Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

James Oakes, W.W. Norton & Co. 2013, $29.95

It took more than the Emancipation Proclamation to “forever free” America’s slaves—a lot more. Abraham Lincoln’s historic proclamation marked neither the beginning nor the end of the struggle; rather it was an important milestone in an increasingly aggressive Union policy of emancipation. James Oakes deftly relates this complicated but compelling story of how freedom became national and enduring for 4 million African Americans.

Oakes recounts a carefully designed, legally grounded antislavery policy crafted by abolitionists and Republicans “from its prewar origins to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.” Along the way, some common historical beliefs are significantly revised. “When Lincoln took his oath of office in March of 1861,” Oakes argues, “he and his party were committed to an array of policies aimed at the ‘ultimate extinction’ of slavery.” Oates goes on to explode the historical myth-become-fact that, when elected, Lincoln wanted only to preserve the Union and came to abolition and emancipation gradually—perhaps grudgingly—as the war intensified.

Oakes conclusively establishes that the Civil War was about abolishing slavery, and Southerners knew it from the beginning. Their only hope in preserving their slave-based society, therefore, was to form a separate, independent nation. This destroys the popular concept that everything could have remained status quo ante if only Southerners had kept their cool and not been led astray by a clique of fire-eating nationalists.

Republican lawmakers also knew that constitutional constraints allowed the use of force only to restore the Union. “But from the very beginning,” Oakes explains, “they insisted that slavery was the cause of the rebellion and emancipation an appropriate and ultimately indispensable means of suppressing it.” The endgame was set from the beginning; only the amount of blood and treasure needed to achieve it remained to be played out.

Passing the 13th Amendment was the critical capstone to the emancipation saga, ensuring that when hostilities ended, there would be no possibility of re-enslaving those whom the war made free.


Originally published in the September 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.