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Freeing the American Slaves

One of Abraham Lincoln’s most pressing problems was what to do about slaves. As soon as the Northern troops first moved into Southern territory, escaped slaves began pouring into Union Army camps. One general declared the slaves as “seized” property and put them to work in labor battalions so they could earn their keep. But other generals who favored the abolition of slavery immediately declared them freed.

Lincoln was forced to rescind the orders because, as president, he felt that freeing slaves was solely his responsibility and because he had to be careful not to antagonize the slave-holding states that had stayed loyal to the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, and later, West Virginia, which broke away from Virginia during the war.

What Lincoln really hoped for was that each state would abolish slavery on its own and compensate slave owners so that federal funds could be used to send freed slaves to Africa. Eventually, however, circumstances forced Lincoln to take action.

Proclaiming emancipation

In June 1862, members of Congress who were impatient with Lincoln’s caution mustered enough votes to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories. Congress also authorized Lincoln to allow the Union Army to enlist African Americans who wanted to fight.

Prodded by these congressional actions, Lincoln then told his cabinet in July that he intended to proclaim freedom for slaves as of January 1, 1863. But he wanted to wait until the Union Army had won a big battle before making the announcement.

On September 22, five days after the Union gained what was more of a tie than a win at Antietam Creek, Maryland, Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation public. As of January 1, he announced, all slaves in any state still in rebellion “shall be, then, thenceforth and forever free.”

Surveying the consequences of emancipation

In reality, Lincoln’s proclamation didn’t free a single slave. It didn’t apply to slaves in the border states, where Union forces could have enforced it, and slave owners in the Confederacy certainly didn’t obey it. But it did have effects Lincoln hadn’t intended.

  • In the South, the Emancipation Proclamation reinforced the will of the proslavery forces to fight on because it was clear that if they lost, slavery would end.

  • In the North, it angered people who were comfortable with fighting to preserve the Union but not to free people who might then come north and compete with them for jobs. Union Army desertions increased, and enlistments decreased after the announcement.

  • Abolitionists thought the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t go far enough, and other people thought the government had no right to take away the Southern slave owner’s “property.”

But many Northerners gradually came to embrace the idea of abolishing slavery as a moral cause, and Lincoln’s move added another reason for the North to continue to fight.

Just as important, working people in England and France cheered the emancipation of slaves. At one point, a letter of support was sent to Lincoln that supposedly came from 20,000 laborers in England. Such support helped ensure that European leaders wouldn’t risk the wrath of public opinion by aiding the South.

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