One of the debates that have embroiled historians in arguments over the last several decades is answering the question “who freed the slaves?” Several historians assigned primary responsibility to Abraham Lincoln; others said that the enslaved should take center stage; and, recently, Gary Gallagher reminded us of the role played by the Union army, to which can be added the United States Congress and the friction of war itself as well as the actions of … wait for it … the Confederate government (and, some say, none other than Robert E. Lee himself).
To my mind the question is poorly framed. If you want to know how emancipation and the destruction of slavery came about, it seems to me better to ask, “how did freedom come?” Telling that story gives due credit to various actors and events in the drama. That said, I believe it is true that the flow of enslaved blacks to Union lines did help force the issue. This process was evident early in the war, as we know from the story of Benjamin Butler declaring escaped slaves contraband of war due to their use by Confederate forces (although that definition soon expanded). Indeed, that tale sheds much light on how the Confederacy used slave labor and the role enslaved blacks played in the Confederate war effort … which some people mistakenly seize to claim that there were numerous enslaved black Confederate who voluntarily supported the Confederate war effort.
Studying Ulysses S. Grant’s early military career, I came across many stories of Union commanders asking what they should do with fugitive slaves who were seeking refugee within Union lines as blue armies surged southward. The simple presence of these escapees from slavery should cast much doubt upon the “happy slave” narrative espoused in some quarters: no one willingly runs away from happiness. That many of these slaves owed their proximity to Union lines to being used as laborers by the Confederate army reminds us how much the Confederacy depended on slave labor to wage war. In many cases masters soon appeared seeking to reclaim their property: the ensuing discussion often revealed secessionists demanding that Union military authorities observe their constitutional rights, as if they still had any. Loyal Unionist slaveholders presented a different argument and posed a more difficult problem, especially if their unionism seemed contingent on honoring their authority as slaveholders. Finally, whatever decision Union officers made was a political decision, however much many of them sought to stay out of politics: the political consequences were simply too evident.
One notes the absence of a Confederate counterpart to this, with hordes of fugitive slaves seeking entrance into Confederate lines. The reason might seem obvious, but it argues against the black Confederate myth with which we are so familiar.
Enslaved blacks seeking protection and freedom propelled the debate over emancipation forward. No, they may not have themselves destroyed slavery, but their actions forced Union civil and military authorities to address an issue many of them at first wished to postpone.