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The War Behind the Lines

34a. The Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation Proclamation
U.S. Senate
First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln, painted by Francis Carpenter in 1864

Americans tend to think of the Civil War as being fought to end slavery. Even one full year into the Civil War, the elimination of slavery was not a key objective of the North. Despite a vocal Abolitionist movement in the North, many people and many soldiers, in particular, opposed slavery, but did not favor emancipation. They expected slavery to die on its own over time. In the border states — Union states that still permitted slavery — the situation was full of problems. When a Union officer in Kentucky freed local slaves after a major victory, Union soldiers threw down their arms and disbanded. Lincoln intervened and "unfreed" those slaves. He did this to prevent a military backlash.

The Emancipation Proclamation

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

"That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St.Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Do you think that the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished Lincoln's goals?

Yes

No

Emancipation Proclamation
African Americans across the nation celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation. This image shows a Union soldier reading the Proclamation to a slave household.

By mid-1862 Lincoln had come to believe in the need to end slavery. Besides his disdain for the institution, he simply felt that the South could not come back into the Union after trying to destroy it. The opposition Democratic Party threatened to turn itself into an antiwar party. Lincoln's military commander, General George McClellan, was vehemently against emancipation. Many Republicans who backed policies that forbid black settlement in their states were against granting blacks additional rights. When Lincoln indicated he wanted to issue a proclamation of freedom to his cabinet in mid-1862, they convinced him he had to wait until the Union achieved a significant military success.

Emancipation Proclamation map
Slaves in the border states that remained in the Union, shown in dark brown, were excluded from the Emancipation Proclamation, as were slaves in the Confederate areas already held by Union forces (shown in yellow).
Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation
David Blythe imagined a scene like this when he painted President Lincoln Writing the Proclamation of Freedom, January 1, 1863. Note the symbolism in this print, including the flag, the Bible under Lincoln's hand, the Constitution in his lap, the railsplitter at his feet, and the scales of justice in the corner.

That victory came in September at Antietam. No foreign country wants to ally with a potential losing power. By achieving victory, the Union demonstrated to the British that the South may lose. As a result, the British did not recognize the Confederate States of America, and Antietam became one of the war's most important diplomatic battles, as well as one of the bloodiest. Five days after the battle, Lincoln decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863. Unless the Confederate States returned to the Union by that day, he proclaimed their slaves "shall be then, thenceforward and forever free."

It is sometimes said that the Emancipation Proclamation freed no slaves. In a way, this is true. The proclamation would only apply to the Confederate States, as an act to seize enemy resources. By freeing slaves in the Confederacy, Lincoln was actually freeing people he did not directly control. The way he explained the Proclamation made it acceptable to much of the Union army. He emphasized emancipation as a way to shorten the war by taking Southern resources and hence reducing Confederate strength. Even McClellan supported the policy as a soldier. Lincoln made no such offer of freedom to the border states.

The Emancipation Proclamation created a climate where the doom of slavery was seen as one of the major objectives of the war. Overseas, the North now seemed to have the greatest moral cause. Even if a foreign government wanted to intervene on behalf of the South, its population might object. The Proclamation itself freed very few slaves, but it was the death knell for slavery in the United States. Eventually, the Emancipation Proclamation led to the proposal and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which formally abolished slavery throughout the land.
On the Web
Annual Message to Congress — Concluding Remarks, 1862
With a little background information, this webpage from Abaham Lincoln Online offers the concluding paragraphs of Lincoln's address to Congress about his plan of emancipation. "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve." Some of Lincoln's most memorable phrases are here.
Emancipation Proclamation History
The Emancipation Proclamation evolved over time, with a preliminary proclamation in July 1862, further refinement in September 1862, and then the final document which was signed on New Year's Day 1863. This webpage from the Library of Congress gives the details. There are pictures and a timeline with good links to follow, too.
The Emancipation Proclamation: An Act of Justice
Historian John Hope Franklin answers many questions in his easy-to-read article about the Emancipation Proclamation. What sort of day was Lincoln having when he signed it? How was news of the Proclamation received in different parts of the country? By different people? How was it celebrated then and now? Several images and excerpts from James Weldon Johnson's commemorative poem are included, too.
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