A Reader Questions Whether Connecticut Farm Boys Really Were Abolitionists


From: Boyd D. Cathey [Email him]

Peter Brimelow’s excellent January 19 essay, Time to Rethink Martin Luther King Day raised some uncomfortable, but essential, questions that most Americans have, for the past few decades, succeeded in avoiding. For that he deserves our sincere thanks. I have but one comment that I would add: In the discussion about those Connecticut abolitionists, it would have been useful perhaps to provide more context.

Peter Brimelow wrote

The Connecticut Berkshires, where we lived, are a whitopia with absolutely no history of segregation whatsoever. …

But this area of Connecticut was a hotbed of abolitionism. Those Connecticut farm boys joined up in vast numbers, and died in vast numbers, fighting to free the slaves. There was one famous regiment raised in Litchfield County: the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, which despite its name was an infantry regiment and which was shot to pieces at Cold Harbor.

It is true that there were staunch abolitionists in Connecticut and in Massachusetts when war broke out in 1861; but they had always been a minority, even in Connecticut. Indeed, up in nearby New Hampshire former President Franklin Pierce gave a public Fourth of July address that year that was not just antiwar, but seemed to favor Southern secession, writing to his wife: “I will never justify, sustain or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless, unnecessary war.” And Pierce’s view that the Southern states should be allowed to depart in peace was not unique in the North in 1861, even in New England.

Lincoln recognized this from the earliest days of the conflict. Certainly, most Northerners were not keen to fight “to free the slaves,” and Lincoln’s appeals, certainly up to the Gettysburg Address, were mostly pleas to “save the union.” Recall his famous letter to Horace Greeley in late 1862 that if he were able to save the union and maintain slavery, he would:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”

Antislavery propaganda had always existed and was, it is true, growing, but it only became a major weapon in the Northern war effort later in the war, when war fatigue and weariness threatened to unseat the sitting president.

The military defeat of the Southern states not only led to the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, but, more ominously for our recent history, the 14th Amendment, which has served as a Trojan Horse in the destruction of Federalism and the Constitution.  Prior to 1861 the old South counterbalanced whatever radical centripetal forces were percolating north of the Mason Dixon line. After 1865 that counter-weight was largely neutered, and the growth of a powerful central government insured.

Today, rather than emphasize the destruction of the Founder’s union and the Constitution which is actually what happened, it is the glorious defeat of the “slavocracy” and “freeing the slaves” that captures the imagination. It is fits the manufactured historical narrative and the creation of a myth that justifies continued revolutionary change.

It is this myth that Connecticut school children digest today; it fits the progressivist dynamic.

Peter Brimelow writes: I agree that unionism was generally more important than abolitionism, especially in the early stages of the war, but if abolitionism was popular anywhere, it was in New England, specifically Litchfield, the birthplace of Harriet Beecher Stowe.