January 1863: The Emancipation Proclamation

emancipation proclamationAfter months of preparation and progress, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is issued, as it had been expected, on January 1, 1863. Today most Americans think this is the document that freed the slaves. That is only partly correct—and is much more complicated. (It was the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that freed all slaves and ended slavery in the U.S.) In fact, Lincoln would not have issued the Proclamation if the Confederacy had returned to the Union before the end of 1862. This document, which the South knew was coming, put pressure on them to reconsider. If the war had ended in late 1862, the South would have kept its slaves, the Union would have been preserved, and the battle over slavery would likely have continued for many years to come—but in the legislature, not on the battlefield.

reading the EP

Slaves reading the Emancipation Proclamation, hoping for their deliverance.

Simply, the Emancipation Proclamation declared free only those slaves in Confederate states or territories. Slaves in border states, such as Kentucky, were not freed—yet. Lincoln used his power as Commander-in-Chief to declare slaves contraband, or illegal property. He used the South’s own label for slaves against the slave holders. Lincoln himself never believed that slaves were “property.” But if he had to label them as such to declare them free, to in effect seize them from the Southern owners and thereby cripple the South’s economy, then that’s just what he’d do. It was a military decision as much as a moral one. In truth, Lincoln wasn’t sure he even had the power to enforce the decision. In the end, however, slaves in the South swarmed toward Union troops when they arrived in various towns and locales, claiming their freedom and the males even enlisting in the Union Army (at lower pay that white soldiers, sadly). It is estimated that about 200,000 black men fought for the Union, helping an already war-worn army become rejuvenated.

As a note: You must see LINCOLN, the movie, and pay attention to the scene in which the President explains the complexities and contradictions of issuing the Proclamation to his Cabinet in early 1865. It’s absolutely masterful.


[Photos courtesy of The Library of Congress]


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