Indiana in the War Against Slavery: Reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation

Did African Americans deserve equality and justice? A question posed to the entire United States, and a question that could not be answered without the bloodshed of the Civil War. Indiana was a free Union state, but Hoosiers held various answers to the question. While Indiana voted to elect the Republican President Abraham Lincoln and came together to defend the Union, Hoosiers did not demonstrate Republican ideologies when approaching African Americans in their society.

Although Indiana was classified as a free state, most Indiana residents were outright racist and escaping slaves were not safe within the state. Indiana residents of European descent thought that the best society was one without African Americans or slaveholders; which created the society in Indiana that outlawed slavery, but arranged severe restrictions on the African American residents: “they could not vote or hold office, their testimony could not be admitted against a white, and their children could not be educated in the public schools” (Nation and Towne 7). The residents viewed African Americans, free or enslaved, as inferior to whites.

The restrictions on African American residents in the state of Indiana did not satisfy the white population. In 1852, Hoosiers were able to vote on a new State Constitution, which included Article 13, a clause regarding whether or not African Americans could settle within the state (Nation and Towne 13). The Article was passed and thoroughly restricted African Americans from moving to and settling within the state.

The attitudes of the state can also be identified within the laws set in place regarding escaped slaves seeking refuge within the state. An escaped slave, Jermain Loguen and his companion John Farney, traveled through Indiana on their journey from escaping slavery in Tennessee. When Loguen and Farney entered the state from Kentucky they encountered a villager that gave them insight upon life for escaped slaves in Indiana, “it is called a free state- but the laws allow slaveholders to hunt their slaves here, and hold them, to take them back” (qtd. in Nation and Towne 11). This solidifies the fact that Indiana residents, known as Hoosiers, condoned the institution of slavery, as long as it was not in their state.

While Hoosiers did not support the institution of slavery within the state, their opinions differed regarding other states and territories. The ideology of Indiana supporting slavery can further be seen in the thoughts of the Compromise of 1850. The debate regarded the slaveholding status of Kansas and Nebraska. Hoosier democrats displayed their willingness to open those territories to slavery with the principle of popular sovereignty, to leave it up to the states themselves to decide their status and it was not up to the South nor the North to decide (Nation and Towne 17). This attitude was also an attempt to balance the divided Nation of half slave and half free.

The conflicting political views on slavery eventually divided the Northern Democratic Party in two. The party split into two factions over the question of whether to admit Kansas under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution. The Lecompton Constitution would admit Kansas into the Union as a state that permitted slavery. Democrat William H. English, a southern Indiana congressman, sought to find a compromise for the Lecompton Constitution and headed the committee that fought to do so. English attempted to take a position that would allow the people of Kansas to have a fair say on the slavery issue (Nation and Towne 22). Senator Jesse D. Bright of Indiana led the pro-Lecompton faction. Bright was a vigorous defender of slavery and associated the anti-Lecompton Democrats to abolitionists (Nation and Towne 23). The split weakened the Indiana Democratic Party and allowed for the rise of the Republican Party in the state.

The presidential election of 1860 illustrated the various political views held by Hoosiers. Republican Abraham Lincoln swept a majority of votes in the state; but John Bell, a candidate for the Constitutional Union Party that held a neutral stance on slavery, and John Breckenridge, a candidate for the Democratic Party, both received a significant number of votes in some parts of the state (Nation and Towne 33). Border states played a large role in the results of the Indiana presidential election. Parts of Indiana that bordered Kentucky, a union state that allowed slavery, primarily voted Southern Parties; while counties bordering Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan primarily voted Republican. While Indiana was a Union state that did not allow slavery, the state had a large southern-born population and ancestral ties to the south.

Freedom was defined differently by each party. The Republican Party ultimately wanted to establish equality between African Americans and whites. Republicans did not want to abolish slavery immediately, but wanted to inhibit its westward expansion (Nation and Towne 28). The Northern Democrats generally held a middle-ground view and thought freedom should be defined by the state (qtd. in Nation and Towne 31). Southern Democrats were viewed as extremists by the Northern Democrats and thought that freedom was for whites and slavery should exist across the United States (qtd. in Nation and Towne 33). The views of freedom in Indiana varied county to county, due to the ideologies of the parties residing in them, further solidifying the fact that African Americans were not completely safe within the state.

As tensions rose with the threats of secession around them, Hoosiers began to debate the thought of secession themselves. The possibility that all of the slave states would leave the Union would mark the Ohio River as the boundary line of contending nations, nations that were on the verge of war; some Hoosiers said that they would secede if Kentucky left the Union to prevent themselves from being the border state (Nation and Towne 28). On the other hand, William Ross, a farmer from Terre Haute, displayed the thoughts of Hoosier who did not want to secede. Ross wrote to his Uncle, “the south is making a great to do and for what. No other cause only because a corrupt and foul party could not rule any longer and for my part I say let them secede if they wish . . .” (qtd. Nation and Towne 37). The Hoosiers who did not want to secede, were willing to fight for Republicans to keep the state in the Union.

Although Indiana was a politically divided state, Hoosiers came together to preserve the Union. The citizens of Dubois County, one of the most solidly democratic counties in the state, called a Union meeting and expressed their opinions about the secession crisis, “. . . it is now time for the people to arise in their power and take their destinies in their own hands, and thereby save the Union . . . African slavery does not afford any reason for destroying the liberties of twenty-six million of whites, and plunging them into unholy, unjust, and fratracidal war . . .” (qtd. in Nation and Towne 39, 40, 41). Even with opposing political views, Indiana was ready to defend their state and the Union in the upcoming war against the Confederacy.

Although Indiana Democrats and Republicans were both racist, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the two parties had very different reactions. Many Democrats were disgusted by the Emancipation Proclamation and thought that freed African Americans would undercut workers’ wages and lead to interracial marriage and race mixing. Some soldiers even deserted their units in disapproval (Nation and Towne 104). Democrats not only voiced their opinions, but took their concerns to the polls. Democrats turned out in large numbers and swept the polls of the October 1862 elections in Indiana and other states (Nation and Towne 105). Democrats thoroughly opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and made their disproval known to all parties.

Republicans worked to defend the Emancipation Proclamation. An article written by an Indiana Republican Newspaper expressed the Republican views on the ‘remedy’ of the Proclamation:

“. . . when we have conquered the treason which is now striving to ruin our commerce and strangle our liberties, then we should be less than sensible men if we did not also put down forever what which has alone supported and strengthened the mutinous aristocrats. It is impossible not to see that human slavery is the canker-worm which has for so many years gnawed at the heart of our republic. We should fatally be in error, therefore, as a nation if we did not make an end of this thing, which alone has shackled our progress, and which now has caused the desperate attempt to overthrow the government and the Union. (qtd. in Nation and Towne 106)

This article displays not only the Republicans feelings of what slavery is doing to the nation, but also what the Emancipation Proclamation will fix. Republicans believed that slavery was the root cause of the destruction of the Union; so, when Lincoln announced the Proclamation, they believed it would give new hope to the country and mend the broken nation.

As the Civil War continued, African Americans began to fight alongside Union soldiers. Some Hoosiers did not support the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army. An Indiana Democrat, W.W. Rodman, wrote to a Democratic congressman and expressed his concerns of the new policy. Rodman thought that it is degrading and miserably humiliating that 19 free states and 7 territories with a white population of 20 million could not defeat the slave holding states, where the white population did not exceed 6 million, without the help of African Americans in the Union Army (qtd. in Nation and Towne 117). Democratic politicians were not the only ones who opposed the recruitment of African Americans. A Union soldier wrote to his parents, “The idea of adopting the negro into the United States service seems to me to be useless. I consider they would be of no force at all” (qtd. in Nation and Towne 119). Although many Hoosiers opposed the recruitment of African Americans to help defend the Union, policy did not change and blacks began to fight alongside whites.

Many African Americans who fought for the Union were treated like second-class citizens, but that did not hinder their patriotic desire to serve the country. More than 120 Hoosiers of African descent served in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment (Nation and Towne 120). William Edrington served as a private in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment. Edrington wrote to Governor Morton of Indiana with his concerns; Edrington did not hesitate to join the cause when the country called and was offered the same pay as white troops. Edrington received a $50 bounty from the state upon arrival to the camp in Boston, but after that he received no pay, clothing, rations, or equipment.

Even under these conditions, Edrington did not want to leave the service, he plead for fairness and wanted transferred back to an Indiana regiment (qtd. in Nation and Towne 121). Edrington was not the only Hoosier of African descent who shared their thoughts on serving the Union. Benjamin Trail, a schoolteacher from Knightstown, was the highest ranking African American of the Twenty-Eighth United States Colored Troops Regiment, a unit organized in Indiana (Nation and Towne 122).

Trail’s experience was much different than Edrington’s. Trail was a Sergeant Major for the unit and his tasks were to order details and make out reports. Trail also wrote that the white soldiers around him were very friendly (qtd. in Nation and Towne 122). Due to Trail’s education, he was placed in a higher-ranking role and kept out of the deep south. Although Edrington and Trail were treated like second-class citizens by whites, both still wanted to defend the Union and fight for the cause to end slavery throughout the country.