The Civil War: The Emancipation Proclamation
Part moral rallying point, part strategic war measure, the Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most important documents in American history. Its issuance by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22nd, 1862 marked a major turning point in the American Civil War. In the document, eradicating slavery became a concrete goal of the Union in its bitter military struggle with the Confederacy. Let’s start things off by looking at what caused this document to be written in the first place.
Context of the Emancipation Proclamation
It had taken the U.S. president some time to arrive at a point when he was comfortable stating abolition as a war aim. We know from the time he first took office in March 1861 that Lincoln believed slavery to be repulsive. Just one month after he took office, the Civil War broke out after rebels in South Carolina captured Fort Sumter, and though much of the momentum propelling the country into war had come from the violent national division on the question of slavery, Lincoln refused to proclaim the Union as fighting for slavery’s abolition. At least, not right away.
There wasn’t exactly a clear line between the Union and the Confederacy as being pro-abolition and pro-slavery. The Union had taken over the slave-holding states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, West Virginia, and Missouri on its southern flank – and much as the abolitionists and so-called “radical Republicans” who supported Lincoln would be loath to admit, the Union needed the resources and manpower of these slave states to defeat their Southern opponents. Lincoln couldn’t risk alienating that support as the war entered its opening stages – especially since the Union soon found it had a much-tougher foe on its hands than originally thought.
Kicked off by the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, a series of decisive Confederate victories marked the early years of the war, as incompetent commanders, poor supply, and general lack of strategy hampered the Union severely. Lincoln was in an ever-more awkward position. Now more than ever, he needed the support of every single state in the Union, including the border slaveholding states. But he also needed moral support for the Union side in the war from the soldiers fighting it – a drive for victory that could compensate for and perhaps eventually overcome the Confederacy’s superior skills on the battlefield.
His balancing act was delicate. Real calls for emancipation were already coming from distinguished military men in the Union. In August 1861, Major General John C. Fremont, who several years earlier had been the first Republican candidate for the presidency, was facing brutal guerrilla warfare from rebels in Missouri. To weaken the power of the enemy in that state, under his own authority he declared the slaves of all Missouri secessionists to be free. In May of the next year, David Hunter, another Union major general, declared freedom for slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Wary of the potential for these declarations to cause tumult in the Union’s border slaveholding states, Lincoln had to cancel both emancipation orders – but he began quietly to urge the border states to abolish slavery gradually.
Hunter’s order had also called for the arming of freed slaves, and it was this potential military advantage of emancipation that may have convinced Lincoln to issue his own proposal for emancipation. The draft Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln submitted to his Cabinet for consideration in July 1862, could undermine the foundations of the Confederacy, by freeing slaves in the South and allowing them to join Union forces – and thereby fight with conviction for the government that had freed them. The goal was both military and economic: tap into an enormous reserve of manpower and thereby also rob the South of its main source of labor. At the first reading of Lincoln’s draft though, the Cabinet resisted, persuading their boss that the Union first needed a military victory on the field to precede the proclamation and thereby lend weight to it.
Lincoln couldn’t wait long, because the war had become a bloodbath. With the Battle of Antietam, fought on Union-controlled Maryland territory on September 17th, 1862, the president got his victory – though it was a pyrrhic victory, won at too great a cost to have been worthwhile. One day of fighting resulted in 2,100 Union deaths and 1,550 Confederate deaths. Union General George McClellan and his lieutenants achieved some successes against Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate troops, but they failed to follow through with these advances. Still, they had repulsed a Confederate attempt to invade Maryland.
Lincoln moved quickly. The Emancipation Proclamation issued on September 22nd was actually in the form of an ultimatum, requiring Southern states to return to the Union within roughly three months or have their slaves declared free. When the Confederacy refused and the timetable expired, on January 1st, 1863, Lincoln delivered the final, official version of the proclamation as a presidential order in a speech – in it, he declared that all slaves in Southern, Confederate-controlled territories “…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
The proclamation officially opened up the ranks of the Union army to African-Americans and called for the organization of black regiments. As the Union general staff came into its own and actually began conquering large swathes of Confederate territory – thanks mainly to skilled generalship by Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman – many freed slaves in these areas began to swell the Union ranks. Thanks in large part to the proclamation, roughly 180,000 African-American soldiers, including freed slaves, would fight for the North during the remainder of the war and contribute to the final victory, achieved in April 1865.
Lincoln’s order gave a fresh dose of energy to the moral aspect of the Union fight. For the North, the war now had a very powerful motivating end goal: the destruction of slavery. As they swept into Southern states, Union troops were liberators. Internationally, the legs were cut out from under the Confederacy’s sources of foreign funding: Britain and France, with anti-slavery governments, could no longer justify continued support for a pro-slavery government fighting against an anti-slavery opponent.
This momentum also helped the Republican Party unite around a simple, effective mission: ending slavery in the United States. Lincoln used this focus to introduce the 13th Amendment in 1864, which by February of 1865 had passed both houses of Congress in proposal form and was officially out to the states for approval. After Lincoln’s assassination shortly after war’s end in April, the amendment eventually passed, in December of that year. Inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation and representing its culmination, the amendment eliminated the institution of slavery that had divided the country for so many years.
Let’s end with a review question to see what you can remember:
All of the following are true of the Emancipation Proclamation except
- It gave official sanction to the enlistment of African Americans in the Union army.
- It declared all slaves in Southern Confederate states to be free.
- President Lincoln issued it partly to undermine the economic foundation of the Confederacy.
- According to its terms, three months after its issuance, all slaves in the states of Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri were freed.
Slaves in ALL of the southern confederate states were freed.
Thanks for watching and happy studying!
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- “Military History of African Americans in the American Civil War.” 2023. Wikipedia
- “List of Civil War Battles.” American Civil War Stories