150 Years Ago This Week: Debate on abolition of slavery

January 1865

On Sunday, the first day of the new year of 1865, on the James River in Virginia southeast of Richmond, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, fresh from the debacle at Ft. Fisher, N.C., ordered a canal cut to bypass a large bend in the river at Dutch Gap. The project was to culminate with a powder blast for the final excavation.

The explosion was set off, and as with the attempt to blow up Ft. Fisher that failed in late December, the Dutch Gap blast did nothing more than make a lot of noise and fill the excavation with dirt and gravel. Gen. Butler canceled the project.

At the Executive Mansion in Washington, a group of Kentuckians approached President Abraham Lincoln at the annual New Year’s reception and asked him to consider having Gen. Butler assigned to their state. President Lincoln responded, “You howled when Butler went to New Orleans; others howled when he was removed from that command. Somebody has been howling ever since his assignment to military command. How long will it be before you, who are howling for his assignment to rule Kentucky, will be howling for me to remove him?”

Cabinet officers, diplomats, judges, and military officers attended the reception, and there were some complaints that congressmen were not invited. In Richmond, President Jefferson Davis told Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard that if it became necessary, he would remove Gen. John Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee and name Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor to command.

Two days later, at Ft. Monroe in Virginia, another combined Union army-navy expedition was preparing to go to Wilmington, N.C., for another attempt to subdue Ft. Fisher. The army troops were commanded by Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry, a sound combat officer. In Georgia, Maj. Gen. William Sherman began transferring part of Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard’s Army of the Tennessee to Beaufort, S.C. and the planned advance of the Union armies into South Carolina.

On Jan. 4, the expedition bound for Ft. Fisher left Bermuda Hundred on the James River, along with the naval contingent again led by Adm. David Porter. Most of the Union troops and seamen had been involved with Gen. Butler’s abortive attempts on Ft. Fisher in December. There was fighting between opposing forces this day at Thorn Hill, Alabama, and on the Mobile & Ohio RR at Mechanicsburg, Mississippi.

On Jan. 5, in Richmond, President Davis continued to be frustrated and concerned by the increasing dissension and controversy over military conscription, manpower problems, and the continuation of the war. In Washington, President Lincoln was hounded by job seekers looking for election rewards; he tried to concentrate on trade in the recovered areas of the war and with domestic affairs.

To John Singleton, one of several unofficial and self-appointed envoys seeking a possible settlement of the war, he issued a pass to travel through the lines. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton left for Savannah  to meet with Gen. Sherman; the president wrote to Stanton that “time, now that the enemy is wavering, is more important than ever before. Being on the down-hill & somewhat confused, keep him going…”

On Jan. 6, Republican Congressman James Ashley of Ohio introduced the measure destined to become the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. The amendment had passed the Senate but failed to pass in the House of Representatives. Pressure was being put on Democrats to pass the measure; the amendment would likely pass by Senate Republicans in the next Congress, but that was not to meet until December 1865. “Mr. Speaker,” Congressman Ashley said, “if slavery is wrong and criminal, as the great body of enlightened Christian men admit, it is certainly our duty to abolish it, if we have the power.”

To this, Rep. James Brooks of New York stated, “Is the abolition of slavery the only object for which this war is hereafter to be prosecuted, or is now prosecuted? I do not believe it.” Debate in the House over the amendment would continue for another three weeks before action was finally taken.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.