by Bill Doughty
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery earned Eric Foner the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History. His book is a remarkable dissection of a complicated man, issue and time in American history 50 years after the War of 1812, in the heat of the War Between the States.
As much as some people, including Lincoln, himself, wished to separate the issue of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, Foner shows us how aligned and combined they were. He shows how unresolved issues from 1812 and unfulfilled promises of 1776 continued to broil as the nation expanded.
Although the book begins with his birth and ends shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, much of the text focuses on the pivotal war year of 1862. Several significant events for naval historians occurred that year, starting in February.
Eight days after Lincoln’s birthday, on Feb. 20, 1862, his young son Willie died after a long illness. Lincoln contemplated the meaning of life and his place in history, according to Foner, cementing his desire to place slavery “on the road to extinction.”
That month, Samuel F. DuPont led a naval expedition to capture Port Royal in the Sea Islands, where he witnessed the inhumanity of slavery. DuPont “accounted himself a conservative until he had seen the institution in all its horrors,” but he now considered himself an abolitionist, Foner writes.
Also in February, Lincoln met with Edmund L. Pierce, who traveled to the Sea Islands. Lincoln would later take steps to assist former slaves in Port Royal, South Carolina so they could buy farm land at $1.25 per acre.
Foner writes about a key decision Lincoln made 150 years ago:
"In February 1862, ignoring numerous pleas for clemency, including one from the Republican governor of New York, Lincoln refused to intervene to prevent the execution of Captain Nathaniel Gordon, an illicit slave trader whose ship carrying 900 slaves had been captured off the coast of West Africa by a U.S. naval vessel. A week after Lincoln’s election, a New York jury had convicted Gordon of international slave trading, a crime legally equivalent to piracy and punishable by death. Gordon became the first and only American to be hanged as a slave trade.”
The Fiery Trial shows how cooperation with the British had grown in the 50 years from the War of 1812 to the American Civil War. Secretary of State William H. Seward signed a treaty in 1862 allowing the British to board American-flagged vessels and search for slaves.
|"Contraband" slaves escaping the Confederacy.|
Foner writes about an incident in May 1862, a small Union flotilla sailed up the Stono River in South Carolina and witnessed Confederate troops pursuing a “stampede of slaves” who were trying to flee forced relocation.
"After opening fire on the Confederate forces and dispersing them, the naval commander took more than seventy slaves on board. He settled them in a safe location near the coast. That same month, in one of the war’s most celebrated acts of individual daring, Robert Smalls, the slave pilot of the Confederate naval vessel “Planter,” brought on board his wife, child, and a dozen other slaves, guided the ship out of the Charleston harbor and surrendered it to the Union navy."
On July 17, 1862 President Lincoln signed the Militia Act to recruit black soldiers, though black service members had served with George Washington in the Revolutionary War and later at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.
His Second Confiscation Act, which allowed for confiscation of Confederates’ property, including slaves, was a precursor to the Emancipation Proclamation. How could a nation committed to the Constitution, democratic principles and liberty tolerate the idea of people as “property”? Lincoln’s draft order reads: “All persons held as slaves with any state or states shall then, henceforth, and forever, be free.”
|Freed slaves in South Carolina 1862.|
The Fiery Trial describes the institutional racism of the Dred Scott decision and colonization (a proposal to deport blacks to Central America). Emancipation, itself, is revealed as being for strategic military advantage, rather than for social or ethical reasons of equality.
Foner shows how our 16th president “grew into greatness” with “a willingness to listen to criticism, to seek out new ideas.” Through careful research, Foner explains how Lincoln’s antipathy toward slavery deepened as the institution grew, poised to expand westward.
"By the eve of the Civil War, the slave population in the United States had reached nearly four million. The economic value of these men, women and children were considered as property exceeded the combined worth of all the banks, railroads and factories in the United States. In geographic extent, population, and the institution’s economic importance, the South was home to the most powerful slave system the modern world has known."
Lincoln’s conviction evolved from expediency to passion. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” Lincoln wrote.
Lincoln considered the views of thinkers and activists, supporters and rivals, like Frederick Douglass, John Stuart Mill, Salmon P. Chase, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Sumner, and many others. We see the intense pressures and strong statesmanship of Lincoln and his affinity for Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay. Like Paine, Madison and Jefferson, Lincoln penned some of the greatest passages in American history. It was President Lincoln who said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” “(Let us) unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal... I leave you, hoping that the lamp of liberty will burn in your bosom until there shall be no doubt that all men are created free and equal.”