From John Hennessy

At a scholarly distance the terms seem synonymous. But close up there was a significant difference.

Former slaves in Union lines, probably in Stafford County, early 1863.

This past week I have been working through source material related to the 1862 exodus of slaves through Fredericksburg into Stafford County–otherwise known in our household now as “the book.” The exodus is interesting and important on a number of levels, not the least of which is the reaction of Union soldiers to both slavery and freedom.  In April 1862, when the Union army pulled into Fredericksburg for the first time, the curiosity of soldiers toward slaves was matched only by the excitement of slaves at seeing soldiers. We may debate the causes and purposes of the Civil War in an abstract way, but there is no questioning that for the enslaved people in the Fredericksburg region (about half the population), the war was all about freedom–their freedom.

Of course Union soldiers brought the full range of political and social perspectives to their first collision with slaves and slavery.  Virtually all by modern standards were racist in their views. Even the most liberal voices in the army convey a paternalism that smacks of white supremacy. Many others held and conveyed attitudes that would today seem nothing short of vile.

Some modern commentators assert that since Northerners were racist, it therefore follows that they could not be willing emancipators (we hear this a good deal at the park).  That is simply not so. No matter their political views, it became very clear very quickly to soldiers that they were indeed emancipators, though generally they saw that role as outside their job description.

It is a certainty of history that early in the war many soldiers opposed emancipation as a political and war policy. The soldiers’ objection to emancipation as policy was rooted partly in racist ideaology, but also in theory and speculation: emancipation would alienate Southerners, rendering the war harder and eventual reconciliation more difficult.

But the experience and writings of soldiers here shows vividly that soldiers could not and did not oppose the reality of human freedom when confronted by it.  While there are certainly examples elsewhere of slaves being dispatched back to owners, the sheer size of the exodus in Fredericksburg rendered that a virtual impossibility (slaves were coming in from up to 60 miles away). Beyond that, among these men who witnessed this exodus, I have not found a single account asserting the wrongness of freedom. Here is a quote from Oliver McAllaster of the 35th New York, whose letters include some of the most objectionable racist diatribes I have seen–a man who clearly opposed emancipation as a policy (the original of this letter is held by the Library of Virginia and is now on display in the Fredericksburg Area Museum’s Letters and Diaries exhibit). But he could not object to freedom in reality, when confronted by it. In fact, he conveys a tone of admiration for the slaves’ tenacity.

It would astonish you if you should see the number of Negroes a running around our and all the other camps in this vacinity.  I would hardly believe there could be the number in Slavery in the whole of Virginia.  They come across the river nights in Boats to get away from their masters.  I saw a couple to day who came some fourteen miles from here last night in the rain.  They took a couple of their Masters Horses and rode in and then sold them for five Dollars a piece.  And nice Horses they were too.  The slave holders will not have one twentieth part of their Slaves left if this army should stay here for weeks and every appearance is now that we shall stay here that length of time.

It emerges clearly from these many letters that to the soldiers among the occupying force in Fredericksburg, there were subtle differences in the meanings of the words emancipation, abolition, and freedom. Soldiers invariably refer to emancipation as a policy–one with which they often disagreed. Abolition was almost always used pejoratively in reference to perceived Northern extremists who espoused emancipation. But freedom was reality, and even the harshest anti-emancipators in the Union army had a hard time not embracing it when in its presence. Moreover they came quickly and clearly to see their own role in making freedom happen.