Book Review: The Abolitionist Civil War: Immediatists and the Struggle to Transform the Union

The Abolitionist Civil War: Immediatists and the Struggle to Transform the Union. By Frank J. Cirillo. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2023. Hardcover, 330 pp. $45.00.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

The Civil War divided more than just the states of the nation. It fractured families. It fissured churches. It split friendships. And it rent organizations and movements.

With the Abolitionist Civil War: Immediatists and the Struggle to Transform the Union, historian Frank Cirillo highlights the internal conflict within the abolitionist community caused largely by goal disagreements among movement’s leaders, the events of Civil War, and the United States evolving policy on emancipation.

In doing so, Cirillo focuses on the book’s three themes: “First, it extends the story of immediatism deep into the Civil War and beyond, fleshing out its true nature as a morally nationalistic, ideologically multifarious, and politically dynamic organization. Second, it demonstrates how interventionists during the first half of the war helped bring about a Union policy of military emancipation that had seemed far from inevitable. And third it explores the unintended but disastrous repercussions of their intervention during the second half of the war, as abolitionism stunted its power to secure further, lasting change beyond formal emancipation. It tells the tale of a movement whose greatest victory came at the expense of its ultimate failure.” (4)

The overarching anti-slavery community contained a wide spectrum of thought about the best methods for ending slavery in the United States; from colonizationists to compensation emancipationists to immediate abolitionists—and some who fell between each. These different schools of thought obviously appealed to different segments of society and political groups willing to debate the topic.

Abolitionists, those who largely believed that immediate non-compensated emancipation was the fastest and surest way to purge the United States of its greatest moral flaw, were a small group of determined, influential, and vocal individuals and organizations, who gained popularity as the politics of slavery heated to a fever pitch and as they presented their persuasive arguments. It is the split that developed within the immediatist camp and the repercussions that followed that Cirillo seeks to explain in The Abolitionist Civil War.

Cirillo divides the immediatist abolitionists into two groups that he calls interventionists and moral purists. Interventionists “united in support of the government, promulgating arguments about the practical necessity of military emancipation in coordination with new political allies.” Interventionists included individuals like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Charlotte Forten, Lydia Maria Child, George Cheever, and Moncure Conway. Moral purists, “a dissenting minority of abolitionists who still held sacred reformers’ emphasis on perfect means,” included people like Stephen and Abby Kelley Foster and Parker Pillsbury, along with support from most of the British immediatists. (3)

As an old saying goes: politics make strange bedfellows. The same goes for social movements. Most immediatists felt conflicted over the Civil War and the rise of the Republican Party. While some appreciated the Republican platform barring the extension of slavery, many others felt the political party fell far short of being a true beacon of change. Lincoln’s commitment in the first two years of the war to waging a conflict for the preservation of the Union rather than one for the destruction of slavery disgusted some immediatists, primarily the moral purists. The interventionists saw opportunities that the war presented as a one-time chance to strike while the iron was hot and end slavery. Interventionists sought ways to work with Lincoln, the Republican Party, and the United States military to move the nation toward a place that also included emancipation as a primary war goal.

The Abolitionist Civil War includes twelve chronological chapters that cover the immediatists’ growing divide during the conflict’s events from April 1861 to May 1865. As political and military advances and setbacks ebbed and flowed, so did the written sentiments and public comments of the key players in both the interventionist and moral purist camps. Cirillo makes excellent use of available primary sources. Ranging from private correspondence to published public statements, these documents track the war’s fluid situations and the immediatists responses to them.

The pressure that immediatists applied eventually proved fruitful in moving the needle toward a militarily necessary emancipation, which was the key goal after all for many of the interventionists. Moral purists, who hoped for the United States to come to an ethical revelation and end slavery because it was wrong and could serve as an opportunity to advance Black rights, and not just because it helped win the war, found themselves disappointed.

With advances like the Confiscation Acts, the Militia Act of 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation, Black soldier enlistments, and the introduction of the Thirteenth Amendment, some abolitionist interventionists—like William Lloyd Garrison, who closed The Liberator newspaper and left the American Anti-Slavery Society shortly after the war ended—felt their job was now complete. Some, like Frederick Douglass and several other former interventionists, along the moral purists, continued the fight by championing Black civil and political rights. Unified, these camps might have accomplished even more in promoting lasting racial justice. Splintered, much remained unfinished.

The Abolitionist Civil War makes a significant contribution to the historiography of the abolitionist movement and emancipation during the Civil War. It recognizes the political pressure and influence immediatists had on ultimately ending slavery (an important point that some recent histories have minimized), while at the same time acknowledging immediatists’ failure to carry that momentum through and beyond Reconstruction.

5 Responses to Book Review: The Abolitionist Civil War: Immediatists and the Struggle to Transform the Union

  1. Unfortunately, it was the immediatists who led to the poor planning that created the sorry state ex-slaves ended up in, with nothing but freedom and a destitute section.

    1. In the constant round of “what ifs” or “who lost” Gettysburg, George Pickett was supposed to dryly comment, “I think the Yankees had something to do with it.” In describing the difficulties about Reconstruction, instead of blaming the abolitionists, who everyone assures us is a tiny group, I think the ex Confederates had something to do with it.

  2. As of 1860, just 2% of Northerners identified as abolitionists, and just 0.5% actually joined abolitionist societies. While Northerners were undoubtedly sympathetic to ending slavery, they certainly did not want to go to war to end it – and so they never did.

  3. The slave states seceded from the Union because they feared, I think correctly, that a Lincoln adminstration would be lethal for slavery. The Republicans had a plan to put the peculiar institution “on the path of extinction.” The United States fought to preserve the Union as its first and primary focus, but the destruction of slavery was necessary to achieve that end, and free staters celebrated its demise. Of course the 180,000 members of the USCT or the US Navy, were fighting to end slavery first.

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