150 Years Ago: Congress Passes Thirteenth Amendment


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For the next few months, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the first installment of the series.

January 31, 1865: Congress Passes Thirteenth Amendment

“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

In a mere 47 words the Thirteenth Amendment, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on January 31, 1865, in the waning days of the Civil War, completed the rupture with pre-war America, liberating millions of black slaves and erasing forever the traditional foundation of the Southern economy. Passed at the urging of President Abraham Lincoln, the amendment banning slavery completed the task he’d begun with the Emancipation Proclamation two years before. Where the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebellious Southern Confederacy, the Thirteenth Amendment was universal, applying equally to those held in bondage in the Union “border states” of Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri.

Total abolition of slavery had long been the chief goal of the Radical wing of the Republican Party, the result of an alliance between crusading evangelical Christians from New England, who believed slavery was a sin exposing the nation to God’s wrath, and independent Midwestern farmers who feared the economic clout of Southern plantation owners. As a moderate Republican, Lincoln had avoided committing himself to this sweeping goal before the war in order to avoid alienating northern Democrats, who were ambivalent about slavery but wanted to preserve the Union – Lincoln’s main aim as well. However once war broke out the Radical Republicans urged Lincoln to seize the opportunity to end slavery forever.

The Thirteenth Amendment was the product of a tortuous legislative journey, the final stages of which formed the subject of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 epic Lincoln. After being passed by the Senate in April 1864, the amendment stalled until after the elections that following November, when Lincoln returned to the attack, hoping to steer it through the House with the support of lame-duck Democratic congressmen who could now vote their conscience – or in some cases their pocketbooks, secured by the promise of cushy federal jobs.

Indeed, scraping together the votes to achieve the needed two-thirds majority in the House called for a degree of logrolling, horse-trading, and backscratching that might strike contemporary Americans as questionable at best. But it’s worth noting that many practices deemed unethical or worse nowadays were considered an ordinary part of politics in the nineteenth century (some would argue modern politicians are just more subtle, as well as shamelessly hypocritical, in their corruption). In fact, in early 1865 Lincoln’s associates worried he was about to collapse from sheer exhaustion, due not so much to the war as the endless stream of place-seekers petitioning for federal jobs in return for political favors in the last election.


The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House allayed Radical Republican fears that Lincoln would fail to follow through on the Emancipation Proclamation and maybe even cut a deal with the South over slavery in order to end the war; as the president himself told a cheering crowd in front of the White House the next day, there could be no backtracking now, as the Thirteenth Amendment would “wind the whole thing up.” But a huge gulf remained between Lincoln and the Radical Republicans over the closely related issues of Reconstruction, including the rights of freed black people, the form of administration for the conquered Southern states, and the conditions of their eventual readmission to the Union.

Lincoln Meets Confederate Peace Envoys

At least they were in agreement on one basic principle: peace could only follow the Southern states’ unconditional surrender. This was the jarring message Lincoln delivered to three high-ranking Confederate politicians who crossed the frontline at Petersburg, Virginia, to meet with him and Secretary of State Seward aboard the steamboat River Queen at Hampton Roads, a harbor in eastern Virginia, on February 3, 1865 (the location chosen for the meeting allowed the crafty president to deny, with literal precision, claims by Northern Democrats that Confederate peace envoys were coming to the capital).

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The Confederate commissioners – Vice-President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John Campbell, and Senator Robert Hunter – were hopeful going into the conference. First of all, both sides were eager to end the war before spring came and major combat operations resumed, adding to the already astronomical body count. The Southerners also assumed that Lincoln and Seward wanted to turn their attention to foreign policy, specifically the French invasion of Mexico, where Emperor Napoleon III had taken advantage of American discord to install a puppet leader, Emperor Maximilian, in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. In return, they sought concessions on slavery, including compensation for lost “property.”

However they overestimated Lincoln’s endurance, fortified by support (or pressure) from the Radical Republicans and the acquiescence of public opinion. As long as the country remained divided, Mexico was a side issue. And while ordinary Northerners longed for peace, they also understood that the Union armies under Ulysses S. Grant finally had the main Confederate army under Robert E. Lee by the throat at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, where the latter were forced to fight to defend the Confederate capital of Richmond. After four years of bloody sacrifice, with victory in sight, now was not the time to settle for an easy peace.

Although no one knows exactly what passed between the attendees (there may have been talk of a compromise on the issue of compensation for the loss of slaves), it’s clear the Confederate commissioners were shocked by Lincoln’s demand for unconditional surrender before any other issue could be discussed. Hunter summed up their unwelcome apprehension: “Mr. President, if we understand you correctly, you think that we of the Confederacy have committed treason; that we are traitors to your government; that we have forfeited out rights, and are proper subjects for the hangman. Is that not about what your words imply?” With brutal frankness Lincoln replied: “Yes, you have stated the proposition better than I did. That is about the size of it.” Lincoln had no intention of actually hanging Confederate leaders as some Radical Republicans demanded, hoping instead for quick reconciliation – but he also made it clear that immediate submission to the Union was the only way to take themselves out of jeopardy.

In fact the whole episode had a somewhat theatrical quality to it, as both sides were using the meeting to achieve their own domestic political aims. Lincoln couldn’t be seen to reject a potential peace offer out of hand, and was also responding to pressure from a Republican grandee, Francis P. Blair of Missouri (although it’s not clear whether he agreed to meet the Confederate commissioners as a quid pro quo for Blair supporting the Thirteenth Amendment, as laid out in Spielberg’s Lincoln). Similarly, Lincoln’s refusal to negotiate allowed Confederate President Jefferson Davis to claim he had offered an olive branch and been rejected, silencing his own critics in the Confederate Congress and giving him the justification he needed to fight to the bitter end. The war wasn’t over yet.

Sherman Marches North

The brunt of the fighting would fall squarely on one Southern state that had so far avoided the worst depredations of war: South Carolina, the cradle of the Confederacy. Its scourge would be the Union army under William Tecumseh Sherman, whose recent march through Georgia had already acquired a mythic status akin to a Biblical plague. Having spent the winter in Savannah, Sherman now headed north to crush the remaining Confederate forces between him and Grant, wreaking retribution along the way. He confided in his diary: “The truth is the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreck vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.” And one of his officers wrote home to Illinois: “I want to see the long deferred chastisement begin. If we don’t purify South Carolina it will be because we can’t get a light.”

Sherman’s advance would be opposed by a ragtag force centered on the Confederate Army of Tennessee, first under Pierre G.T. Beauregard and later under Joe Johnston, who’d angered Jefferson Davis but was rescued from the political penalty box by Robert E. Lee, newly (and belatedly) appointed to overall command of the Confederate armies on February 7. However this force of 20,000 tired, ill-equipped rebels was hugely outnumbered by Sherman’s army, now around 60,000 strong; in fact the main obstacles in South Carolina were natural features including swamps and rivers, which failed to stop Sherman’s advance but did put his cold, muddy soldiers in a particularly vindictive mood.

After sending several units ahead in mid-January as feints to distract the enemy and sow confusion, the main body of Sherman’s force headed north from Savannah on February 1, 1865. On crossing into South Carolina they immediately set about destroying the railroad connecting Charleston to Augusta, Georgia, and this was just a taste of what was in store for the rest of the state, as Sherman’s army advanced, destroying everything on value on a 60-mile-wide front. One of Sherman’s officers, Lieutenant Colonel George Nichols, wrote in his diary:

The actual invasion of South Carolina has begun... The well-known sight of columns of black smoke meets our gaze again; this time houses are burning, and South Carolina has commenced to pay an installment, long overdue, on her debt to justice and humanity. With the help of God, we will have principal and interest before we leave her borders. There is a terrible gladness in the realization of so many hopes and wishes.

A correspondent for the New York Herald, David Conyngham, reported the horrible, spectacular sights for its readers:

… the country was converted into one vast bonfire. The pine forests were fired; the resin factories were fired; the public buildings and private dwellings were fired. The middle of the finest day looked black and gloomy, for a dense smoke rose on all sides clouding the very heavens – at night the tall pine trees seemed so many huge pillars of fire. The flames hissed and screeched, as they fed on the fat resin and dry branches, imparting to the forest a most fearful appearance... The ruins of homesteads of the Palmetto State will long be remembered.

As in Georgia much of the destruction was fueled by copious quantities of alcohol, as Union soldiers ransacked towns and plantations for hidden stores of hard liquor. Nor were Confederate troops, faced with the same trying conditions, immune to its charms – again leading to destructive behavior, even though they were supposed to be better behaved as they defended their own people. Meanwhile the residents of the state capital, Columbia, dreaded the approach of the Yankees, keenly aware of their own helplessness. In January one resident, Emma LeConte, wrote in her diary:

I am constantly thinking of the time when Columbia will be given up to the enemy. The horrible picture is constantly before my mind… How long before our beautiful little city may be sacked and laid in ashes. Dear Columbia, with its lovely trees and gardens. It is heart-sickening to think of it… Yet all this does not rouse us. We seem sunk in an apathy.

The Plight of Prisoners and Wounded

As the siege of Richmond ground on and Sherman’s forces rolled north, hundreds of thousands of captured soldiers languished in prisoner-of-war camps across the North and South Although Confederate prison camps like Andersonville went down in history with a worse reputation, conditions were wretched on both sides, and by the end of the war around 56,000 men had died in prison camps from starvation, disease, and exposure.

In January 1865 Sergeant Henry W. Tisdale, a Union soldier held prisoner in Florence, South Carolina, noted the toll inflicted by the weather in his diary: “The cold snaps multiply and little patches of ice fringe the edges of the creek, and with each cold wave one or more poor fellow gives up the fight, and in prison phraseology is ‘mustered out.’” However a month later he noted that prisoners on labor battalions were receiving some covert help from sympathetic local black people: “Thanks to the negroes who always have something for us as they slyly stray in upon us in our wood-cutting expeditions, and handing us a few sweet potatoes, or a little bag of beans, and often refusing any pay.”

About 800 miles to the north, Louis Leon, a Confederate soldier from North Carolina held captive in New York, described conditions in this Union prison camp in February 1865: “The smallpox is frightful. There is not a day that at least twenty men are taken out dead. Cold is no name for the weather now. They have given most of us Yankee overcoats, but have cut the skirts off. The reason of this is that the skirts are long and if they left them on we might pass out as Yankee soldiers.”

Harsh punishments were also meted out to deserters and soldiers found guilty of cowardice on both sides, generally by a court martial. One Confederate soldier, Sam R. Watkins, recalled seeing a botched execution in late 1864:

While I was standing looking on, a file of soldiers marched by me with a poor fellow on his way to be shot. He was blindfolded and set upon a stump, and the detail formed. The command, “Ready, aim, fire!” was given, the volley discharged, and the prisoner fell off the stump. He had not been killed. It was the sergeant's duty to give the coup d'etat, should not the prisoner be slain. The sergeant ran up and placed the muzzle of his gun at the head of the poor, pleading, and entreating wretch, his gun was discharged, and the wretched man only powder-burned, the gun being one that had been loaded with powder only. The whole affair had to be gone over again.

And even these miseries paled in comparison to the prolonged suffering of thousands of mortally wounded men dying every month. Watkins also described visiting a field hospital around this time:

Great God! I get sick today when I think of the agony, and suffering, and sickening stench and odor of dead and dying; of wounds and sloughing sores, caused by the deadly gangrene; of the groaning and wailing. I cannot describe it. I remember, I went in the rear of the building, and there I saw a pile of arms and legs, rotting and decomposing; and, although I saw thousands of horrifying scenes during the war, yet today I have no recollection in my whole life, of ever seeing anything that I remember with more horror than that pile of legs and arms that had been cut off our soldiers.