Daily Archives: May 20, 2016

Forever Free: The Emancipation Proclamation


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I have another revised section of the chapter of my Civil War and Gettysburg that I posted yesterday. This one deals with the subject of the Emancipation Proclamation, and it’s importance as the first step to the long process of bringing equality to African Americans. I’m sure that like everything that I will continue to revise the section too, but I hope that you find the complicated political dynamics of the story both interesting and enlightening. I think tomorrow I will post the following section which deals with the process of recruiting newly free African Americans into the military, a process that has led to unlimited opportunities  for Blacks in the military.

Have a great day,


Padre Steve+

Early Emancipation Efforts and the U.S. Military

The Civil War brought about another change to warfare in America. This was a societal and political change that has shaped American military history, culture and life ever since. The Emancipation Proclamation gave African Americans, both Freedmen and recently freed slaves the opportunity to serve in the Union Army. The change of policy instituted by Lincoln was revolutionary as well as controversial and it had strategic implications for the war effort. There were many doubters in the north whose attitudes towards African Americans were not much different than Southerners, especially among the Copperheads.

Prior to the Emancipation some Union commanders in occupied Confederate territory “had unofficially recruited black soldiers in Kansas and in occupied portions of South Carolina and Louisiana in 1862. But the administration had not sanctioned these activities.” [1] The issue for Lincoln in 1861 and 1862 was the necessity of keeping the Border-Slave Sates of Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland, which had not seceded from the Union. Lincoln repudiated the orders of General John Fremont, in Missouri, and his friend General David Hunter, who commanded the Department of the South regarding emancipation, not because he was in complete disagreement, but because he felt that the officers had overstepped their authority.

Salmon Chase and other strong abolitionists opposed Lincoln vehemently for this, but it would not be long until Lincoln made the decision for emancipation. This was first accomplished by the Emancipation Proclamation, a military order that only applied to the states that had seceded. However, Lincoln would follow this by pushing for a constitutional amendment to end slavery.   The latter occurred when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in January 1865. This amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

However, Lincoln did support the efforts of General Benjamin Butler. Butler commanded the Federal forces at Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads. Butler had been a former pro-slavery Democrat who learned that the Confederates were using slaves to construct fortifications and to support their army on the Peninsula. In May 1862 twenty-three slaves escaped to his lines and their owner, a Confederate Colonel, “demanded the return of his property under the Fugitive Slave Law! With as deadpan expression as possible (given his cocked eye), Butler informed him that since Virginia claimed to have left the Union, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied.” [2] Butler then declared that since the escaped slaves had worked for the Confederate Army that they were “contraband of war – enemy property subject to seizure.” [3] It was a solid argument, since Southerners themselves referred to African American slaves as property was subject to seizure. Lincoln and Secretary of War Cameron approved of Butler’s action and “eventually, the Congress passed a confiscation law ending the rights of masters over fugitive slaves used to support Confederate troops.” [4]


The Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln understood that these might hurt him with the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party as well as with free blacks. But he also understood the overall strategic situation for the Union, and how if the Border States seceded that there would be no chance of ending the rebellion or for that matter of emancipation in any form. While Lincoln was certainly sympathetic to the cause of these commanders, including his friend David Hunter, he insisted that such decisions were not within the authority of local commanders, but that any such proclamations had to come from him, as Commander-in-Chief. He told Treasure Secretary Salmon Chase, who supported the measures of Hunter and Fremont, “No commanding general shall do such a thing, upon my responsibility, without consulting me.” [5]

Yet, Lincoln’s decision to reverse and repudiate the decisions of local commanders infuriated some in his cabinet and in the Congress, as well as the press, both white abolitionist and African-American owned, the “editor of the Anglo-African was quick to condemn Lincoln’s repudiation of Fremont, “which hurls back into the hell of slavery the thousands in Missouri rightfully set free by the proclamation of Gen. Fremont.” [6] After suppressing Hunter’s emancipation order, “Lincoln was censured by the editor of a black San Francisco newspaper. Said the Pacific Appeal, “We fear the Administration is pursuing a course detrimental to the best interests of the country, and encouraging the Rebels in their efforts to overthrow the Union, and perpetuate slavery.” [7]

But Lincoln remained firm in his conviction due to the need to ensure the cooperation of the Border States the continued loyalty of which were absolutely vital to winning the war, without which no meaningful emancipation would be possible.

Lincoln had already decided upon emancipation in the spring of 1862. What brought this about was the realization that to “win a war over an enemy fighting for and sustained by slavery, the North must strike at slavery.” [8] It was an important realization, and Lincoln decided to commit his administration and the nation to a major change in national strategy that went far beyond the battlefields. It was a political as well as a military decision that would activate “the dynamism of the Northern antislavery majority that elected him and mobilize the potential of black manpower by issuing a proclamation of freedom for slaves in Southern states.” [9] Thus “in July 1862, Lincoln began working on a document of some importance that he kept from even those closest to him: a presidential declaration emancipating the slaves in Confederate territory.” [10]  The proclamation went farther than anything even the radical in Congress had proposed and ended with the trumpet flare,

“…as a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, do so order and declare that on the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.” [11]

The slaves were not to be free for the duration of the war as a wartime contingency and then returned to slavery, but instead were to be “forever free.” Though it initially freed very few slaves, it stood “as an affirmation of the objectives for which Union forces fought to save their country. It brought the full faith of the U.S. Government to secure the right of all Americans to be free.” [12] With the signing of the proclamation Union troops became an emancipating army. From January first 1863 on “wherever the Union Army advanced, black slaves became not contrabands in some ambiguous world between slavery and liberty, but free people. The victories of the North became undoubtable victories for freedom.” [13]

However, following the defeat of McClellan on the Peninsula he decided to postpone announcing it, Secretary of State Seward recommended against it until “until you can give it to the country supported by military success.” Otherwise the world might view it as an incitement for slave insurrections, “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help…our last shriek, on the retreat.” [14] The wisdom of Seward’s advice was profound, and Lincoln noted, “The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of State struck me with great force…. It was an aspect of the case that, in all my thought on the subject, I had entirely overlooked.” [15] Thus the President put off the announcement until the repulse of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North after the Battle of Antietam.

McClellan, true to form opposed any such policy of emancipation. When Lincoln visited him after his withdraw from the Peninsula, the defeated but still arrogant General handed Lincoln a memorandum on what McClellan viewed as the “proper conduct of the war.” McClellan advised Lincoln that the war “should not be a war looking to the subjugation of any State in any event…but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, the territorial organization of States, or the forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” [16]

Lincoln was not seeking advice from his recalcitrant commander and put the letter in his pocket and simply told McClellan, “All right.” Interestingly enough just a few months earlier Lincoln would have agreed with McClellan’s views on the conduct of the war. However, with the passage of time and the realization that the Confederacy was fully committed to its independence as well as the continuance and even the expansion of slavery had come to the view that fighting a limited war with limited aims was foolish, he told members of his cabinet that “Decisive and extensive measures must be adopted.” Likewise he told Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that the emancipation of African Americans was “a military necessity, absolutely necessary to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves [are] undeniably an element of strength to those who have their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us…. We [want] the army to strike more vigorous blows. The administration must set the example and strike at the heart of the rebellion.”  [17]

He told a Unionist Democrat a few days after McClellan offered his unsolicited advice about delaying any talk of emancipation that the war could not be fought:

“with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water….This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy this government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt.” [18]


[1] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008

[2] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.58

[3] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.58

[4] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.369

[5] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.435

[6] Trudeau, Noah Andre Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 Little, Brown, and Company Boston, New York, and London 1998 p.16

[7] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War p.16

[8] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters p.131

[9] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters p.131

[10] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War p.17

[11] Brewster, Todd. Lincoln’s Gamble: The Tumultuous Six Months That Gave America the Emancipation Proclamation and Changed the Course of the Civil War Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster New York 2014 pp.73-74

[12] Goldfield, David. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Bloomsbury Press, New York 2011 p.245

[13] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War  p.192

[14] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.109

[15] McGovern, George Abraham Lincoln Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2009 p.72

[16] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.531

[17] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters pp.131-132

[18] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.503

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