination, the slaveholders pushed even farther in an attempt to shore up their interests, passing the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. This law allowed slaveholders to capture and re-enslave any black person who had earned their freedom by escaping to a free state. The sight of southern slave-catchers dragging free blacks, many of whom had been long-time community members, back into slavery, drove many previously-uninterested northerners to become die-hard abolitionists. The Fugitive Slave Law came as part of a package of bills which also ended the previously-guaranteed balance of slave and free states, opening the possibility that some or all of the US’s western territories could be admitted as slave states. As the slaveholder grasp on legitimate government came to seem absolute in the 1850’s, some abolitionists began to take more direct actions to resist its influence.

Like with abolitionism itself, the idea to challenge slaveholder power through direct resistance, rather than through legislation, undoubtedly came first from enslaved people themselves. Their resistance could run from simply working slowly to running away or outright slave revolts. Many examples of such everyday resistance were preserved thanks to the New Deal in the 1930’s, as out-of-work writers were paid by the government to interview surviving members of the last generation born into slavery about their experiences of it. A Virginian ex-slave interviewed in that project recounts his grandmother’s experience with simple resistance:

“Grandma said slaves had to pick so many pounds of cotton a day, and they were

given an awful whipping if they didn’t…My grandma said she was small and just

couldn’t get her proper amount, but was jolly and always ran to get water for the

other slaves. At the end of the day, one of the men would tell another, ‘Give that

little black gal five pounds of cotton. She’s all right.’”

Another common form of slave resistance was stealing, most typically livestock, which they cooked to supplement the poor rations provided by their masters. Occasionally slaves’ resistance returned the violence of their enslavement to their owners and overseers; former slave John Henry Kemp recalled “[An old woman] gave [an overseer] some back talk, he took out a long closely woven whip and lashed her severely. The woman became sore and took her hoe and chopped him right across the head…she chopped this man to a bloody death.” One of the most famous examples of a slave’s resistance is the case of Harriett Tubman, who escaped enslavement in Maryland to the North, then began making return trips to Maryland to help lead others along the Underground Railroad, the network of friendly safe houses that could shelter escaped slaves on their journey to the North (or Canada, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act).

The Underground Railroad is an example of ongoing, organized resistance to the Slave Power; even in free states though, the most dramatic examples of resistance were usually spontaneous. A good example is Boston’s response to the 1854 capture of Anthony Burns under the Fugitive Slave Act. Immediately after his capture and while awaiting his owner proving in court Anthony had been his slave, a notice “appeared in all the papers and was placarded throughout the city” calling a meeting to organize a way to stop Anthony’s re-enslavement. The meeting was called by the “Committee of Vigilance,” a popular group dedicated to resisting enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and whose membership included people of any background, rich and poor, black and white alike. At the chaotic meeting, the attendees were split, with the Committee officially deciding to have their membership form a crowd and physically block any attempt to take Anthony out of the city. The other faction supported attempting to break him out of jail immediately, and spurred by news that free blacks were already at the courthouse attempting that, part of the meeting’s attendance joined them and formed a mob that forced its way into the courthouse, killing one of the guards posted there. Before the breakout was completed, two companies of artillery arrived and forced the mob to disperse. However, this incident, and the promise of further resistance by the other members of the Committee of Vigilance, forced the deployment of US Army regulars, a cannon, 1500-1800 Massachusetts militia, and the enlistment of hundreds of special police deputies to successfully escort Anthony to port and back into slavery. Inspiring as the whole-community effort to protect Anthony Burns was, it ultimately failed, and incidents like this led some, most notably John Brown, to conclude even more drastic action was needed to end slavery.

Above, scenes from Anthony Burns’ life. Anthony Burns’ reenslavement did much to radicalize opinion in the North. In the words of one merchant: “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, Compromise Union Whigs, and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.”
Above, scenes from Anthony Burns’ life. Anthony Burns’ reenslavement did much to radicalize opinion in the North. In the words of one merchant: “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, Compromise Union Whigs, and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.”

It is unlikely the US could have avoided a civil war over the fate of slavery, as even in the 1850’s, the question of whether Kansas would be admitted as a slave or free state ignited a guerilla war in the territory. However, hardly any single person is more responsible for ensuring it would happen when it did than John Brown. John Brown was, quite literally, a religiously committed abolitionist. While many other abolitionists also believed slavery to be an affront to God or otherwise outlawed in the Bible, John Brown truly believed it was necessary to destroy slavery as soon as possible, by any means necessary, and that he was God’s instrument on Earth for that purpose. He made a pilgrimage west to “Bloody Kansas” and together with an abolitionist militia, got revenge for pro-slavery guerillas sacking an abolitionist town by murdering 5 pro-slavery settlers. After the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision, effectively legalizing slavery in all US territories, Brown began working in earnest on a plan to invade Virginia and begin a slave revolt that would end the institution for good. He recruited wealthy backers to supply him with weapons, and with 17 white and 5 black recruits, snuck into Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on the night of October 16, 1859 to begin his revolt. It failed within a day, and John Brown was captured alive. His eloquent and forceful denunciations of slavery between his capture and hanging for treason turned him into a martyr across the North. From the start of the Civil War, a song commemorating his raid would be popular with the Union army, and a more “refined” adaptation of it was published in 1862 as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In the South, his raid caused a panic that fueled talk of secession, and the panic only increased as John Brown became more and more celebrated across the North. With John Brown’s raid coming barely a year before a presidential election, many slaveholders decided they would leave the Union if an abolitionist took the presidency.

Returning, finally, to the war and Lincoln, some allowance must be given to Lincoln for his pre- and early-war belief in gradual containment of slavery. Nothing else seemed possible before Southern states started seceding! Before 1860, the only states that had ended slavery had done so through gradual schemes, often compensating owners. Even though slaveholders had done much to forestall that possibility, the only other option seemed to be the kind of suicidal violence John Brown engaged in. After decades of the Slave Power controlling US politics, it is understandable that Lincoln failed to realize his election to the presidency, which he achieved without a single Electoral College vote from Southern states, was a political revolution. Such a thing had never been done before in US politics to that point! With hindsight, it demonstrates the South was weaker politically than it had appeared, and the horizons for challenging slavery broader. The slaveholding class was the first to realize this, and rather than fight a long but losing battle for control of Federal government, gambled that the South could successfully rebel and leave the Union.

Lincoln, to his credit, also soon realized how far the horizons had expanded, and as soon as the Union war effort found its footing in early 1862, began to take more ambitious action to end slavery. By March 1862, Lincoln signed an act banning Union officers from returning any captured slave to their masters, even if the masters claimed to be Unionists. By the end of spring 1862 the US had banned slavery in all territories, which had been the Republican party’s pie-in-the-sky goal in their 1860 election platform, a goal that seemed impossible since the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court 5 years earlier. By July 1862, Lincoln signed an act authorizing the confiscation of slaves of all Confederate soldiers, regardless of whether those slaves were being used as army auxiliaries or still working on a plantation— the same conditions Fremont’s emancipation proclamation had and which Lincoln had countermanded less than a year before. That same July 1862, Lincoln made up his mind to make the Emancipation Proclamation we are most familiar with today. He was persuaded to wait until a major military victory was achieved, on the logic foreign powers might otherwise take the proclamation as a sign of weakness and intervene.

It took until the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, 1862, before Lincoln lost his patience. Antietam was not a particularly inspiring or even clear victory, but it had ended Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North, and that was enough. On September 22nd, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The Southern states had until January 1st, 1863 to end their rebellion or all slaves in rebelling states would be freed. None took up Lincoln’s offer. From January 1st 1863 on then, there were no more questions left to ask about the fate of slaves and slavery. Even the fate of slavery in the border states was clear, should the Union win the war. The army was by and large happy and proud of Lincoln’s decision, even if not everyone had come around to an abolitionist point of view by that time. The vast majority would though, as 80% of Union soldiers voted for Lincoln in the 1864 election. As for the thoughts of our point-of-view figure, Vespasian Warner—well, I couldn’t find anything, but one can infer. While John C. Fremont was busy gallivanting around Missouri and creating Civil War trivia you can frame a blog around, his subordinate Ulysses Grant was in Cairo, IL organizing Vespasian’s regiment, the 20th Illinois, and others into the core of a real army. This army Grant was creating would eventually become the Army of the Tennessee, one of the most effective Union armies in the entire war, and one which conquered from Vicksburg, Mississippi all the way to the Georgia coast. Vespasian’s regiment, therefore, was at the tip of the Union spear bringing news of emancipation south. It is hard to imagine any enlistee in that army, which must have had countless encounters with slaves and slavers, was not an abolitionist by the end of the war.

Above, a postcard featuring lyrics from “Marching through Georgia.” The song was published in February 1865, before the Civil War was even over, and features the lyrics, “Hurrah! Hurrah! we bring the Jubilee!//Hurrah! Hurrah! the flag that makes you free!” memorializing the Army of the Tennessee’s part in emancipation.
Above, a postcard featuring lyrics from “Marching through Georgia.” The song was published in February 1865, before the Civil War was even over, and features the lyrics, “Hurrah! Hurrah! we bring the Jubilee!//Hurrah! Hurrah! the flag that makes you free!” memorializing the Army of the Tennessee’s part in emancipation.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Remembering Slavery, edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller, helps make the slave narratives compiled during the New Deal more accessible. The book takes selections from those narratives and arranges them by topics such as the relationship between enslaved and slaver, family life under slavery, and slaves’ culture. Reading accounts of slavery in the words of those who suffered it is genuinely moving and highly, highly recommended. You can find it in the library’s nonfiction section, under SOC SCI (Social science)>Slavery>REM

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, by James McPherson covers the events leading to the Battle of Antietam and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The book is short and sweet, and has something for everyone. From close recounts of battles and campaigning to social trends and pressures to international diplomacy, McPherson captures everything about the Civil War that makes it so many history buffs’ favorite time period. You can find it in the library’s War section, at the end of the fiction section, under WAR>Civil War>Battles (1862)>McP

The Kidnapping Club, by Jonathan Daniel Wells, explores the reach of the Slave Power, even in states where slavery was banned. The book focuses on the “Kidnapping Club,” the network of judges, lawyers, and police in New York City who undermined anti-slavery laws in the state and helped capture and sell free blacks and escaped slaves back into slavery. It also shows how New York City’s black population fought back, taking the reader into the difficult, dangerous world abolitionists faced in the lead up to the Civil War. The book can be found in the library’s nonfiction section, under SOC SCI>Slavery>WEL.


“History.” Fort Monroe Authority. Accessed June 27, 2022.

“Map of the United States and territories: showing the possessions and aggressions of the

slave power.” University of North Texas. Accessed July 20, 2022.

McPherson, James. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. New York: Oxford University Press,


Nelson, Dean. “Marching With Henry C. Work.” Museum of

Connecticut History. Accessed July 20, 2022.

Rae, Noel. The Great Stain. New York: The Overlook Press, 2018.

Remembering Slavery. Edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller. New York:

The New Press, 1998.

Stevens, Charles Emery. Anthony Burns: A History. Boston: John P Jewett and Company,


Weber, Lawrence. “The Fremont Emancipation Proclamation.”

Warfare History Network. Accessed June 14, 2022.

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

29 views0 comments


bottom of page