This is an old article I wrote in 3 parts during the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War. An interesting read for those who have an interest…
The 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation has recently passed. There was little fanfare on January 1st, 2013 regarding the historic document. The blockbuster movie just released on Abraham Lincoln covered 2 years after the document and focused on Lincoln’s work with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The Emancipation Proclamation (EP) in history has been both overinflated and underestimated in its scope and accomplishments. As we march through the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War of the Civil War, we get an opportunity to look back and examine the “real deal” about key moments in the war and what events truly brought significant change that affected the war at the time and directly relates to conditions in our current reality. To examine what the EP really accomplished we must examine the challenges Lincoln himself recognized and pondered before signing the EP.
On September 13th 1862, a group of gentlemen approached Lincoln about the potential of Emancipation. No doubt Lincoln had already contemplated Emancipation and discussed with his cabinet numerous times, and his response to these gentlemen reflects his struggles with the document. The President began his position as such, “The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree”; a statement that summarized the divided country’s challenges with slavery and emancipation. In characteristic storytelling fashion, Lincoln explains how northern men debated both sides of the issue and how Congress had a majority of anti-slavery representatives and still they could not agree on a policy regarding emancipation. He goes on to explain that even in religious circles; emancipation was a very much divided issue, and soldiers of both sides were earnestly praying for God to favor their particular side.
Lincoln, showing the influence of his law background, began to debate the case for Emancipation. “What good would a proclamation of Emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated? I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative…Would my word free the slaves, when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the Rebel States? Is there a single court, or magistrate, or individual that would be influenced by it there?….And, suppose they (slaves) could be induced by a proclamation of freedom from me to throw themselves upon us, what should we do with them? How can we feed and care for such a multitude?….If, now, the pressure of the war should call off our forces from New Orleans to defend some other point, what is to prevent the masters from reducing the Blacks to Slavery again; for I am told that whenever the rebels take any Black prisoners, free or slave, they immediately auction them off! They did so with those they took from a boat that was aground in the Tennessee River a few days ago. And then I am very ungenerously attacked for it!”
Today, many historians agree that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, and that it was not done for any other reason, but Lincoln did contemplate every reason for Emancipation when deciding on whether or not to issue the document. “Now, then, tell me, if you please, what possible result of good would follow the issuing of such a proclamation as you desire? Understand: I raise no objection against it on legal or constitutional grounds; for, as Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy in time of war, I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy; nor do I urge objections of a moral nature, in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South. I view this matter as a practical war measure, to be decided on according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the Rebellion.”
The men to which Lincoln addressed, continued to urge the President, and even brought up the potential of strengthening the Union’s position in Europe by taking a stance against the “degrading curse of American slavery”. Lincoln began to concede on the benefits of Emancipation, but then displayed his beliefs and concerns with Black soldiers and the issue of the Border States. “I admit that Slavery is at the root of the Rebellion, or at least its sine qud non. The ambition of politicians may have instigated them to act; they would have been impotent without Slavery as their instrument. I will also concede that Emancipation would help us in Europe, and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition. I grant, further, that it would help somewhat at the North, though not so much, I fear, as you and those you represent imagine. Still, some additional strength would be added in that way to the war; and then, unquestionably, it would weaken the Rebels by drawing off their laborers, which is of great importance; but I am not so sure we could do much with the Blacks. If we were to arm them, I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the Rebels; and, indeed, thus far, we have not had arms enough to equip our White troops. I will mention another thing, though it met only your scorn and contempt. There are fifty thousand bayonets in the Union army from the Border Slave States. It would be a serious matter if, in consequence of a proclamation such as you desire, they should go over to the Rebels. I do not think they all would-not so many indeed, as a year ago, or as six months ago-not so many today as yesterday. Every day increases their Union feeling. They are also getting their pride enlisted, and want to beat the Rebels. Let me say one thing more: I think you should admit that we already have an important principle to rally and unite the people, in the fact that constitutional government is at stake. This is a fundamental idea, going down about as deep as anything.”
The President takes a strong stand against Emancipation and argues his point diligently. It would seem that he was convinced that a proclamation would be unwarranted and impracticable. But just nine days after this slightly heated discussion, Lincoln issues a preliminary proclamation that would change the war and forever mark a moment of hope for 4 million people in bondage and a half a million free men and women of color across both the North and South….
By the summer of 1862, Lincoln had already made up in his mind about issuing the proclamation to free the slaves in the Confederacy. He needed a strong Union victory on the battlefield to be the backdrop of his announcement and he found it after the Battle of Antietam. Lincoln himself had interesting intentions regarding the end result of emancipation as it pertained to the would-be former slaves themselves. Lincoln had been seeking the proper strategy for the emigration of blacks to Africa. Colonization seemed to be the preference of the president and he sought out ways to do it throughout the Fall of 1862. But the much debated issue of colonization was believed by most blacks as an undesirable solution to the race problem in America.
After the preliminary proclamation, there were a few celebrations in the northern black community; but most African Americans hesitated to celebrate until the actual date of Emancipation. There was no doubt in most minds that the Confederacy would not concede to Lincoln’s demands, but this sweeping edict was still a watershed moment in America’s history. No other anti-slavery declaration, law, or document in the U.S. had ever been issued or carried out. Immediately, the preliminary proclamation dramatically impacted the nation, North and South. Frederick Douglass declared that Negroes had heard of it and were “flocking in thousands to the lines of our army.” Many northerners believed that slaves would be barred from hearing about the proclamation, but the well preserved “underground” slave communication network quietly but effectively spread the word to thousands of slaves. In Kentucky, attempts were made to counter the “rumors” by reaffirming that Kentucky slaves were not included in the Emancipation Proclamation. Black clergymen were even urged to explain this to the slaves in Kentucky. In Louisiana, N. P. Banks, the commander of the Department of the Gulf issued an order advising slaves in loyal portions of the state to remain on plantations.
The preliminary proclamation considerably disturbed the “status quo” in the Confederacy. There were reports of slaveholders who abandoned their land, gathered up their able-bodied chattels, and hurried southward – in fear of losing their slaves. In the Confederate States close to the Union border, slaveholders hurried deeper South to prevent a mass exodus of their slaves. The fear of slave insurrections increased and the governors of South Carolina and Georgia urged their constituents to take the necessary steps to protect their “interests”.
Criticism of the Emancipation Proclamation and fear of its repercussions was rampant in the North. The Border States were horrified by its implications, even though they were not included in the proclamation. They knew the results of this decree would directly impact their slaveholding order. Many critics scorned Lincoln in that the proclamation would do nothing in the states that had separated themselves from the Union. Others charged the President with abusing his Presidential authority. And in major urban cities, the scare of thousands of blacks entering the labor competition and working for lower wages was no small matter.
Yet, in free black communities in the North, there was a strong hope that Lincoln would not waiver on his promise. Truly, there was no real guarantee that the Emancipation Proclamation would be issued. Abolitionists were uneasy and Lincoln himself seemed quiet on the matter. The congressional elections in November of 1862 went heavily against the Lincoln administration, and in a message to Congress on December 1st, 1862, Lincoln did not even mention the proclamation. But hope was not darkened. On the evening of December 31st 1862, thousands of African Americans across the North gathered in churches, halls, and meeting places. They sung songs, heard stories, recited speeches, and prayed for the time of freedom to be at hand. The Emancipation Proclamation, a war measure, Lincoln’s edict not created to save the slave, but to save the Union; succeeded in rousing the hopes of many. But after the clock struck twelve and the day of decision had come, the question remained; would Lincoln go through with it? Would he still sign the Emancipation Proclamation?
On January 1st 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, setting another unprecedented current through the established law and culture of the fractured Union. An uproar of a sort reverberated through the nation. There were thousands that rejoiced, but there were other thousands who cried “foul” and cursed Abraham’s name. The Proclamation was criticized in many areas and it further angered and polarized the South and those with southern sympathies. In newspapers across the North, editorials were written about how the president had further damaged his ideal of preserving the Union.
Along with his call for freedom for the enslaved men and women in the Confederate States; Lincoln strengthened his northern forces by officially allowing black soldiers to fight in the Union army, and the enslaved men to take up arms and fight for their newly received freedom. The aura of this war of states’ rights and constitutional interpretation had now developed a theme of freedom. This theme of freedom had been constantly and consistently fought for by abolitionists and the northern black community since the beginning of the war. Preservation of the Union had always been Lincoln’s primary goal, but now, with a simple stroke of a pen, the conclusion of the war, if it ended with a Union victory, would very well bring freedom in its truest sense, to millions.
A Union victory was certainly a fact that these new black soldiers were very much aware of when they enlisted. Frederick Douglass spoke eloquently about black soldiers being a “sable arm” that would help Lincoln turn the tide of the war. When regiments began to be raised in the North, in particular in Massachusetts, men came from all walks of life, from various social statuses, and from various states and even some from Canada. Black men traveled across multiple northern states to enlist in the first colored regiments raised in Massachusetts. The time had come to make good on their newly gained opportunity to change the status of their race and break the bonds of captivity with a violent blow.
This immediate result of the Emancipation Proclamation released the ability of black men to fight for their own freedom with the support of the established government. In the months after the Proclamation, progress was slow for blacks to prove their worth on the field of battle. Lincoln hesitated not a small deal even after issuing the Proclamation. But, during the summer of ’63, their day would come and they would prove their worth loud and clear.
On May 27th of 1863, the Louisiana Native Guards charged the Confederate forts at Port Hudson, Louisiana. This would be the first test of black troops in battle. Reporters stationed themselves around the battle to record how these men would perform. The soldiers pressed forward under a barrage of enemy fire for 3 straight hours. Stopping, regrouping, and charging again and again. Men who were wounded would run back out into the battlefield, and the proud units refused to let their flag stay down. General Nathaniel Banks reported “The history of this day proves conclusively that the Government will find in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders.”
On June 7th of 1863, a group of mostly former field hands and farmers who were not fully trained were forced to defend against Confederate forces. Some of these men received their guns just the day before they would be attacked. Almost immediately this battle went to hand-to-hand combat. The bayonet was used extensively. In the end, after many casualties, the formerly enslaved men were able to stand against the enemy for hours, until Federal gunships arrived to lay the final blow against the rebels. News of this engagement spread around the country. Charles Dana, who represented the War Department in Grant’s operation, wrote to Stanton that “sentiment [in]… regard to the employment of negro troops has been revolutionized by the bravery of the blacks in the recent battle of Milliken’s Bend.”
On July 18th of 1863, the men of the 54th Massachusetts lead the charge of the incredibly protected Fort Wagner. Knowing that their casualties would be high, these men sacrificed their lives for glory on the battlefield. Frederick Douglass wrote “In that terrible battle, under the wing of night, more cavils in respect of the quality of Negro manhood were set at rest than could have been during a century of ordinary life and observation.” An editorial in the New York Tribune read that the unfaltering efforts of the Massachusetts 54th “made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to white Yankees.”
“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.” Perhaps this important clause of the Emancipation Proclamation made the most impact in the war. It gave black men the opportunity to shatter the myths and prejudices that had held back their race for almost 200 years. It strengthened the Union’s military forces and recognized the power of men treated as equals. In essence, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t set a single man or woman free, but it empowered the men of the Union to be true freedom fighters, and break the chains of bondage off of those who had been enslaved. The Emancipation Proclamation in memory and history should be observed and remembered as a great tool for freedom and a powerful measure that helped shift a war and a country.