The Emancipation Proclamation
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862—to take effect on January 1, 1863. As its name implies, the executive order declared freedom—specifically, of slaves—and authorized the deployment of freedmen as Union Troops. The key words were …
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 designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.
The proclamation named the rebellious entities as the southern states of Virginia (but not West Virginia), North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and the western states of Arkansas and Texas. Finally, the order declared that “such persons [i.e. slaves] of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States.”
The Road to the Proclamation
Lincoln did not come to the Proclamation either quickly or easily. While he was on record as opposing slavery, he did not want to make a move that was independent of Congress, whose support he needed for the war. Also, as the Union went to a war footing, Lincoln was also concerned that four states in the buffer zone between North and South—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—might go over to the Confederacy if slavery was declared illegal.
Of course, economics as well morality was at issue. Lincoln and other Northerners knew that slaves were the backbone of the Confederate economy. If they were freed, many would simply leave the plantations on which they were being used. Those who chose to remain would demand wages or insist on other compensation. The North could count on upsetting the economics of the South in a major way by any Proclamation.
Congress finally made its own move on the question in July 1862. It acted not out of ethical considerations, primarily, but from sheer military necessity. The Union needed more troops. So Congress passed legislation authorizing the freedom of any southern slave who left the Confederacy to join the Union armed forces.
Despite its limitations, the Proclamation was important politically, militarily, and historically. It was and continues to be, after all, a national document. It put an American president on record as against slavery. It loosened the underpinnings of the southern economy and gave a moral raison d'être to the war itself. What was called the “civil war” and the “war between the states” now became a war of liberation. And the proclamation set in motion expectations, on the parts of slaves and white abolitionists, that more gains would be registered in time.
By legitimizing the citizenship of blacks, and simultaneously inviting their participation in the war, Lincoln ensured his side of more troops at a time when the number of white volunteers was decreasing. In fact, African-Americans served in the Union armed forces to the extent of approximately 200,000 volunteers by the war's end. While it is true that these soldiers were segregated into African-American units and largely led by white officers, nonetheless their contributions were highly significant. The North could not have won the war without their participation.
By reframing the conflict as a war against slavery, through the Proclamation, Lincoln also neutralized the participation of England and France as combatants on the side of the South. While their dependency on the Confederacy's cotton might have inclined them to join the southern cause, the Union's formal introduction of the slavery issue made it impossible for them to do so. A majority of their own people was philosophically opposed to slavery, making support of the South politically unfeasible at home.
The Proclamation was, in other words, a master stroke from a consummate politician.