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The South Has Been at Civil War for 150 Years

The film Lincoln ends after the Amendment that ended slavery throughout the nation passed. But for blacks, earning the rights of citizenship was to prove a much more protracted war.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons license/ Flickr


Lincoln is a magnificent movie. But as I left the theatre, to echo Paul Harvey, the late radio commentator, I wanted to know “the rest of the story.”

The movie begins in January 1865, exactly 2 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves of the Confederate States “thenceforward and forever free. ”

As Lincoln himself told Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles issuing the Proclamation was a “military necessity. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” Indeed, Lincoln wanted to issue the Proclamation in July 1862 but Secretary of State William Seward cautioned that the series of military defeats suffered by the Union army that year would lead many to view such a move simply as an act of desperation. The victory at Antietam in September gave Lincoln the opportunity he needed.

The Emancipation Proclamation helped the Union immeasurably. It converted a war to preserve the union into a war of liberation, a change that gained widespread support in key European nations. And by rescinding a 1792 ban on blacks serving in the armed forces, the Proclamation solved the increasingly pressing personnel needs of the Union Army in the face of a declining number of white volunteers. During the war nearly 200,000 blacks, most of them ex-slaves joined the Union Army, giving the North additional manpower needed to win the war. As historian James M. McPherson writes, “The proclamation officially turned the Union army into an army of liberation…And by authorizing the enlistment of freed slaves into the army, the final proclamation went a long step toward creating that army of liberation.”

Abolitionists viewed arming ex-slaves as a major step toward toward giving them equality. Frederick Douglass urged blacks to join the army for this reason. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

The movie focuses on one month—January 1865—and the Congressional vote on the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, it could have been subtitled, “How a bill becomes a law.” The film ends with triumphant celebrations by whites and blacks after the Amendment that ended slavery throughout the nation passed by the razor thin margin of two votes. But for blacks, earning the rights of citizenship was to prove a much more protracted affair.

Gaining the Rights of Citizenship

On April 9, 1865 the South surrendered. On April 15th Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. On April 20, Lincoln’s Vice President, Democrat Andrew Johnson, formerly Governor of Tennessee, formally declared the war over.

The 11 Confederate states would reenter the Union. But left undecided was the legal status of ex-slaves. When slavery was abolished the Constitutional compromise that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of Congressional representation no longer applied. After the 1870 Census the South’s representation would be based on a full counting of 4 million ex-slaves. One Illinois Republican expressed a common fear that the “reward of treason will be an increased representation”.

Between 1864 and 1866, ten of the eleven Confederate states inaugurated governments that did not provide suffrage and equal civil rights to freedmen. This was acceptable to Andrew Johnson but not to Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, masterfully played in the movie by Tommy Lee Jones, who insisted that Reconstruction must “revolutionize Southern institutions, habits, and manners… The foundations of their institutions… must be broken up and relaid, or all our blood and treasure have been spent in vain.”

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