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Book review: Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment

A war to restore the Union? Or, a crusade to end slavery in the United States once and for all?
This week marks the official start of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, perhaps the most tumultuous four years in American history with ramifications felt well into the 20th century. From 1861 through 1865, war tore the country apart, as Abraham Lincoln wrote, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
My ancestors from Ohio and West Virginia, like so many others Northerners, initially fought to reunite the Union.
Politics, national sentiment, the media, and several other factors combined to slowly shift the focus and purpose to reconstructing the South, one with no slavery.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation helped jump start the repurposing of the war effort, but it was the debate and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that sealed the abolition efforts.
Michael Vorenberg’s fascinating new book, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment (Cambridge University Press, 2011), explores the political and social upheaval that led to freedom for African-Americans, and ushered in the age of Reconstruction.

Slave markets, such as this one in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1864, were a common site in larger cities and towns in the South in the first half of the 19th century. Northern abolitionists had long advocated a complete ban on slavery, while many others wanted to prevent the expansion of the institution in the Western territories. Some in the South clamored for the annexation of Cuba and other Caribbean islands to extend slavery. The opposing views were among the many reasons why the U.S. broke apart and spawned the Civil War.
Author Michael Vorenberg writes in Final Freedom, “For most northerners, the war that ended slavery began only as a war to restore the Union. Unforeseen events and influences ultimately drove the Union side to embrace emancipation as a war aim, but the progress toward that point was never steady, rarely clear, and always resisted. No single person or group of people was solely responsible for turning the Civil War into a war for black freedom.”
That progress “emerged in a haphazard fashion as a response to competing motivations and initiatives.”
Vorenberg paints a vivid picture of a war-torn country with widely divergent views on slavery and how to end or control it. His keen understanding of the broad political spectrum and how Lincoln and others eventually coalesced into a movement to pass an amendment to the Constitution is compelling and well written. The author weaves an intricate look at the competing factions, their rationale and goals, and how circumstances and some expert politicking among both Republicans and War Democrats eventually jelled into the legislation that provided the final freedom for enslaved blacks in America. President Lincoln, viewed by some as the driving force in the anti-slavery movement during the war in fact “was more restrained than most of his Republican colleagues.”
Drawn from period newspapers, manuscripts, letters, diaries, and scores of other primary sources, Vorenberg’s book is hard to put down, especially if the reader is interested in such topics as Lincoln and his politics, black history, Congressional debates, and Constitutional law. He studies the complexity of the “fluid interaction between politics, law, and society in the Civil War era,” and argues successfully that the Thirteenth Amendment “was not originally a part of a carefully orchestrated political strategy; nor was it a natural product of prevailing legal principles; nor was it a direct expression of popular thought.” Instead the landmark legislation emerged from the gradual intertwining of these and other factors. He believes “the Thirteenth Amendment was, above all, a product of historical contingency.”
There is no single, clear answer to the oft-repeated question, who freed the slaves? Abraham Lincoln alone could not accomplish the task, nor could Congress, the national press, the Union army, or the failures of the Confederacy. Vorenberg neatly examines the many faceted approach to amending the Constitution, which was rarely discussed before the war even by the most ardent abolitionists.
Final Freedom is a fascinating book, one that is sure to become a standard text on the subject of how the Thirteenth Amendment was crafted into law. It is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the complex relationship between the Federal war effort and the evolving goal of emancipation.
Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment
Michael Vorenberg
Cambridge University Press, 2011
305 pages, illustrations, annotated and indexed
ISBN 0-521-54384-3