It is impossible to provide a comprehensive summary of the key figures who played critical roles in the Civil War, much less touch all the issues they faced.
Instead, this segment will focus on the people most would agree represent the big four of the conflict: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson F. Davis, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and how these iconic figures felt about slavery.
Jefferson Davis was unequivocally pro-slavery. He spent most of his antebellum life in Mississippi where he started a plantation. While a United States Senator, he was known as being very uncompromising on measures designed to block the spread of slavery. He fought all such attempts. Although, interestingly, he vetoed an attempt by the Confederate States Congress to diminish the prohibition in the Confederate Constitution against the importation of slaves from foreign sources (the United States not considered a foreign nation for this purpose).
The deep South had a reputation for slaveholders who physically abused slaves or allowed abuse by overseers. The expressions “sold down river” or “being sold down south” originated from the fear slaves had of being traded to plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. Davis was an exception and provided for the physical well being of his slaves and allowed them autonomy in governing their internal affairs – but they were still slaves.
The views of Lincoln, Grant and Lee were consistent with the general sentiment concerning slavery that prevailed before the war - a mixture of acquiescence, ambivalence and subconscious guilt. Abolitionists were in the minority.
Grant and Lee married into established slave-holding families. Lee had also inherited a few slaves from his mother.
Lee married Mary Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington by her first husband (Martha had no children from her marriage to George Washington).
When Mary’s father passed away in 1857, Lee became executor of his estate, which included the Arlington plantation, and was bound by Mr. Custis’ will to free all of the family’s slaves within five years, which he did. By then, the war was raging and the Arlington was occupied by Union troops (it was converted to a cemetery in 1864). It is difficult, then, to ascertain if Lee and his spouse would have freed the Custis slaves on their own in absence of the will’s provision.
Lee was on record as describing slavery as a “moral and political evil,” but possessed a paternalistic and unenlightened view of it as well. His position was that slaves were “better off here than in Africa.” In general, he did not believe slaves were prepared to deal with freedom without intellectual preparation and discipline. He also may have considered slavery an economic burden.
Mary Custis Lee shared her father’s opinion that slaves should be educated and eventually allowed to repatriate to Liberia where they could form a democratic republic of their own. To that end, she taught slaves to read and write, in violation of a state law prohibiting it (such laws were standard in the South). I assume Mr. Lee was aware of her teaching activities and was supportive.
Overall, it was apparent that Lee was conflicted on the issue.
Grant’s father was an abolitionist. He was aghast when his son married into the slaveholding Dent family of Missouri.
If Lee was conflicted over slavery, Grant seemed indifferent. He appeared not to have suffered a moral dilemma while assisting in the administration of the Dent family plantation. He did free at least one slave, one that was given to him.
In a letter he wrote during the war to his staunchest supporter in Congress, the Hon. Elihu Washburne, Grant stated, “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery, but I try to judge fairly and honestly and it became patent in my mind early in the rebellion that the North and South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without slavery.”
Lincoln, although he was clearly against slavery, was very reluctant to interfere with it where it existed.
This dichotomy was best illustrated in a speech he delivered in 1858: “I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any Abolitionist. I have been an Old Line Whig. I have always hated it, but I have always been quiet about it until this new era of the introduction of the Nebraska Bill began. I always believed that everybody was against it, and that it was in course of ultimate extinction.”
“I have said a hundred times, and I have now no inclination to take it back, that I believe there is no right, and ought to be no inclination in the people of the free States to enter into the slave States, and interfere with the question of slavery at all.”
Lincoln, as did the Custis family, supported repatriating liberated slaves to Central Africa, even compensating the slaveholders for their freedom. His position was contrary to several of his close advisors as well as Frederick Douglass, who considered the plan a ruse to deflect criticism of slavery.
According to Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book, Team of Rivals, Lincoln was aware of the great logistical and financial enormity of repatriation. He finally concluded the slaves, even if freed, were staying here, but realized few Americans would recognize them as equals. Lincoln, himself, had reservations.
Lincoln even supported the candidacy of Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War …and a slaveholder. There’s a little twist to this – Taylor was the father-in-law of Jefferson Davis for a short while (Sarah Knox Taylor died of malaria a few months after her marriage to Davis).
Lincoln’s wife – Mary Todd – was from a slave-holding family in Kentucky. Although she was attended by slaves growing up, she must not have been emotionally tied to the southern plantation lifestyle, or she would not have severed herself from it for a rather ordinary station with Lincoln.
The country did not have opinion polls in the mid-nineteenth century; however, I cannot help but believe that the views held by these four leaders were in line with most of their contemporaries.
The four came from diverse backgrounds, were well traveled by comparison to the vast majority of their countrymen, were literate and supported democracy. Yet, they ended up on opposite sides in a conflict rooted in basic human rights.
It is sobering that they shared similar prejudices and misconceptions.
But I am not going to judge them through the filters of the 20th and 21st centuries. The human race has, and will always be, comprised of imperfect people. Our descendents will undoubtedly look back at us and shake their heads in frustration over some of our beliefs.
One way or another, though, civilization has managed to progress, although the path towards social equality has been indirect at best and tortuous at worst. We have stumbled rather than sprinted forward, but, throughout history, we have raised the bar of human rights in defiance of seemingly insurmountable obstacles created by the most vile of oppressors.
It is an endless struggle.
We can only hope “the better angels of our nature” will prevail in the end.