Many northerners supported the war in hope of preserving the nation. They soon realized, however, that the government would have to abolish slavery to triumph over the Confederacy. Southern society was defined by slavery. Southern wealth depended on slaves’ labor and the sale of slave-grown cotton to manufacturers in England and elsewhere. With the emergence of the Republican Party—and especially with Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 nomination for the presidency—the North identified itself with “free labor” ideology, which asserted that workers were entitled to the fruits of their own toil.
Confederates hoped both cotton and slaves would be assets to their cause, but the US government soon commandeered these resources. Agents of the treasury department seized planters’ profits from the cotton trade, and in 1863 military officials began enlisting southern slaves to fight in the US Army. Successful experiments with cotton grown by free laborers and with the raising of black troops contributed decisively to the demise of the Confederacy.
Northern publications traced slaves’ escapes to Union lines and described, in words and pictures, how enslaved men were transformed from human chattel into American soldiers. They also depicted the transformation of cotton from a source of Confederate strength into a strategic weapon of the Union.