On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln informs his chief advisors and cabinet that he will issue a proclamation to free slaves, but adds that he will wait until the Union Army has achieved a substantial military victory to make the announcement, history.com reports.
“Attempting to stitch together a nation mired in a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln made a last-ditch, but carefully calculated, executive decision regarding the institution of slavery in America. At the time of the meeting with his cabinet, things were not looking good for the Union. The Confederate Army had overcome Union troops in significant battles and Britain and France were set to officially recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation,” reports the website.
It then adds, “The issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation had less to do with ending slavery than saving the crumbling union. In an August 1862 letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln confessed ‘my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.’ He hoped a strong statement declaring a national policy of emancipation would stimulate a rush of the South’s slaves into the ranks of the Union Army, thus depleting the Confederacy’s labor force, on which it depended to wage war against the North.”
However, that analysis falls short. The proclamation was not without compromise. It did not free all Blacks from bondage. The few thousand slaves in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware and Maryland, for example, were left as “property,” as Lincoln saw other pathways to end slavery there; he did not want to give any encouragement for pro-slavery forces in those states to break from the Union.
Yet the Emancipation Proclamation marked the first time the U.S. government took an intentional action to end slavery. It was a dramatic departure from the beginning of the war and Lincoln’s first term when he said he had no intention of abolishing slavery where it existed. The war had begun as a fight to restore the Union to its pre-war status quo: half-free, half enslaved. But with the Emancipation Proclamation, the war became a battle for human freedom and the final end to bondage.
The proclamation changed the course and nature of the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, who was reportedly jubilant over the proclamation, called it a “first step” toward forever ending slavery, and said it would be a “moral bombshell” to the Confederacy.
The proclamation declared that former slaves (and free Blacks) could enlist in the Army or Navy, thereby officially fighting for their own freedom as well as for the country. Close to 200,000 African Americans did just that and bolstered the Union’s moral and military capacity.
Before the proclamation was written, slaves had already taken crucial steps for their own emancipation. They had begun to flee plantations for the perceived freedom behind Union Army lines. There they received an inconsistent response from Army commanders, because Lincoln and Congress had no formal policy on ending slavery, historian Eric Foner writes in “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Some commanders sent runaway slaves back to their owners, while others gave them some semblance of freedom, including wages for work.
An abolitionist U.S. general and commander, David Hunter, created a political problem for Lincoln in May 1862. Hunter freed all the slaves in his region and ordered that Black volunteers be allowed to enlist as soldiers. Lincoln publicly revoked the order.
But that didn’t stop the slaves, nor the abolitionist movement from pushing for emancipation. Lincoln realized the necessity of such an action. By September 1862, he announced the first draft of the proclamation.
W.E.B. Du Bois writes that slaves running to Union lines were, in fact, conducting a “general strike,” withdrawing his or her labor from slave owners and offering it to the Union.
“As soon, however, as it became clear that the Union armies would not or could not return fugitive slaves, and that the masters with all their fume and fury were uncertain of victory, the slave entered upon a general strike against slavery,” he wrote, adding that the slaves’ “withdrawal and bestowal of his [and her] labor decided the war.”
After the proclamation was signed and issued, the nation – black and white – celebrated. Some abolitionists complained that the proclamation was issued only for military reasons and didn’t, in fact, free a single slave. But that was not the prevailing mood or outlook. What the masses of people saw in the Emancipation Proclamation was a promise of freedom. It would not come without more struggle and sacrifice, as the war would still rage for two more years. But without that proclamation, there would be no promise, no moral victory to sustain the fight, no light at the end of the dark, bloody tunnel.
In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation victory came a great momentum that led to the Union’s war victory, 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and Reconstruction – all advances for democracy.
Photo: Lincoln presents the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Painted by Francis Bicknell Carpenter in 1864. Shown from left to right are: Edwin M. Stanton, secretary of war (seated); Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the treasury (standing); Abraham Lincoln; Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy (seated); Caleb Blood Smith, secretary of the interior (standing); William H. Seward, secretary of state (seated); Montgomery Blair, postmaster general (standing); Edward Bates, attorney general (seated). (Wikipedia/public domain)