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Slavery in Georgia


Dahlonega
Dahlonega

Slavery was one of the most divisive political issues in Congress in the 19th century. Many Congress members from the Northern states pressed to end slavery, both because it was considered immoral and because white labor could not compete with unpaid black labor. Members from the Deep South (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida) believed that slavery was essential to their cotton-based agricultural system and that the North was trying to dominate the national economy. By the 1850s, the Southern states were united in bitter opposition to proposed congressional legislation barring slavery from the country’s new Western territories. Many in the South were coming to believe that secession from the Union was the only way to protect “Southern rights,” including the right to own slaves. Yet many of Georgia’s leaders urged compromise. Largely through the efforts of three Georgians, Representatives Alexander H. Stephens, Robert Toombs, and Howell Cobb, the Southern states accepted the Compromise Measures of 1850, a series of acts that temporarily settled the issue.

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected president as the candidate of the Republican Party, which opposed the spread of slavery. South Carolina had threatened to secede if the Republicans won, and in December 1860 it did so. Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown immediately advocated secession on the basis of the states’ rights doctrine. Stephens argued against it. While he conceded that Georgia had been treated poorly, he asserted that there was nothing to fear from Lincoln. Stephens had known Lincoln for years and argued that he was no enemy of the South. Moreover, Stephens pointed out that Lincoln as a Republican could do little to interfere with slavery because the Democratic Party controlled Congress and did not agree with the Republicans on the issue. Finally, Stephens pleaded for caution, since Georgia was doing well economically within the Union and might do worse if secession led to civil war.

Secession in January 1861


Despite Stephens’s best efforts, Georgians voted narrowly for secession in January 1861 and joined other Southern states in forming the Confederate States of America. Stephens pledged to support his state regardless of its decision, and was chosen as vice president of the Confederacy. The American Civil War began officially on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina militia bombarded a federal fort in Charleston harbor. During the war, Georgia was a major source of food, arms, and other supplies for the South until 1864. During the early part of the war the only military action in Georgia occurred along the coast, which was blockaded by Union gunboats. In 1862 Union troops captured Fort Pulaski. The first major battle in Georgia was in September 1863, when Union troops were routed at the Battle of Chickamauga.

At Andersonville Prison, near Andersonville, captured Union Army soldiers were confined between February 1864 and April 1865. Out of a total of 49,485 prisoners, about one-fourth of them died from constant exposure to the elements, inadequate food, impure water, congestion, and filth. After the war the prison superintendent, Major Henry Wirz, was tried for war crimes by a U.S. military court and hanged. In the spring of 1864 a Union force, led by General William T. Sherman, invaded Georgia from Tennessee. Sherman and his men took Atlanta in September. After setting fire to the city in November, they resumed their famous march to the sea. Houses in their path were looted, and bridges, railroads, factories, mills, and warehouses were dismantled or burned. Sherman captured Savannah in December and then turned northward and marched into the Carolinas. The Confederacy finally surrendered in April 1865.

With men gone off to war, women successfully ran farms and plantations and supported the Confederacy in a variety of other ways. Women as well as men suffered from the invasion of their homes by conquering armies. Writing shortly after the war, Frances Howard of Bartow County noted that: “By the light of their burning homes, Southern women saw their children die of cold and hunger, and they heard the incendiaries laugh as they quoted the words of one of their leaders: ‘The seed of the serpent must be crushed from the land.’ Are these things easily forgotten?”

The Civil War brought profound change to Georgia. The most positive result was the end of slavery. Blacks were still denied opportunity at every turn, however, and most found their economic condition only slightly better than under slavery. The war had a devastating effect on white Georgians. Thousands of men failed to return home. The abolition of slavery and destruction of factories and fields wiped out much of the South’s capital. "Georgia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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