Sunday, May 19, 2024

Evolutionary Group Selection in the American Civil War: Why Men Fought for Preserving the Union and Emancipating Slaves

As I suggested in my previous post, evolutionary group selection favors Lockean liberal regimes when people vote with their feet by fleeing illiberal regimes and moving to liberal regimes where they can satisfy their evolved natural desires for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That's why Locke argued for open borders immigration to allow for cultural group selection that would benefit free societies.

We can see that in the American Civil War.  Before the war, millions of people migrated to the Northern states from overseas and from the Southern states (including slaves who had fled to the North for freedom). which gave the North a much bigger population (22 million) than the South (9 million, of whom 3.5 million were slaves).  Consequently, the number of men of the age for military service was much greater in the North than in the South.  Moreover, in the South, 40 percent of its adult male military-age population was enslaved and thus ineligible for service.  Then, beginning in 1863, black men in the South could flee to Union lines and enlist in the Union army with the promise of emancipation.  By the end of the war, as many as 200,000 emancipated slaves were fighting in Union armies.  In the last years of the war, the Union armies were three to four times the size of the Confederate armies, and two-thirds of the Confederate soldiers deserted.  Near the end of the war, in February of 1865, Judah Benjamin, the Secretary of State of the Confederacy, lamented the lack of soldiers: "War is a game that cannot be played without men.  Where are the men?" (McCurry 2010, 424, n. 15).  That's why the Confederacy lost the Civil War.

The critical turn in that war came in 1863 when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, so that then the Union was fighting not just for preserving the Union but also for emancipating slaves.


During the first eighteen months of the war, Lincoln always said that while the Congress had the constitutional power to prohibit the extension of slavery into the western territories, with the hope that this would put slavery on the road to "ultimate extinction," neither he nor the Congress had the constitutional power to abolish slavery in the slave states where it already existed.  Therefore, his objective in the Civil War was to save the Union, not to abolish slavery.  And when the Radical Republicans urged him to abolish slavery, he responded by saying that not only did he not have the constitutional power to do this, if he did make emancipation the purpose of the war, he would lose the support of the border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland), which would make it impossible to win the war and save the Union.  Moreover, it was clear that many of the people in the North did not support emancipation.

But by the end of the summer of 1862, Lincoln judged that public opinion in the North was beginning to move towards recognizing emancipation as a necessary means for defeating the Confederacy and thus saving the Union.  He first hinted at this in a letter on August 22, 1862, to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune that was published in many newspapers:

"I would save the Union.  I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. . . .  My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.  What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.  I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. . . ."

 "I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free" (1989, 2:358).

Notice how he quietly prepares the public for an announcement that some emancipation is necessary as a means to preserve the Union: "I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause."  In fact, when he wrote this letter, he had already drafted an emancipation proclamation, but he was awaiting a Union military victory, so that the proclamation would not look like an act of desperation.   

Then, on September 22, 1862, five days after the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation declaring that all slaves in any state or part of a state still in rebellion against the United States on January 1, 1863, "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free" (1989, 368-70).  On New Year's Day, 1863, he issued his Final Emancipation Proclamation "as a fit and necessary war measure."  In a time of peace, Lincoln would have had no constitutional power to emancipate slaves.  By in time of war, as Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln believed that under the law of war, he could take the property of enemies as contraband if that were necessary to weaken the enemy.  In this case, he had the power to emancipate the slaves held as property by the enemy.  He could therefore declare that in all of the states, or parts of states, that were in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, "are, and henceforward, shall be free."  This turned the Civil War into a war of emancipation because as the Union armies marched into the South, they would be emancipating the slaves that fled to Union lines.

This provoked an intense debate among Union soldiers.  During the first eighteen months of the war, only about three in ten Union soldiers in McPherson's sample of letters and diaries expressed the view that while preserving the Union was the paramount goal of the war, the abolition of slavery would necessarily serve that goal.  Eventually, however, by the fall of 1863, a majority of the Union soldiers had been converted to this view after many months of debating this issue with their fellow soldiers in camp and their family and friends in letters (117-30).

For example, Colonel Marcus Speigel was commander of the 120th Ohio.  Since he was a Democrat, it was not surprising that he denounced Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.  He wrote to his wife in January of 1863: "I am sick of the war. . . . I do not fight or want to fight for Lincoln's Negro proclamation one day longer."  But then he worried when he heard his men say the same thing, repeating what they had heard from other Democrats about how the Proclamation had made the war unconstitutional and so it should be ended by negotiating peace with the Confederacy.  By April of 1863, Speigel repudiated the Democratic Party for not supporting the war to defeat the Confederacy.  Then, in January of 1864, a few months before he would be killed in the Red River campaign, he wrote to his wife from Louisiana: "since I came here I have learned and seen more of what the horrors of Slavery was than I ever knew before. . . . . I am in favor of doing away with the . . . accursed institution. . . . . I am now a strong abolitionist" (125).

Another reason that converted many Union soldiers to emancipation is that they began to understand how emancipation hurt the enemy and helped them in their fight.  As one soldier said: "Every negro we get strengthens us and weakens the rebels."

Moreover, the soldiers were impressed by the recruitment of black regiments.  They saw that this could bring the war to a quick end.

They were also impressed by how courageously the black soldiers fought.  After the battle of Nashville on December 15-16, 1864, a private in the 89th Illinois wrote to his mother:  "I have often herd men say that they would not fight beside a negro soldier but on the 16th the whites and blacks charged together and they fell just as well as we did. . . . When you hear eney one say that negro soldiers wont fight just them that they ly for me. . . . I have seen a great meny fighting for our country.  Then why should they not be free" (127).

This denies the claim of historian Joao Pedro Marques that slaves did not fight for the abolition of slavery.  In this case, and also in the case of the Haitian Revolution, slaves were armed, and they fought not just for their individual emancipation but for the emancipation of all slaves.

This natural propensity of evolved human nature to resist one's own enslavement drove the evolutionary group selection that favored free societies over slave societies.

Amazingly, even the Confederacy near the end of the war saw that they would have to arm their slaves to fight for them, even though this contradicted the principle of slavery at the foundation of the Confederacy as a slaveholding republic.  That's the subject of my next post.

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