The Emancipation Proclamation: a Military Strategy?

By | September 22, 2020

[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.


  2. For an excellent accounting of those killed or wounded, see The American Battlefield Trust website here:
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “The Emancipation Proclamation: a Military Strategy?

  1. Tony B. Custer

    Excellent point, Gen. Satterfield. Lincoln’s strategy evolved somewhat during the war to reflect realities on the ground.

  2. Willie Shrumburger

    Another supreme article and well timed.
    On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
    When did you learn this in school? I didn’t.

    1. José Luis Rodriguez

      The document applied only to enslaved people in the Confederacy, and not to those in the border states that remained loyal to the Union. A minor issue that got resolved. You can’t get there from here too quickly and Lincoln recongnized it.

  3. Harry B. Donner

    Thank you Gen. Satterfield for this article on a day we DON’T remember at all. Why is this people? Because we’ve been taught that learning about sex education is more important than key thinking that made us great. Now I see where our educ sys is taking us.

  4. Wilson Cox

    There is little we can do here to help others understand this important document. What I do know is that we can, however, help motivate young people to read it and help them understand it. Max laid out some of the reasons why folks don’t read it. Let’s give them the motivation and the tools to do so.

    1. Xerxes I

      Excellent comment Wilson and thank you for it. I too was a kid that had no idea what this was about. My teachers were weak and silly most of the time. Why were they that way? I don’t care for the answer but those of us who were smart and worked hard had to work harder to make up for what our teachers would not teach us because they were busy helping those who were not motivated.

  5. Mr. T.J. Asper

    Interesting and educational. Thanks. I only wish our schools taught us more about the Emancipation Proclamation.

  6. Kenny Foster

    Excellent and timely. Most of us didn’t even know this was the day, Sept 22nd. I would also think, IMHO, that no one here has ever read it. It is not an easy read with all the “heretofore’s” and “whereas’s” etc. However, I do recommend a read just to get the gist of it.

    1. Max Foster

      Yeah, I agree that we talk about it but never read it. I also highly recommend to those who are series to go out and get an historian’s view of the document. There are a few that do a line by line analysis and comment. These comments can be very useful. Why? Well first we must understand the document in the context of the times and how radical it was. Second, we cannot understand fully the wording as our knowledge of them has changed. We also see it looking backward in time and not as something unique and as a strategy to help the country.

  7. Tom Bushmaster

    BTW, Gen. S., I enjoyed your article again on the Battle of Antietam. Very insightful.

  8. Army Captain

    Indeed, it began as a military strategy but turned into a “grand” strategy.

      1. ARay Pittman

        Thanks Eric for the reference. I went back and re-read these. Worth spending 5 minutes doing so. 👍

      2. William DeSanto

        Roger that ERIC !!
        It is a distinction that must not be over looked.


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