[September 22, 2020] It is difficult to put ourselves into the position of someone who lived during the U.S. Civil War. American citizens today, nor any time since, have experienced nothing like the level of destruction and loss of life during such a war. And, like all wars, nothing was straightforward about it. The Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln was essentially a military strategy, but it was also something much more.
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.” – Abraham Lincoln
When Lincoln became president, he was against freeing the Southern slaves. After the war started, he rightly feared that slaves in Border States (which had not joined the Confederacy) would rebel and join the rebel cause. His strategy of keeping the Union as one nation never changed. His position on slavery did change.
The Emancipation Proclamation was drafted and implemented during a time of great upheaval. The Civil War had, by 1862, torn the land and its people apart. Destruction was worse than anyone anticipated, lives lost were terrible, and the country’s social and economic conditions were ripped asunder. President Lincoln needed to do something that could set the conditions to force the Confederacy into a strategic corner.
“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” – Abraham Lincoln
With no hope of bringing the South back into the United States by protecting slavery, Lincoln had a dilemma. His own political party, the Republicans, had formed around their opposition to slavery. As the war dead piled up, Lincoln changed his military strategy. In mid-1862, Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and submitted it to his cabinet in July of that year, asking for their opinions.
They approved, but there was a push to wait for a significant Union battlefield victory before announcing it. The Battle of Antietam in Maryland gave him that opportunity. Those of us today may wonder why the document is so dense; it appears to be a legal document. Perhaps, it was more of a decree. Because it was a proclamation and a temporary war measure, it later had to be codified into law, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865.
The Emancipation Proclamation made emancipation an official part of the Union’s grand strategy.1 France, England, and other countries courted by the Confederacy were not going to support a slave-owning country. Southerners fighting the war and did not own slaves were now fighting for the rich who did. The South lost the moral ground that it had worked so hard to achieve.
More importantly, the Emancipation Proclamation made the promise that the United States was committed to ending slavery once and for all. It was a document that would forever change the United States permanently.2 And it was issued on this date, September 22, 1862.
- For an excellent accounting of those killed or wounded, see The American Battlefield Trust website here: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/civil-war-casualties