the civil war: in depth


A War for Money, Power & Territory


Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, freed three million people from slavery, but left nearly a million more still enslaved.

The Proclamation was signed nearly two years after the start of the Civil War, a war that began when eleven southern states officially (and illegally) seceded from the United States.

The reason one-quarter of the slaves were excluded from the freedom granted to the others was that Lincoln was using the Proclamation to pressure the Southern states still in secession to leave the Confederacy and rejoin the Union. The deal Lincoln was offering was that any Southern state which had either not seceded to begin with or which returned to the Union would be rewarded by being allowed to keep their institution of slavery intact. Under the Emancipation Proclamation, it was only those states which were still opposing Northern rule which were losing the legal right to own slaves. As historian Eric Foner explained, by letting the “Loyal” Southerners keep their slaves, Lincoln was “keeping the border states in the Union…and weakening the Confederacy by holding out to irresolute Southerners the possibility that they could return to the Union with their property, including slaves, intact.”3

In the year leading up to the Proclamation, Lincoln had offered various schemes to resolve the “slavery question.” He offered border states generous compensation for giving up their slaves, but no state was interested. To ease fears of a mass exodus to the North, he hinted that Northern states might be allowed to close their borders to freed Blacks. In the most bizarre scheme, Foner wrote that “Lincoln urged Northern black leaders to support the colonization of freedmen in Central America or the Caribbean.” Lincoln explained to these leaders that “there is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be for you colored people to remain with us.”4

Lincoln was, like most whites of his time, racist. Though he was in favor of ultimately abolishing slavery entirely and though he did advocate for black suffrage (the right the vote), he believed that only certain blacks should be allowed to vote: black men who were educated and those men who had served in the Union Army.5

Following Emancipation, the period of Reconstruction began in areas that were controlled and occupied by the Union Army. Though some saw Reconstruction as simply reconstructing the Southern economy, others—especially in New Orleans—saw Reconstruction as the birth of a new, egalitarian society that sought to eliminate racial (though sadly, not gender) discrimination and usher in political and economic participation for blacks and whites.

Lincoln, however, was more inclined to negotiate with the old-guard white Southern power structure rather than with the emerging black Southern political structure. This prejudice and the actions that arose from accommodating the white Southern power structure undermined abolition and ultimately paved the way for this country’s ongoing institutionalized and seemingly intractable racism.

Less than a year after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln signed the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction which offered full pardons to nearly all Southern whites who pledged allegiance to the Union. Though abolition itself was not negotiable, Lincoln opted to negotiate a back-door version of what was to become the establishment of Jim Crow laws throughout the South. States were given permission to adopt their own laws to control former slaves, laws that were “consistent…with their present condition as a laboring, landless, and homeless class.”6 What resulted over the next few years was the continuation of the plantation economy and social structure, reinforced by the Union Army’s forced labor scheme, and resulting in passage of racist Black Codes throughout the South.


Forced Labor

Under Lincoln, the Union Army imposed a labor system in the occupied areas of the South that was first introduced by Union General Benjamin Butler in 1862 in Louisiana and that, as closely as possible, replicated the plantation system. Presented as Northern-style wage labor, the system was extended after Emancipation to other areas of Louisiana and eventually to most of the cotton and sugar plantations throughout the South.

Under this labor system, the Union Army issued a set schedule of wages to be paid to former slaves (in 1863, $3 per month for men, less for women) or instead of wages, they could receive 5% of the proceeds of the year’s crop. The workers would also receive food, shelter, and medical care, and would sign annual labor contracts with the planters. There was no choice in the matter: Former slaves were required to work, and as Foner pointed out, “Once hired, the blacks were forbidden to leave the plantations without permission of their employers.”7 Foner wrote that:

The pass system and the fact that blacks had no choice but to sign contracts and little leeway in negotiating terms, led many critics to charge that “the relation of master and slave…is the same as heretofore.” The zeal of provost marshals in rounding up “vagrant” blacks produced complaints that the army was acting more like a slave patrol than an agent of emancipation.7

The goal was not to free the slaves, but to get the plantations—now under the control of Northern capital—back into production as quickly and cheaply as possible. At its height, Foner writes that the labor system in Louisiana “involved some 50,000 laborers on nearly 1,500 estates, working either directly for the [Union] government or for individual planters under contracts supervised by the army.”8 As the rest of the South fell, the Union Army expanded the forced labor system in state after state throughout the Mississippi Valley.9


The Black Codes

After Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, the facade of anti-slavery sentiment slipped even further as Vice President Andrew Johnson, a blatant racist, took over the presidency. The Union Army’s labor system evolved into the infamous Black Codes across the South. These were laws passed in every Southern state specifically to regulate and control the lives of all black people. In his book, Slavery by Another Name, journalist Douglas Blackmon explained, “every southern state enacted an array of interlocking laws essentially intended to criminalize black life.”10

Above all, the purpose of the Black Codes was to bring back a system that would force black people to work on the Southern plantations. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander explained in her book, The New Jim Crow, “Clearly, the purpose of the black codes in general and the vagrancy laws in particular was to establish another system of forced labor.11

Throughout the South, Black Codes specifically addressed “vagrancy,” a definition that included “persons who lead idle or disorderly lives” and those who “misspend what they earn.”12 In reality, “vagrant” was the universally-understood code word for a black person, whether one who was considered a “trouble-maker” or one not employed as a field worker.

The Black Codes targeted and affected every single black person living in the South, and a good part of the regulations were also about keeping blacks from becoming anything but farm laborers (as well as discouraging competition with white craftspeople and small businesses).

 For example, in South Carolina, blacks were required to pay annual fees if they wanted to pursue any occupation other than farming. Blacks there were also required by law to sign annual labor contracts, to work “from sunup to sundown,” and were prohibited from leaving the plantation without permission from their employer.

Mississippi’s codes “required all blacks to possess, each January, written evidence of employment for the coming year. Laborers leaving their jobs before the contract expired would forfeit wages already earned, and, as under slavery, be subject to arrest by any white citizen.”13

In Florida, “Blacks who broke labor contracts could be whipped, placed in the pillory, and sold for up to one year’s labor.”12

In order to perpetuate the disruption and breaking up of families that slavery depended on, the Black Codes of all Southern states also included “apprenticeship” laws, whereby black children deemed orphans or whose parents were considered too poor to support them were handed over to white employers (often the former master) for “apprenticeships”—forced unpaid labor—which did not necessarily end when a child became an adult.14

Though the Black Codes throughout the South were repealed by the 1870s,15 they were replaced by the official and unofficial restrictions on public and private life that become known as Jim Crow. In addition to segregated schools, public facilities, transportation, etc., the white power structure was instrumental in organizing and spreading a new way to enforce Jim Crow and terrorize the black populace into submission: this was the beginning of the Ku Klux Klan.16

Aided by local law enforcement, the KKK began a reign of terror throughout the South that continued unabated until the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement finally brought an end to segregation, Jim Crow, and the modern-day versions of Black Codes that perpetuated the race-based plantation system for another hundred years beyond the abolition of slavery.


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Prison Industrial Complex