The Adirondacks and the Civil War: Carl Schurz and the Emancipation Proclamation
When he was 70 years old, Carl Schurz began to write his three-volume memoirs, The Reminiscences, at his Lake George summer cottage. The journalist Ida Minerva Tarbell, who often visited him there, had persuaded Schurz to write his life story after learning of the overlooked role he played in the emancipation of the slaves.
Appointed by President Lincoln, Carl Schurz became the Union minister to Spain in 1861. Schurz’s mission abroad was to test the waters in Europe, so to speak, and find out where foreign sympathies lied. Lincoln needed to be sure that foreign powers would remain neutral throughout the war; that if they chose to intervene, it would be to stand firmly behind the Union cause. In a way, the preservation of the Union depended on a war that would remain between countrymen.
Carl Schurz reluctantly boarded a ship to Europe with troubles of conscience about leaving in a time of war. Schurz was a passionate abolitionist, and in his mind, the Civil War boiled down to a conflict between those who were for slavery, and those who were against slavery. The South “had set up an independent confederacy, not to vindicate the constitutional liberty of the citizen and the right of man to govern himself, but to vindicate the right of one man to enslave another man…”
Soon after arriving in Madrid, Schurz realized that Lincoln’s fears were real. Public opinion doubted the North and appeared to favor the southern rebels. Newspapers routinely lampooned the Union and published Confederate propaganda. As Schurz noted in a telegram to Washington:
“While they carefully abstain from alluding to the rights of slavery, they speak of free trade and cotton to the merchant and the manufacturer, and of the right of self-government to the liberal.”
Governments, too, especially England and France, were whispering around ideas of backing the South. Louis Napoleon III of France would have benefited strategically in Mexico if he supported the Confederates to victory. And England had important commercial interests in the south, which had been disrupted by the Union blockade–England’s textile industry, which relied heavily on cotton from the south, was suffering.
When news of the Union retreat at Bull Run reached Europe in July, the diplomatic situation became worse. The North became a laughingstock for what many Europeans perceived to be the army’s incompetence and cowardice.
“I could not see a Spaniard smile without suspecting that he was laughing at our Bull Run rout,” Schurz remembered.
In November of 1861, tensions between England and the North became dangerously aggravated when Union Captain Charles Wilkes boarded British merchant vessel, the Trent. The vessel had been carrying Confederate diplomats who were on their way to garner support in Europe. Captain Wilkes immediately arrested the diplomats in spite of international law. England was outraged, and strongly considering entering the war.
Schurz knew some kind of action had to be taken in order to prevent England from doing so. And the abolitionist realized the only sure way to do that was to clearly define the Civil War as a war between the free North and the slave holding South. Britain had abolished slavery years ago, France as well.
“If, therefore, this having been made clear,” Schurz wrote, “any European power chose to countenance the Southern Confederacy, it could do so only with the distinct understanding that it was taking sides with the cause of human slavery in its struggle for further existence and dominion.”
After a stormy boat ride across the Atlantic, Schurz met with President Lincoln and explained to him his firm belief that an anti-slavery policy needed to be adopted in order to send a clear message to the world what the South really stood for.
Lincoln was convinced by Schurz that no foreign power would support a nation “built on the cornerstone of slavery”. But Lincoln was uneasy about an anti-slavery policy that might have an adverse effect on morale in the North. As things stood, the people were solidly united. If a new anti-slavery dimension were added to the war, there could very well be infighting. If Lincoln were going to unify the country, he would need a unified north.
Schurz was asked to learn how others in Washington might respond to an anti-slavery policy. So Schurz reached out to Democrats and rallied Republicans. He formed the Emancipation Society and planned a meeting. He drafted a speech, “Reconciliation by Emancipation”. And before the meeting, he read it to President Lincoln.
“First, the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and wherever the National Government had immediate authority. Secondly, the confiscation, and, ipso facto, the emancipation of slaves belonging to persons engaged in the rebellion. And thirdly, the offer of a fair compensation to loyal Slave States and loyal masters who would agree to some system of emancipation.”
After Schurz had finished, Lincoln said, “Now, you go and deliver that speech at your meeting…And maybe you will hear something from me on the same day.”
The group did hear from Lincoln. A telegram arrived that asked Congress to adopt a resolution “that the United States ought to co-operate with any State which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery…”
The first steps had been taken on the road to emancipation. Lincoln’s proposed resolution was adopted, and a month later, slavery was banned in the District of Columbia. Not a single foreign country ever entered the war.
North of downtown Bolton, off of Route 9, is a small, overlooked park dedicated to the memory of Schurz and his good friend, Abraham Jacobi. The inscription on a bench reads, “For fourteen summers, he achieved and rested in these precincts whose beauty was his never ending joy”.