Pay ransom to the owner,
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Boston Hymn”
Many Americans believe that the abolition of slavery was a primary goal of the North from the outset of the Civil War, but the situation was not this straightforward. Certainly, conflict between North and South arose from disagreements over the place of slavery in the Western territories. And clearly, the South seceded and fought to protect slavery. But the North at first waged war only in an effort to bring the seceded states back into the Union. Indeed, President Lincoln and other political leaders worried that embracing an abolitionist course would cause the few slave states that remained in the Union, the border states, to abandon the Union, too—a risk they were unwilling to take. Over time, however, the Union began to see emancipation as essential to military victory, in part because the South so obviously depended on slave labor to support its war effort, and in part because enslaved people quickly demonstrated their willingness to fight to overthrow the Confederacy.
Artworks in this section examine the role that emancipation played for African Americans, how it affected the course of the Civil War, and its enduring significance for the country as a whole.