*** the American Civil War -- Emancipation


Emancipation proclamation
Figure 1.--Abraham Lincoln since the Civil War has been a hero black Americans. Some historians in recent years have tried to depict Lincoln as a reluctant liberator. One of the reasons for this is a superficial understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation. Here an elderly gentleman, likely a Grand Army of the Republic veteran, tells a young froend about Lincoln. This photograph was taken by Anne Schriber in 1922.

President Abraham Lincoln has since the Civil War been revered as the Great Emancipator. Revisionist historians have in recent years questioned Linclon's committment. Some have charged the Emancipation Proclamation as an inconsequentional document. Others have advanced the theory of self emancipation. These assertions do not hold up to historical analysis. Emancipation was not an inevitable outcome of the Civil War. It was Lincoln's astute leadership that accomplished this. The Emancipation Proclamation was in fact one of the key documents in American history. Not other document except perhaps the Declaration of Independence had a more revolutionary impact on America. It was certainly the most revolutionry document ever signed by an American president. The Proclamation itself was closely tied to the progress of the War. Like many other steps on race issues, it was not taken by Congress, but was a presidential proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln had wanted to act sooner on the slavery issue, but was afraid that Confederate victories would make emancipation look like an act of desperation. Only after the Federal victory at Antitem (September 1862), did he feel confident to proceed. President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that all "... slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, ... then ... in rebellion ... forever free." It was a half measure to be sure. The slaves in the border states were not freed. It did signal, however, a fundamental shift in Federal policy. The War was now to be fought, not only to preserve the Union, but to free the slaves. One of the interesting aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is its very legalistic tone, in sharp contrast to the soaring retoric of his Gettysburg Address or the Second Inagural.


Slavery at the time of Abraham Lincoln's election was surely the most important economic institution in America. Slaves were woth more vluable than the dollar value of all the factories, banks, and railroads combined. And the fact that they produced cotton, an export commodity earning foreign currency and gold made the slaves doubly valuable in economic terms. Most of the early presidents had been slave holders and slave holders hah had emense influence on the Federal Government for most of America's first century. Since the Jacksonia era they had used the threat of sucession to limit influence Federal policy. And with the Compromise of 1850, fugative slaves could pursued into the free states. And given the voting power of the Southern states in Congress and composition of the Supreme Court, emancipation was an political imposibility. The abolitionist Movement in the North had an important inpact on public thinking, but emncipation was simply economically and politically impossible as long as the southern sttes remained in the Union. President Lincoln shortly before his assination decribed the end of slavery as simply 'astounding'. [Foner, p. 108.]

Abraham Lincoln and Slavery

Abraham Linclon is perhaps the most revered president in American history. Once commonly called the "Great Emancipator. It has become fashionable to question his claim to that title. He has never been popular among those most sympthetic to the South who tried to paint a humane face on the slave system and the ante-bellum South. Some Black historians criticise his slowness to act on slavery as well as his commitment to emancipation. Any serious assessment of Lincoln reveals that he hated slavery. Lincoln wrote, "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel." He is also quoted as saying, "I am not an abolitionist, but I am mighty near one." Here his reservation does not concern the objective of emancipation, but the most sure way of achieving it in a country where even in the North many were oposed to abolition. Some of the reservations about Lincoln relate to the limited scope of the Emancipation Proclamation and its legalistic rather than visionary language. One Critic asks why Lincon did not go faster and further. Some claim that the Emancipation Proclamation when issued freed no one as it specified slaves in Rebel controlled areas. One historian attemots to answer these questions and maiantains that emancipation was Lincoln's deepest desire of the soul. He also maintains that Lincoln has notvbeen given too much credit for Emancipation, but rather not enough. [Guelzo, LEP.]

Lincoln and Race

Some contemporary authors have come to denegrate Limcoln, primarily by questioning his commitment to emancipation. A typical example of this line of thought is, "Lincoln had been reluctant to come to this position. A believer in white supremacy, he initially viewed the war only in terms of preserving the Union. As pressure for abolition mounted in Congress and the country, however, Lincoln became more sympathetic to the idea. On Sept. 22, 1862, he issued a preliminary proclamation announcing that emancipation would become effective on Jan. 1, 1863, in those states still in rebellion." [Miller] We believe this to be a very shallow assessment of President Lincoln's views on slavery. The term "white supremecy" is a value laden term with many different meanings and is this not the best to use in this discussion. It is quite true that he was a racist in modern terms. In fact there were very few people in America and Europe that were not racists, believing that whites were superior to blacks. Racist ideas, however, did not mean that one supported slavery. Essentially racist attitides toward blacks was true among almost all abolitionists in the North. Lincoln's dectractors point to a variety of racist comments, mostly made in Illionois while he was engaged in political debates. Here two important points have to be considered. While Lincoln's attitudes toward Blacks are a matter of some discussion, his commitment to emancipation are beyond question.

Lincoln's Emancipation Plan

Many have assumed that Lincoln came to the Emancipation because he grew in the office. Actually Lincoln had a well thought out plan for emancipation when he arrived in Washington in March 1861 for his innaguration. His plan was a program of gradualism in which the states would be induced to emancipate slaves through a system of compensation to be financed by Fedral bonds. He was willing to accept a gradual emancipation if the states would agree to emancipation as the eventual outcome. Those who would criticze this approach need to remember that under the Constitution, slavery was a state matter and the Federal Government had no Constitutional authority to interfere. This was Lincoln's most important goal for his administration. After the Conderates chose to suceed, he began to persue this approach, focusing on Deleware, the borde state where slavery was the weakest. He met with Deleware politicans and bills were put before both houses of the legislature. [Guelzo, LEP.]


The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the key documents in American history. Not other document except perhaps the Declaration of Independence had a more revolutionary impact on America. The Proclamation itself was closely tied to the progress of the War. Like many other steps on race issues, it was not taken by Congress, but was a presidential proclamation. Almost all actions on slavery and race relations in America have been taken by the President or the Federal Courts. The Congress until the Great Depression and World War II was the key institution in national government. Yet on slavery before the Civil War and race relations/civil rights after the War, it was paralized. The only major Congressional action was the abolishing the slave trade in 18?? and the Fugative Slave Acts associated with the Missouri Compromise to hold the Union together. Almost all Federal action, except during Reconstruction when Southern Congressmen were absent, were taken by the President or the Federal Courts. There is a long list of such actions. Court cases like Dread Scott (1857), Plessy vs. Fergusson (1896), and Brown vs. Topeka (1954). Presidential action like Rosevelt's executive opening jobs in defense industries anf Truman's desegration of the Federal Government and the military. Only in the Adminisration of Lyndon Johnson did Congressional action occur: the Civil Rights Act (1864) and the Voting Rights Act (1865).

Militia Act (July 1861 )

Congress rewrote the old Militia Acts of 1792. Most Congressmn thought that the Souther rebellion would be easily and quickly defeated. Most anticuated a decisive victory as the army of the Potomac confrinted Cinfederate forces near Manasa, Virginia. The ensuing Battke of Bull Run was a decisive Confederate victory. Defeated Federal forces streamed back into Washingon. Days after the Federal defeat at Bull Run, Congress passed the Militia Act of 1792 (July 29, 1861). The purpose was to raise the larger army that now obvious to all would be needed to end the rebellion. Much of that force would be raised as militias by the states. The major change from the 1792 Militia Acts was that that Congress authorized that the state militias could be used not only to repel foreign invasion and Indian attacks, but to supress the rebellion. Blacks, both free and slaves, had fought in the Continental Army and state militias, mostly northern militias. Washington first opposed enlisting blacks in the Continental Army, but changed his mind as he saw the vluable contribution they made. The 1792 Acts departedcfrom that precedent and specifically excluded 'non-whites' from military service. The 1861 Act did not change this restriction.

Initial Federal Actions

Lincoln began his assault on slavery soon after the Southern states suceeded and it was clear that only a resort to arms could preseve the Union. The Federal Government guided by Lincoln and supported by Congressional Republicans took a number of preliminary steps on the slavery issue. Oakes] Federal military commanders were forbidden to return fugitive slaves (March 13, 1862). This annulled the Fugative Slave Law. Linclon guided a measure through Congress offering to reimburse slave owners who freed their slaves. As a result, slaves in Washington D.C., a Federal enclave, were freed (April 16, 1862). Their owners received $300 for each slave. The Deleware Compensation Act was passed (April 16, 1862). Also at Lincoln's behest, Congress prohibited slavery in U.S. territories (June 19, 1862). Territories meant primarily the western territories that had not yet entered the Union and not the various States. This action was in defiance of the Supreme Court's Fred Scott case which held that Congress did not have the authority to regulate slavery in the territories. It almost certainly would have been struck down if brought before the Court.

Confiscation Acts (1861-64)

The Confiscation Acts a series of laws passed by Congress to liberate slaves in the states that seceeded from the Union. Congress passed the first Confiscation Act (August 6, 1861). The Act authorized theseizure of rebel property. Slaves who fought with or worked for the Federal military services were to be freed. This was not part ofPresident Lincoln's broad strategy. The President thought that they might push the border states to secced and join the Confederacy. He also thought that the Act would be struck down by the Taney Court. The President subsequently convinced Congress to pass a resolution offering compensation to states that adopted emancipation. There was, however, no success in the border states to adopt this approch. Lincoln also repudiated military commanders (Generals John C. Fr�mont and David Hunter) who attempted to use the Cofiscatory Act to emancipate slaves. Congress passed a second Confiscation Act that was more narrowly focussed on slavery (July 17, 1862) The law provided that the slaves of civilian and military Confederate officials �shall be forever free,� but it could be enforced only in areas of the Confederacy that was occupied by the Federal Army. The President was still concerned about the impact on the border states. He continued to promote his plan of gradual emancipation and compensation of their owners. Congress passed two additinal measures (March 12, 1863 and July 2, 1864) Tese were the Captured and Abandoned Property Acts�. The Acts defined the property that was subject to seizure as the assetts of individuals who had fled with the approach of Federal armies. The Confederate Congress replied by passing their own property confiscation acts aimed at Union supporters. These Laws sound more important than they actually were. There were slaves freed and large amount of cotton was consiscated. Other than this, very little property was confiscated.

Linclon Temporizes

It is true that Lincoln temporized in 1861 and early 1862. General John C Fremont in Missouri ordered the seizure of the slaves and property of those determined to be in Rebellion (August 31, 1861). Lincoln ordered him to modify the order and soon replaced him. (This was an especially notable act because Freemont had been the Republican nominee in 1856.) General David Hunter in South Carolina took similar actions (May 1962). Lincoln voided it and also replaced him. The Republican Congress passed two Confiscation Acts. Lincoln sign both, but did not move to implement them. Some historians wonder about why Lincoln temprized on these actions. This has led some poorly informed historians to suggest that Lincoln moved towad enancipation only when forced to do so. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lincoln in fact was demonstrating his mastery of the politics and conduct of the War. It was critical during the first year of the War before the United States had a substantual army to hold the border states. And preservatipn of the Union was a much more effective recruiting slogan than freeing the slaves. A key concern was also the need to hold the border states. More important, however, was the Federal Courts. Lincoln want a permanent settlement of the slavery issue. The Constitution clearly made slavery a state matter. The Federal Government had no powere to intervene. Actions by military governors and the Congress would have not legal standing after the War. Based on the Dread Scott case and other legal precedents, the Federal Courts could and probably would have returned former slaves to their owners after the War. The major rationale for Lincoln's gradual approach was to avoid just this problem by keeping the issue out of the Federal Courts. And Lincoln did not want the appearance of desperation among Confedrate military victories. He needed an imprtant Federal victory.

Border States

It was critical in 1861 to keep the border slave states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Deleware) in the Union. There was strong support for the Confederacy and slavery in all these states. There was also support for the Union, but an early emancipation almost surely would have drove some of these states to the Confederacy. Lincoln used other measures such as martial law and a show of strength with Federal troops to retain the border states. Here Lincoln took a more gradualist approach abd would excempt the Border States from the Emancipation Proclamation. Officials in the Border States were coaxed to free the skaves with promises of possible compensation. [Oakes]

Poltical Climate

President Abraham Lincoln had wanted to act sooner on the slavery issue. Here had very serious limitations. Large numbers of Northerners not only were not in favor of emancipation, but steadfastily against it. In the era before public opinion polls this is difficult to judge, but it was a widely hels opinion in many Northern states including Lincoln's own state of Illinois and the key northern state of New York. Other key problems were the Federal Courts which had ruled in the Dread Scott case essentially that slaves could not become citizens and opposition bordering on insubordination by the popular commander of the Army of the Potomoc--General George C. McCellan. Not one has well reserched this matter, but there was talk in the Army of marching n Washington and setting up a military government to oust Lincoln. Today it is assumed that the North was solidly behind Linclon and his effort to preserve the Union and free the slaves. This was not the case. If Lincoln had spoken openly of abolitonist sympathies he could not have even been an important factor in Illinois politics. Illinois was a free state, but abolitionists were a decided minority. The Northern public was agast at the horendous casulties. Nor was there any ground swell of support for abolition. In the Congressioanl elections of November 1862, there were 45 Republican Congressmen who lost their House seats. Lincoln's insistance on the Emancipation Proclamation reqwuired considerable political courage. Two northern legislatures (Illinois and Indiana) were so critical of the Emancipation Proclamation that they had to be closed by their govenors. [Guelzo, "Seven Score"] Note that no states were more associated with Lincoln than Illinos and Indiana. The New York draft riots of 1863 are testimony to just how tenuous Northern support for emancipation was. Historians see Lincoln's decession to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as one of the great examples of presidential leadership. [Beschloss]

Preservation of the Union

Many authors have asserted that Lincoln placed preservation of thre Union above the goal of emancipation. For some this was an appropriate decession for others it is a criticism. Horace Greely for not supporting confiscation (August 1862). Lincoln's reply has often been quoted, "I would save the Union ...." For Lincoln there was no contridiction between saving the Union and emancipation. Unless the Union was preserved there would be no emancipation. Thus Lincoln's primary goal had to be the preservation of the Union. What was critical in 1861 and 62 was to recruit a large army to force the sothern states back into the Union. Sentiment for preserving the Union was strong in the North. Sentiment for emancipation was much weaker. Many Federal soldiers who enlisted to save the Union would have not done so to emancipate blacks in the South.

Constitutional Matters

Two terms used in any discussion of the Civil War are marshal law and the presidents war powers. The term marshal law appears no where in the Constitution. The Constitution does specify that in time of war that the president becomes the commander in chief of the armed forces. This suggests some additional powers, but they are not specified. While the military did declare marshal law and PresidentbLincoln claimed war powers during the war, the minimal constitutional basis means that such actions would have no real standing after the war. A series of court actual decisions such as Ex-Parte Mulligan underscore this. It is one reason why Lincoln did not favor emancipation based on marshall law or his war powers. It would mean thar emancipation could be reversed by Federal Court action after the War. It was this lack of legal permanance that explain Lincoln disfavor toward emncipation by marshal law. [Guelzo, LEP.]

Runaway Slaves: Contrbands

After the Civil War erupted, large numbers of slaves flocked to Federal lines. Federal troops also occupied substantial areas in the rebelious states. The slaves who ran away and began reaching Federal units were at first referred to as "contaband". Federal law at the time before issued the Emancipation Proclmation became effective (January 1, 1863) required run away slaves to be returned to their masters. Most of their masters, however, were in rebellion and such an action would have alienated northern abolitionists who were strongly supporting the Federal war effort. It would have also hurt the Federal cause in Europe where diplomats were struggling to keep Britain and France from recognizing the South. Both countrues had strong economic ties to the South which was their primary source of cotton. This is much more important than it sounds today. Cotton was a critical commodity in the 19th century and in fact central to the emerging industrial economies of Britain and France. Yet anti-slavery sentiment made it difficult for either government to recognize the Confederacy. The runaways were not at first accepted as soldiers. Federal units began, however, using them as laborers, both to construct fortifications and in daily camp chores like laundry and cooking.

Milita Act of 1862 (July 1862)

Federal and Conderate forces fought pitched battles in 1861 and early 1862. The public in both North nd South began to see that it would not be a short war. And they were horrified by the level of casualties sustained. The leatality of weapons had increased substantiallu, but military tactics had not evolved accordingly. The extent of the casualties engendred a heated debate in the North about using blacks in the military to add to the Federal war effort. There were two sources of black man power involved. First were norhern free black volunteers. Decond were even large numbers of 'contrabands'. The were slaves who fled to Federal lines as Federal armies penetrated into slave states. Congress passed the Militia Act of 1862 (July 17, 1862). The Act ammended the Militi Act of 1861 so as to allow individuls of 'African ancestry' to participate as war laborers. The labor aspected was stated specifically--"for the purpose of constructing intrenchments, or performing camp service or any other labor". Congress added, "or any military or naval service for which they may be found competent". This is an awkward way of saying 'combat' and displays doubts as to the possible military effectiveness of black soldiers. This was a major legal step. Fir the first time since 1792, Congress was authorizing black soldiers to serve in the military. The Act, however, went much further. It also was an important step toward emanifpation, it emancipated the 'mother and his wife and children" of those serving in the military. This only included slaves in the Confederacy, it did not include slaves in the border states unless the slave owner supported the Confedercy. There were two other additional aspects of the Act. The offer of emancipation extended for 'any man or boy' seving in the military. And notice that only the mother is specified for emancipation, not the father. The assumption was that a father should have volunteered as well. The Act was controversial. Many northners did not want to arm balcks. Abolitionists on the other hand saw the Act as a first step toward equality. A controversy developed because the pay stipulated for black soildiers was only $10 a month nd not the $13 white soldiets were paid. Many of the resulting black regiments protested and refused to accept pay until Congress amended that portion of the Militia Act and granted equal pay to all black soldiers (June 15, 1864).

Lincoln's Change of Mind

Lincoln abruptly changed his mind in mid-1862. There are three primary reasons for this change in policy.
Failure of gradualism: Lincoln overestimate the difficulties of his plan of gradualism and compensation. The Deleware House passed the bill, but it could not be pushed through the state Senate. This was a huge dissapointment because Deleware was the border state in which support for slavery was the weakest. If the plan could not be approved in Delware. Prospects were bleak in the other border states. If Lincoln had more time he might have contunued to push his plan, but in mid-May he realized he did not have time.
Religious conviction: Lincoln is the president most intensively discussed by historians. Even so, very little is written about his religious conviction. Linclon appears, however, to have been strongly moved by his religious convictions. At the beginning the War he rather idealistically believed that the rightiousness of the cause would mean a quick Federal victory. This of ourse did not occur and the first 2 years of the War brought important Condfederate victories. Lincoln agaonized over this and apparently concluded that God had dragged out the War because he had a higher purpose. Lincoln thus made as he described it to intimates a Conven with God. The War must be made into a struggle against slavery. [Guelzo, LEP]
General McCellan: General George C. McCellan was a major figure in the early Federal war effort. He was a gifted organizer and built the Army of the Potomac into a poweful force that would eventually under a more determined commander smash Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. McCellan regarded Lincoln as an incompetent and was known to refer to him asca gorilla. In the Peninsula Campaign McCellan within a few miles of Richmond with an overweaming force was defeated by Lee in the Seven Day's battle. McCellan then cabeled Secretary of WarStanton blaning him for the failure. McCellan once refused to see Lincoln who called on him and avoided any discussion of strategy with him while speaking with Congressional Democrats. The critical event was a meeting at Harrison's Landing (May 1862). McCellan gave Lincoln a letter that was openly insubordinate if not a an open threat of a military seizure of power. McCellan told Lincoln that military power should not interfere with 'servitude' and that he could not guarantee the Army's loyalty if Lincoln tied emanciption to the preservation of the Union. It appears that this convinced Lincoln that any act of emancipation would have to be preemtive. [Guelzo, LEP.] It also must have been a factor in McClellan's dismissal after Antitem.

Worst-kept Secret

As Lincoln played with the wording of the Emancipation Proclamation, his intentions were perhaps the worst kept secret in Washington during the Summer of 1862. He discussed the measure with Vice President Hamlin, members of the Cabinent, Congressional leaders, and friendly journalists. Here Lincoln was not being naive or indescrete. Lincoln was a masterful politican, arguably the most masterful of all our presidents. These discussions were essentially trial baloons to test how the measure would be received by the public, important in how we would craft the measure..

Timing: Antitem (September 1862)

Lincoln was ready to proceed with the Emancipation Proclamation at a cabinent meeting in early September 1862 . Secretary of State Seward was afraid that action in the wake of the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 30 1862) would make emancipation look like an act of desperation. After the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lee moved north, crossing the Potomac at Harper's Ferry in the hope of obtaining supplies and support in Maryland (a slave state) and seizing Washington. Lincoln deciced that the time had come. If Lee was defeated he was going to send him back across the POlomac with the Emancipation Proclamation following hm. One of the decisive battles of the War occurred at Antitem (September 17, 1862). McClellan stoped Lee's advance. Most military historians believe that had McCellan pressed the battle that Lee's Army would have been destroyed, in effect ending the War. Regardless it was a Federal victory.

Announcement (September 1862)

President Lincoln followiung the Federal victory at Antietem felt confident to proceed with emancipation. He announced his intention to emancipate the slaves within 100 days (September 22). This time there were no objections raised by the Cabinet. Lincoln discussed the Proclamation with the Cabinent which suggested softening a passage suggesting that the Federal Government was attemting to foment a slave insurrection. Lincoln reworked the passage. Lincoln also announced his plans to the press. Thus his intention was known to the public as the Congressional mid-term elections progressed. The President finally signed the document (December 30).

Mid-term Election of 1862 (November 1862)

Lincoln's insistance on announcing the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 was an act of great political courage. He could have easily delayed it until after the November election. Lincoln was under no illusion about the consequences. Some of the most rabid rascist verbage in American poltics ocuured during the campaign. While slavery had many opponents in the North, even among Abolitionists the doctrine of white supremecy was widely heald. Many in the North were apauled by the prospect that Blacks would set in juries, go to schools with white children, and even vote. Others especially immigrants were concerned about competition over jobs. The Republicans were punished and punished badly in the November election. The Republicans not only loss sears in Congress, but in many state legislatures as well as reces for govenors. The new Democratic legislature in Illinois demanded peace negotiations. The new Democratic Governor of New York pledged to oppose emancipation. [Guelzo, LEP.]

President Lincoln

President Abraham Linclon was viewed after the Emancipation Proclamation as the Great Emancipator. As a result of Emancipation and his leadership in the successful struggle to maintain the Union, he is one of the towering figures in American history. The President saw the Emancipoation Proclamation as "the central act" of his administration. [Guelzo, "Seven Score"]

State of the Union (December 1, 1862)

Pesident Lincoln in his 1862 State of the Union report expressed his support for a Constitutional Amendment abolishing slavery. His proposal was essentially the same as the 13th Amendment which was eventually passed, only Linclon included a provision for reimnursement of slave holders and Federal assistance in funding emancipation. Condederate leaders who sill believed that military success was within their grasp showed no interest in abandoning the War.

The Proclamation (January 1863)

President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that all "... slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, ... then ... in rebellion ... forever free." Totally lacking in the Emancipation Proclamation was any attempt at retoric or moral justification. Rather the justification was military necessity. Buried in the text was authorization for balcks to enlist in the military. As one observer notes, the Emancipation Proclamation was as notable for what it did not say as for what it did say. There was not mention of citzenship and the right to vote. No mention of civil rights. [Guelzo, "Seven-Score"] One of the interesting aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is its very legalistic tone, in sharp contrast to the soaring retoric of his Gettysburg Address or the eloquent plea for national reconciliation of the Second Inagural. The Emancipation Proclamation was very plainly written. In fact all the whereases, therefores, and aforesaids make it sound more like a contarct for a used car. Historian Richard Hofstadter commented that the Emancipation Proclamation "has all the moral grandeur of a bill of landing". Why did Lincoln draft a document that was so legalistic. Seeminly if ever a proclamtion cried out for soaring retoric it was the Emancipation Proclamation and few presidents were capable of the retoric that the occassions demanded. It was Lincoln's decission to draft such a plain if not flat, legalistic document. And the reason was the Supreme Court

Recruitment of Blacks

The Emancipation opened the wan for recruitment of black soldiers, both Nortern freemen abnd runaway southern slaves. One author writes, :"The Emancipation Proclamation went a step beyond the Militia Act of the previous July. The statue mentioned only physicalmlabor--'constructing intrenchments, or performing camp service'--whreas Lincoln authorized the enlistment of black men into the 'armed service' of the United States 'to garrison forsts, positions, stations, and other places, and to m,an vesels of all sorts in said service.' Once the president had authorized the enlistment of blacks into 'armed service' it was but one last step to the deployment of black soldiers in combat." [Oakes] Once in uniform it was inevitable that they would be used in combat. Hard pressed Federal commanders saw the black recruits as a god send to replace depleted units. They would play a major role in the last 2 years of the War.

Taney Court

President Lincoln had considerable reason to be concern with what the Supreme Court might do after the War. The Supreme Court was led by Chief Justice Roper P. Taney, appointed by Andrew Jackson. The Taney Court had delivered arguably the worst decession in American history--the Dread Scott decession (1857). The decession settled the the question the civil status of blacks. The Court held that blacks were not and could not be citizens. Teney was convinced that the decession would defuse the sectional tensions building at the time. He advised newly elected President Buccanan of this even before the decession was issued. It is critical to understand the Taney Court when studying the modern historical debate over the Emancipation Proclamation. The Court was composed of Democrats and could easily have struck down a more expansive Emancipation Proclamation. This is why Lincoln wrote such a legalistic document and why he alsp persued the 13th Amendment. There is no doubt that without the 13th Amendment that the Emancipation Proclamation would have been brought before the Court and almost certainly questioned. Slave owners would have used the courts to recover their "lost property". The Court had begun to strike down various actions taken by the Lincoln Administration. Court rulings on military tribunals (in Ex-parte Mulligan) and prize cases give an indication of court hostility to the Lincoln Administration. Chief Justice Taney died in December 1864, but the make-up of the court was still little changed.

Federal War Aims

It was a half measure to be sure. The slaves in the borer states were not freed. It did signal, however, a fundamental shift in Federal policy. The War was now to be fought, not only to preserve the Union, but to free the slaves. For Lincoln there was no change in his view of the War. In the public mind it did change their view of the War.

Foreign Relations

The general assessment is that the Emancipation Proclamation made European intervention impossible becuse of anti-slavery sentiment there, especially in Britain and France. I think this was certainly a important factor, but the issue is much more complicated. We have not yet fully assessed the possibility of foreign intervention and the forces at play. While anti-slavery sentiment was strong, it was not necessarily the dominant factor--especially among politically powerful forces. There was still considerable anti-American feeling among the British aristocracy both for historical reasons and because of a objection to the principles of a democratic republic. America at the time was the only important functioning republic. There was considerable sentiment for the Confederacy in the British parliament. The influential Times of London voiced this sentiment. The industrial revolution was centered on cotton textiles. The developing industrial economies of both Britain and France were dependant on Southern cotton. The new industrial class was strongly pro-Confederate. Workers sympthized wih the slaves, but there livelihood was at stake. Prince Albert counceled Goverment leaders not to intervene but he died in 1861. British interventionists had to be concrned with the possible mpact of American commerce raiders. The historical tension between Britain and France was another factor. It was lkikely that an independent Confederacy would have been more receptive toward French imperial ambitions in Mexico. This rose the spector of a Napoleonic Empire in the Americas.

Self Emancipation

Some modern hisorians have argued that the slaves essentially emancipated themselves by running away to Federal lines and by enlisting in the Federal armies. While this is a tempting proposition, it does not hold up to historical scrutiny. We do not question that slaves did play a part in their own emancipation, but without the leadership of Lincoln and other anti-slavery forces, slavery may have well survived the Civil War. Black soldiers played an important part in the Federal victory. Black regiments were especially important in the fighting during 1864 and 65. They were so important that even the Condederacy began seriously considering the raising of black regiments. It is not true, however, that the run away slaves that joined the Federal colors could not have been reenslaved.


Much has been made of the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves in the border states. But relatively few slaves lived in the border states. The great bulk of the slave population lived in the Deep South where they worked on cotton and other plantations. And while the Army of the Potomac struggled to reach Richmond in the East, other Federal armies took substantial areas of the Condederacy in the West. New Orleans fell early in the War because of Federal naval power. Grant after a long campaign took Vicksburg, Mississppi (July 1863). Sherman finally took Atlanta, Georgia (September (1864). Federal armies seized coastal areas of South Carolina, in part using black regiments (1863). In the process of these campasigns, large numbers of black slaves were freed. I am not sure how many slaves were freed in this manner as oppossed to running away to Federal lines. Nor do I know of any reliable estimates exist on this.

The 13th Amendment (1864-65)

President Lincoln knew that emancipation by presidential order was highly tenuous given the composition of the Taney Court. Emancipation by legislative action was constitytionally more sound, but even this was not court proff. The only sure way of achieving permanent emancipation was amending the Constitution. This was a very difficult process. After the Bill of Rights, by the time of the Civil War there had only been two amendments approved to the Constitution. It proved to be a difficult effort. Despiite the absence of the slave states, there was considerable opposition. Almost all the Democrats opposed the proposed amendment. It took all of Lincoln's political skills to guide the Amendment through Congress and send it to the state legislatures for ratification. It was one of the smplist amendments: "Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2: Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

Election of 1864

The Democrats nominated former General George B. McClelan for president. McClelan would have ended the War and would have rescended the Emancipation Proclamation. The terrible war losses were telling. Anti-war feeling grew in the north. There were draft riots in New York in which the rioters attacked Blacks, including orphans. Lincoln was sure that he would the electiion. The costly Wilderness campaihn (1864) did not help the situation. One telling incident into Lincoln's soul was in the dark days of mid 1864 when it looked like his re-election was lost, he called in Stephen Douglas to organize a secret mission behind Southern lines to encourage slaves to escape to the North while it was still possible. Finally Federal victories moved public opinion in the North. Sherman at long last took Atlanta (September 3). Lincoln's reelection sealed emancipation.


The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most significant and far-reaching documents in American history. It was not only the essential step toward ending slavery, but it was critical in the Federal war effort. It also helped build the foundation of the Republican Party and ordered American politics until well into the 20th century.
Slavery: The immediate impact on slavery was limited. It did not free the slaves in the border states or in the areas of the Confederacy held by Federal troops. Nor could it free the slaves in the areas still held by Condederacy. It signalled, however, the end of bondage for an entire people, about 4 million people, representing about 10 percent of Americans at the time. While the Emancipation Proclamation did not abolish slavery in America, this was only finally achieved by the 13TH Amendment to the Constitution (December 18, 1865). The Emancipation Proclamtion it did make abolition a basic war goal and thus a virtual certainty with the Federal victory.
Foreign intervention: The Emancipation Proclamation ended any hope of European intervention to support the Confederacy. The Federal blockade had hurt the economies in both Britain and France beause of their dependance on Southern cotton. There was strong sympathy for the Confederacy in both the British and French Government. Now that the Federal Government was committed to emancipating the slaves, suppiort for the Confederacy became tantamount for supporting slavery. Some authors contend that anti-slavery sentiment in both countries made intervention impossible, although this is an issue that we want to look into further.
Black soldiers: The Emancipation Proclamation faciliated the enlistment of black soldiers into the all white Federal army, both northern freedmen and runaway Southern slaves. Congress had earlier acted to make this possible, bur the Emancipation Proclamation made the Federal cause much more attractive to black recruits. Black reginments were to play a major role in the Federal victory and in earning emancipation. By the end of the war over 10 percet of the Federal Army was composed of black soldiers. Even the Confederacy by the end of the War was considering the formation of black regiments.
Republican Party: Emancipation helped to unify the new Republican Party. The combination of unionists and abolitionists as well as the prestige it gained in preserving the Union made it the dominat party in american politics. This dominaton enabled it to control Congress and the presidancy with only few exceptions until the Great Depression and the Democratic coalition forged by Franklin Roosevelt.

Freed Slaves

The Civil War was not fought because abolitionist sentiment dominated the American Republic, but President Lincoln turned abolition into a major goal of the War. The idea of black civil rights had even less support, but Republicans in Congress turned this into a reality with the the 14th and 15th Amendments. Reconstructon in the South tried to integrated the new freed blacks fully into American society. Terrorism persued by the Ku Klux Klan effectivly denied these rights to blacks in the southern states. Thus while blacks wee emancipated, many faced very restricted opportunities. Problems existed throughout the country, but were most severe in the southern states. There are relatively few photographic images of slaves. Daguerotypes were relatively expensive. The new CDV and cabinets cards were much less expensive, but only became available in the 1860s as the slaves were being liberated by the Civil War. Thus we have many more images of blacks in America after emancipation. These images provide fascinating insights into life for blacks in the period from Emancipation (1863-65) to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement after World War II.


Beschloss, Michael. Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 189-1989 (Simon & Schuster, 2007), 430p.

Commager, Henry Steele. The Great Proclamation (1960).

Foner, Eric. "The abolition of slavery in the United States," The Atlantic (January-February 2015), p. 108.

Donovan, Frank. Mr. Lincoln's Proclamation (1964).

Franklin, John Hope. ed., The Emancipation Proclamation (1964).

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2003). This is the definitive study of the Emancipation Proclamation. Serious students of American history should read it.

Guelzo, Allen C. "Seven-score years ago ...," Washington Post, January 1, 2003, p. A19.

Hofstadter, Richard.

Miller, Douglas T. "The Emancipation Proclimation", (The Cleveland Free-Net - aa300) Distributed by the Cybercasting Services Division of the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN).

Oakes, James. Fredom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-65 (2012).


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Created: January 1, 2003
Last updated: 3:42 PM 12/27/2014