A riveting account of Connecticut’s involvement in the Civil War
About the Author
MATTHEW WARSHAUER is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University. He is the editor of the scholarly journal Connecticut History and the author of Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law: Nationalism, Civil Liberties, and Partisanship and Andrew Jackson in Context.
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Connecticut within the Nation
Slavery, Race, and Politics
What was Connecticut's position on slavery and race? How did sectional politics between the North and South play out within the state? How do the answers to such questions explain the causes of the Civil War and Connecticut's involvement in it? The answers may not be what readers assume. Too often we wrongly conclude that the North had little connection to slavery, and those who gave the institution any thought were devout abolitionists, morally committed to its eradication. The truth is far different and more complicated. To better understand what happened in the state, one must view Connecticut's story within the wider context of slavery, race, and politics in the nation at large. Only then can the history of the war and how Connecticut fought it make sense.
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When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence the now immortal words "all men are created equal," every one of the rebelling colonies possessed slaves. Connecticut allowed slavery for almost 200 years. By 1774, half of the colony's ministers, lawyers, and public officials owned slaves, along with one-third of its physicians. Some argue that large-scale plantations existed in the colony. In 1776, there were just over 5,000 humans in bondage in Connecticut, the largest number of any New England colony. One in four estate inventories at the time included slaves. So much for the idea of a historically free, white Connecticut.
Along with her New England neighbors, Connecticut contributed to the international slave trade, and its residents reaped fortunes in the West Indies' market that fueled a deadly sugar empire. Even though the nation's Founders had built their economic success on the backs of enslaved Africans, they recognized the immorality and paradox of their actions. Yet they could not turn away from the profit. The single largest section of the Declaration of Independence that the Continental Congress deleted was a paragraph in which Jefferson blamed the king of England for polluting this "new" England with slavery. Thus was born the idea of slavery as a "necessary evil." The Founders knew it was wrong and evil, but it was also a significant economic base for the new nation. They rationalized its continued existence as a necessity.
The Revolution, with its pronouncements of liberty and equality, caused many to continue their moral and philosophical misgivings about enslaving human beings. There was more than a little irony in fighting for freedom while slaves worked the fields. This is when the first abolition societies were established, and numerous states, both North and South, liberated some of their human captives. There were also economic considerations. The Revolution had disrupted the West Indies trade and caused enough of an economic readjustment that some questioned the feasibility and desirability of having slaves. The movement away from slavery had started. Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery, upon entering the Union. Massachusetts, which was the first of the colonies to pass a law formally legalizing slavery, was also the first of the original colonies, through a court decision, to outlaw it in 1783.
Contrary to what many might assume, Connecticut's involvement with slavery was long and hardly benevolent. Slaves arrived in the colony as early as 1639, with the largest increase in their population occurring between the early 1700s and 1774, just before the Revolution. This period corresponded with the greatest expansion of agricultural production and commerce. The colony often enacted harsh restrictions and punishments, such as a 1690 law that forbade any "negro" from wandering without a pass outside of the town where he lived and authorized any citizen to apprehend the fugitive. A 1708 law restricted slaves' right to sell goods without their master's permission and imposed a punishment of thirty lashes for any black charged with disturbing the peace or attempting to strike a white person. In 1717, New London, the largest slaveholding section of the colony, forbade free blacks or mulattoes from residing in town, buying land, or owning a business without consent from the town council. The law was retroactive, so blacks who had already established themselves were required to request permission to retain what was rightfully theirs. In 1730, a new law imposed forty lashes on any black person who uttered or printed anything about a white person that could be considered libelous. The General Assembly rejected emancipation bills on three occasions, in 1777, 1779, and 1780. Always at issue was the number of slaves residing in the state. Without slavery, how would the state control the black population? The legislature did decide, however, to curtail the growth of slavery and passed a law in 1774 that banned further importation of slaves.
Finally, in 1784, the General Assembly approved a gradual emancipation plan freeing slaves born after the act became law, when they reached the age of twenty-five. Any slave born prior to the act would not be freed. The historian Joanne Pope Melish noted bluntly: "This act was utterly pragmatic; there was nothing idealistic or visionary about it." The larger bill had to do with slave codes and restricting social interaction between blacks and whites. As Melish described it, the statute "outlined a complicated system of seizures, fines, whippings, and other punishments for a legion of illegal activities: travel by slaves or free Negroes without a pass; vagrancy; unauthorized purchase or sale of any item; violating the nine o'clock curfew; and unauthorized entertaining of slaves." The act also imposed a fine of 100 pounds for illegally importing slaves. Emancipation at the age of twenty-five was thrown in almost as an afterthought, in a single, short paragraph at the end of the statute. Another historian noted: "The law freed no slaves. It did promise eventual freedom to the future-born children of slaves. ... The law reflected the legislature's intent to end the institution of slavery in the state in a way that respected property rights and preserved social order."
Although the new law did not immediately end slavery in Connecticut, it marked progress on the issue. It was followed by the establishment of the state's first formal antislavery society, in August 1790, when a group of Congregational ministers created the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom and the Relief of Persons Unlawfully Holden in Bondage. The organization met with limited success. In 1794, they convinced the General Assembly to consider a bill to end slavery immediately, on April 1, 1795. The legislators voted the measure down, and the society disbanded shortly thereafter. Yet the movement for black rights continued. In 1797, the General Assembly lowered the age of manumission to twenty-one, but only for those born after this new law. It was also at this time that many of the state's slave codes, which restricted the rights and movements of slaves, were repealed.
The refusal to grant immediate abolition reflected at least two key problems: economic loss to slave owners, and white concerns over social control of blacks. Some slave owners avoided the first problem by selling their slaves to owners in the South, while others lied about their slaves' ages to ensure permanent enslavement or created indenture contracts that, in effect, replicated slavery. In 1792, the General Assembly specifically prohibited the out-of-state sale of slaves. Nonetheless, the practice continued, as did kidnapping. The issue of controlling free blacks, or minimizing their influence on society, was one that became increasingly important as the black community expanded.
By 1800, Connecticut's slave population had dropped to 931, and the number of free blacks had risen to 5,300. This meant that many slaveholders had released their human chattels well before the possibility of freedom under the gradual emancipation act. The biggest wave of emancipation occurred during the revolutionary period, when many slaves were given freedom in return for joining the war against Britain. This growing free black community continued to spark concern among whites. One solution to their concern about controlling the blacks was the 1818 state constitution, which denied blacks the right to vote by defining electors as "white."
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Obviously, the South did not have the same economic circumstances or attitude toward slavery as the North. With a far larger captive population and greater dependence on its labor, Southerners were not so quick to turn away from the peculiar institution, though they too experienced a wave of emancipation during the revolutionary period. This spirit did not last, and Southerners ensured that slavery would. The push and pull over the supposedly necessary evil continued.
In 1787, when the nation's Founders met in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution, Congress, operating under the ill-fated Articles of Confederation, passed the Northwest Ordinance. That law closed to slavery all the new territories carved out of the nation's western lands — what became the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Yet during that same summer of 1787, Congress accepted the new Constitution, which protected slavery by including clauses granting the South extra representation in the House of Representatives (the three-fifths clause, which counted each black as three-fifths of a white person for purposes of the census, and thus representation in Congress), continuation of the international slave trade until 1808, and the promise that all states would return slaves who fled from their masters (later reinforced by the infamous fugitive slave laws of 1793 and 1850). Slavery was secure. Only three years later, in 1790, the Southwest Ordinance, which created the states of Tennessee and Kentucky opened these lands to slavery. This back and forth of limiting and expanding slavery at the time of the nation's birth revealed the inherent struggle over the necessary evil.
It was also during this period that slavery received an immense economic boost, and the source had direct ties to Connecticut. Eli Whitney, a graduate of Yale College, traveled south to Georgia in 1792 to work as a private tutor. There he learned that cotton production required a great deal of time and labor to remove the seeds. In the following year, he invented the cotton gin, a machine that separated the seeds from the cotton fibers. What followed was an explosion in cotton production. Figures vary, but production jumped from about 150,000 pounds per year in 1793 to 6.5 million pounds in 1795, and it continued to multiply year after year. In 1800, U.S. cotton exports were $5 million and accounted for only 7 percent of the country's exports. By 1830, they had risen to $30 million and 41 percent, and in 1860 the numbers were a whopping $161 million and 57 percent. Much of that exporting was done by Northern firms, primarily in New York City, which bought the cotton from Southerners and sold it to textile mills in New England and Great Britain. Connecticut boasted a thriving textile industry, especially in Windham and surrounding areas. There is no mystery why in 1858 South Carolina's Senator James Henry Hammond declared defiantly, "Cotton is King" and "no power on earth dares make war upon it."
The rapid expansion of cotton production fueled a parallel explosion in the demand for slaves and new land. If the nation's Founders had really hoped slavery might somehow miraculously disappear over time, the cotton gin and the wealth that it brought ended such an unlikely notion. Cotton was a prince, soon to become king — and the economy of the entire nation, both North and South, had fallen under its rule.
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From the early 1790s through 1815, the fledgling republic continued to grow. New states entered the Union, and the country's population roughly doubled. The United States attempted to increase its trade with the outside world, often having to navigate the rocky shoals of European conflict. During these years, the Napoleonic wars engulfed much of the Atlantic world, and though claiming to be a neutral in the conflict, America was nevertheless drawn into a second war with England because of British trade violations and illegal impressment (kidnapping and forced enlistment in the British navy) of American sailors. When the War of 1812 began in June of that year, Connecticut and New England staunchly opposed it and did everything they could to hamper war efforts: refusing to finance the war or allow militias to cross the Canadian border; maintaining an active, illegal trade with British troops; and, in the crowning offense, organizing the infamous 1814 Hartford Convention, in which New England states came together with the alleged aim of concluding a separate peace treaty with Britain and seceding from the Union.
The allegation was untrue, but it indicated the rather stark sectional divide that existed in the nation, as well as the belief that a state could secede. There were also serious questions about the rights of states versus the power of the federal government. Many states, Connecticut included, believed that the war was forced upon them by an expanding Republican Party in the South and West, while the Federalist minority, penned up in New England, declined in political importance.
Slavery was not really a major political issue before or during the War of 1812, but New Englanders never lost an opportunity to argue that part of their political impotence was due to the Constitution's three-fifths clause, which, based on slave population, gave the South increased members in the House of Representatives. One historian noted: "Slave representation and the Hartford Convention became inextricably intertwined from the beginning." This did not have to do with abolition; it was purely about political power. Criticizing slavery was much more of a way for the North to bash Southern Republicans, who had always pointed a finger at "aristocratic" New England. Nonetheless, the Federalist willingness to criticize slavery and slave representation pioneered a sectional politics that opened the door for future antislavery, and anti-Southern, appeals.
In the aftermath of the War of 1812, the entire nation flourished. The Napoleonic conflicts in Europe had ended, trade reopened, and the American economy boomed. An unparalleled nationalism emerged after the war. Americans had survived another war with the world's principal power. This period became known as the Era of Good Feelings, and even though Connecticut and New England had come out on the short end of the political stick — the Federalist Party had all but disintegrated — business was so good that few complained. The disappearance of Federalist opposition ushered in single-party rule in America, the only time in the nation's history when two-party competition ceased to exist. The end of the war and the following economic expansion also unleashed a wave of migration over the Appalachian Mountains. The thirst for property, much of it cotton land, continued. People moved westward to make their fortunes and futures.
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All of these factors led to the first post-Constitution conflict over slavery and revealed a source of disagreement that threatened the Union. When Missouri petitioned for statehood in 1818, it was only the second territory out of the Louisiana Purchase to do so. (Louisiana had come first, in 1812.) The roughly 60,000 residents of Missouri included about 10,000 slaves. The nation's first major internal battle erupted when New York Congressman James Tallmadge proposed an amendment to the Missouri statehood bill, calling for no further introduction of slaves into Missouri and gradual emancipation (at age twenty-five) of all slaves born there after statehood. Tallmadge was serving on a state commission charged with fulfilling New York's 1799 gradual emancipation plan. The Tallmadge amendment was a staunch test of whether slavery was really a necessary evil that would one day disappear, or whether it was a valuable economic institution linked to the nation's long-term future.
For the next two years, Congress fought a battle royal, with Northerners and Southerners crossing swords over two essential issues: the future of slavery, and whether Congress had any constitutional authority to restrict it. The national legislature could accept or refuse a state's admission to the Union, but could it dictate guidelines for admission? The final compromise said yes, but the issue resurfaced as a source of agitation in later years.
The South revealed its determination by hijacking Maine's request for statehood. If Missouri could not come in as a slave state, then Maine couldn't enter either. Ultimately, a compromise was reached in which the two states were paired, thus keeping sectional representation in the Senate — where each state had two votes — balanced. In the ensuing years, this deal became crucial to Southern power because even with the three-fifths clause, the Southern population and therefore its representation in Congress were far below those of the North. The other major part of the Missouri Compromise established 36° 30?, a line drawn through the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase. Any area north of the line was to be free, but anything south of it was open to slavery. Missouri was the exception to the rule.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Connecticut in the American Civil War"
Copyright © 2011 Matthew Warshauer.
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Table of Contents
Connecticut Within the Nation, 1776–;1860: Slavery, Race, and Politics
And the War Came, 1860–;61
A Recognition of Death, 1862
The Union Crucible, 1863
Survival's Memory, 1865–;1965
Further Reading and Research
What People are Saying About This
"Warshauer's account puts political parties and questions about racial policy at the heart of Connecticut's wartime history. I hope that every state's commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War produces a study as good as this one."
Mark E. Neely, Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties
"Warshauer's account puts political parties and questions about racial policy at the heart of Connecticut's wartime history. I hope that every state's commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War produces a study as good as this one."Mark E. Neely, Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties
"With Connecticut in the American Civil War, Matthew Warshauer links local and personal stories to a well known national story, providing readers with provocation and useful ways to think about Connecticut's past, the Civil War, and their effects on contemporary issues."Sally Whipple, former president, Connecticut League of Historical Organizations
“With Connecticut in the American Civil War, Matthew Warshauer links local and personal stories to a well known national story, providing readers with provocation and useful ways to think about Connecticut’s past, the Civil War, and their effects on contemporary issues.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Connecticut in the American Civil War, picks up in 1860 with efforts to avert war. One introductory chapter summarizes the early history of race, slavery and politics up to 1860. What makes this book particularly interesting is that the author, Matthew Warshauer focuses not on the battles of various Connecticut regiments but rather on the political battles and home front of the war. Warshauer is particularly effective in exploding popular misconceptions about the Civil War. For example, one misconception that the war had broad popular support in Connecticut. While support (and opposition) was vocal, in the elections of 1864 the pro-war (Republicans) won by only 2,405 votes of 90,000 cast. Another popular misconception today equates emancipation of slaves and the abolish of slavery. Warshauer makes it very clear in the historical record that Connecticut (and the north) went to war to preserve the union (aka allow slavery were it existed). Lincoln's emancipation proclamation was a war measure intended to deprive the south of economic resources and thus ending the war sooner. Lincoln had no constitutional right to free southern slaves and was criticized in the some of the strongest and racially charge writings of the times.