September 22, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, warning the states in the Confederacy that if they did not end their rebellion by January 1, 1863, all slaves in Confederate controlled areas would be deemed freed. Spoiler alert – they didn’t.
Lincoln did not support slavery; like most Republicans, he believed that slavery was “a great moral, social, and political evil.” His personal feelings, however, were overridden by his political belief that the U.S. Constitution forbade the federal government from interfering with slavery in those states where it already existed (although he fully supported the Republican position that it not be allowed to spread into new territories).
When he ran for president in 1860, Lincoln repeatedly promised that he would never interfere with slavery in those states where it already existed. Even when the Civil War began, he made it clear that the fight was not over slavery but rather over the South’s illegal secession from the United States. In Lincoln’s view, since secession was illegal under the Constitution, the Confederacy did not exist as a separate country; instead, they were still states in the US (albeit in armed rebellion) with the legal right to own slaves. To Lincoln, holding the “Union” together was what mattered most.
Lincoln had another, more practical consideration for insisting that the war was only about the illegality of secession; he desperately needed to keep the four “Border States” — Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware and Maryland – in the Union. When the war began, these four slave states tentatively remained in the Union. Lincoln knew, however, that if he ordered all slaves to be freed –including those slaves in the Border States – they would likely go over to the Confederacy. Losing those states – particularly Maryland, which surrounded Washington D.C. – would be catastrophic, and Lincoln had to prevent that from happening at all costs.
As a result, during the first few months of the war Lincoln opposed efforts to “free” even those slaves who ran away to the Union army. Instead, he ordered federal troops to actually return runaway slaves to any masters who were loyal to the Union. In effect, he turned Union soldiers into slave-catchers.
For instance, when General John Fremont freed slaves in Missouri in August of 1861, Lincoln ordered them returned. He similarly rejected an attempt by General David Hunter in May of 1862 to officially “free” tens of thousands of slaves along the coast of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. When Republicans in Congress complained, telling Lincoln that freeing the slaves would put God firmly on the Union side, he replied, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”
By the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln had changed his feelings about emancipating the slaves. There were several reasons for his shift. First, it had become clear that the Border States were now firmly on the Union side and would not be joining the Confederacy under any circumstances. Similarly, as the war dragged on, Lincoln was more concerned with keeping the support of Republicans in Congress than with Border State slave-owners. Moreover, Lincoln’s generals had convinced him that by freeing slaves he would not only deprive the South of most of its work force but also gain new workers more than willing to help the Union’s war effort.
Additionally, Lincoln was concerned that England and France were close to recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation (both England and France relied on Southern cotton for their textile industries) and providing it military aid. In both countries, however, the general public was firmly opposed to slavery. Lincoln felt that if he turned the war into a fight against slavery, English and French public opinion would prevent their governments from recognizing and aiding the Confederacy.
To get around his legal concerns that the Constitution prevented the federal government from interfering with slavery in the South, he looked to that part of the Constitution which made him Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Now that a war was being fought, he reasoned, he had the power to make all sorts of decisions as “necessary war measures” – even if those same decisions would otherwise be unconstitutional. As a result, Lincoln decided that he now had the legal authority to free all of the slaves in the Confederacy as a legitimate way to help end the war.
Having made his decision, Lincoln moved slowly and cautiously. In July of 1862 he secretly drafted a “Proclamation” officially freeing all slaves in the Confederacy – although not those in the Border States or in areas of the South already under Union control. He did not, however, issue the Proclamation immediately. At the time, the Union army had suffered a series of military defeats, and Lincoln did not want the Proclamation to be seen as an act of desperation (“our last shriek on the retreat,” he later noted). Instead, he wanted to wait until the Union army won a major battle before announcing his plan.
That victory came in September of 1862 when Union troops won the bloody victory in the Battle of Antietam. Lincoln seized the opportunity to issue his Preliminary Proclamation on September 22, 1862. The Preliminary Proclamation simply announced that as of January 1, 1863, Lincoln would issue a formal order freeing any slave in a Confederate State or part of a State under Confederate control. The idea, of course, was to see if any of those Confederate States would be willing to re-join the Union before January 1, 1863, so as to be able to keep their slaves.
No Southern State, of course, took up the offer, and so on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. In theory, it meant that all slaves in the Confederacy were now immediately freed. In practice, however, no slaves were actually freed (except those who had already escaped to the Union lines) since the Confederate government was not about to go along with Lincoln’s Proclamation. Only as the Union Army conquered the South would the slaves in those areas conquered actually be emancipated.
Moreover, since the Proclamation did not apply to the Border States, no slaves in Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware or Maryland were freed (although Maryland and Missouri, on their own, freed their slaves before the war ended). Similarly, Confederate areas that had already been taken by Union forces, such as New Orleans and most of Tennessee, were also exempt from the Proclamation. Again, this was because Lincoln believed that he did not have the power, under the Constitution, to take any action against slavery in those states that were still a part of the United States.
This fact bothered several members of Lincoln’s cabinet who wanted a broader emancipation that freed all of the slaves in the United States, North and South. As Secretary of State William H. Seward sarcastically noted, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
Even with its limitations, the Emancipation Proclamation did permanently change the nature of the war. No longer was it simply a fight to bring the Confederate States back into the Union; now, it was a fight to free the slaves as well. As Union forces advanced into the Confederacy after January 1, 1863, all slaves in those areas they captured were immediately freed. Moreover, the Proclamation specifically allowed for the enlistment of freed slaves into the United States military; by the end of the war nearly 200,000 former slaves had joined the Union Army and Navy, giving the North an additional manpower advantage the South simply could not overcome.
As news of the Proclamation spread through the Confederacy, tens of thousands of slaves immediately left their plantations, seeking to escape to the nearest Union lines. The Confederate war machine, which had depended on slaves to grow food, work in their few factories, and help build fortifications, was severely disrupted.
As far as Europe was concerned, the Proclamation worked exactly as Lincoln had hoped. Foreign public opinion now firmly favored the Union cause, ending any possibility that England or France might officially recognize or aid the Confederacy. Henry Adams, the son of the U.S. Ambassador to England, noted that, “The Emancipation Proclamation has done more for us than all our former victories and all our diplomacy.”
Once Lincoln took that first step with the Proclamation, there was no turning back. Although the Proclamation had initially been justified only as a necessary act of war, by 1864 Lincoln had decided to push for a Constitutional Amendment banning slavery in the entire country. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified by the states in December of 1865, legally emancipated every remaining slave in the country.