Bruce Catton on Emancipation

Bruce Catton
Bruce Catton

Preeminent historian, journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author Bruce Catton wrote the following article on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.


Thenceforward And Forever Free

September 16, 1962

One hundred years ago on Sept. 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which sounded the doom of chattel slavery, changed the meaning of the American Civil War and established a new and infinitely broad foundation for the entire democratic experiment.

Until that moment, the Federal Government was fighting solely to restore the Union; officially, slavery had nothing at all to do with the war. Once the proclamation was signed, the Government was also fighting for human freedom. The danger that European powers might intervene vanished. The nation committed itself to a cause that would require its best efforts, not merely while the war lasted but on and on into the remotest future, until freedom and equality ran all across the board.

Considered coldly, the Emancipation Proclamation was an odd document. One of the greatest of American state papers, it appears on superficial analysis to be one of the weakest.

It was conceived, to begin with, strictly as a military measure. Abraham Lincoln clearly had doubts about the legality of emancipation. He had always felt that the Federal Government had no power to interfere with slavery, and he based this proclamation on the wholly undefined war powers of the President; to win the war, he believed, the President might do things which ordinarily he would have no power to do.

In addition, the proclamation applied to the Confederate states but did not touch slavery in states which had remained in the Union. It would have effect, in other words, only in those states where the Government had no power to enforce it; where it could have been enforced, it would not apply. And, finally, the proclamation did no more than announce that another proclamation would be issued 100 days later unless the Confederates quickly laid down their arms.

So it is easy to show that the proclamation was a lot of weak-talk. And yet…there was a war on, and thousands of men were dying for intangibles no more solid than the look of a flag adrift in the wind, or the ring of a phrase that touched something in their hearts; and between Canada and the Rio Grande there were more than three million people who lived in bondage and knew of freedom only by hearsay; and when the President of the United States declared, with whatever qualifications, that these people should then, thenceforward and forever be free, his words would have the echoing reach of a great trumpet call in the night.

It was the change which grew out of this which Lincoln had in mind when, in his Second Inaugural, he confessed that, at the war’s start, no man expected it to bring “a result so fundamental and astounding.” The war became greater than the men who started it intended, and this proclamation was the instrument of its change.

When the war began, both the President and the Congress agreed that the Federal Government was fighting solely for reunion. Slavery was not an issue, and the Government would in no way interfere with it. Its ultimate fate would remain, as always, with the individual states.

Yet slavery obviously lay at the bottom of all the trouble. The Southern states would never have seceded if they had not considered Lincoln’s election an intolerable threat to the “peculiar institution” on which Southern society rested. They were fighting for their independence, but they would not be doing it if it had not been for slavery; if the Federal Government was not fighting to abolish slavery, the war nevertheless was about slavery.

Furthermore, before the war had gone very far, Union soldiers and the Federal Government alike realized that the whole Southern war effort was supported by slavery. Slave labor raised the cotton with which the Confederacy bought munitions and other supplies abroad, raised much of the food the Confederate soldiers ate, played an important part in war production and built most of the fortifications which guarded Southern seaports. It was extremely hard to wage an effective war on the Confederacy without at the same time hitting slavery.

Union armies which invaded the South confiscated or destroyed property that helped their foes baled cotton, railroad tracks, factories, stores of food, and the like. Precisely because the slave was admitted to be property, it seemed logical to remove him from his secessionist owners; quite early in the war Maj. Gen. Ben Butler announced that slaves who fled from Confederate masters were “contraband of war” and could be confiscated like other contraband, and the War Department accepted his view.

Nevertheless, the official line remained unchanged for nearly a year and a half: the Federal Government was not fighting to free the slaves. This was partly because President Lincoln and most other Republican leaders — including as devoted a foe of slavery as Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase — believed that the Government had no constitutional right to interfere with slavery, and partly because some very important slave states remained in the Union and contributed powerfully to the war effort. These were the vital “border states” — Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri. A majority in these states would fight for the Union, but almost certainly would not care to fight to destroy slavery. In addition, the Northern Democrats, who were numerous and influential and whose continued support was essential, had no use at all for abolitionist doctrines.

Thus the whole aim of Lincoln’s administration was to “put down the rebellion” and restore the country precisely to the condition it had in 1860. In the fall of 1861, Lincoln told Congress he was extremely anxious to keep the war from turning into “a remorseless revolutionary struggle.” If he could have won the war in the spring or early summer of 1862, the revolutionary slavery issue would have remained submerged, presumably to be disposed of through leisurely postwar discussion.

The trouble was that the war was not won so soon.

In the middle of the spring of 1862, it looked as if it might be. Federal armies held New Orleans, largest city in the South, had driven the Confederates out of Kentucky and Missouri, held western Tennessee, northern Arkansas and an important strip of northern Alabama and Mississippi. The Mississippi River was open all the way down to Vicksburg; the Carolina coast had been largely sealed, half of Virginia had been overrun, and a large Federal army led by Gen. George B. McClellan was at the gates of Richmond. Final victory looked very near.

Then the military picture changed abruptly and disastrously. In both the East and the West, Union armies missed their opportunities and lost the initiative.

The chance to open the Mississippi was muffed. A Union army which had been planning to enter eastern Tennessee was badly outmaneuvered by the Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, who marched boldly off to invade Kentucky and compelled the Union Gen. Don Carlos Buell to follow in fruitless pursuit. In the East, Robert E. Lee roundly defeated McClellan and began a counter-offensive which presently transferred the seat of the war all the way to the upper Potomac. The Confederacy, which had been so near defeat, now began to look like a winner, and there was grave danger that Great Britain would recognize it and would provide the help that would insure Southern independence.

Thus, the federal administration had to recast all of its ideas. Obviously, ordinary military reverses were not going to make the Confederacy quit; it had had plenty of them and it had bounced back to turn the war upside down. The Confederacy would not quit until it had been made incapable of fighting any longer; if the Civil War were to be won by the North, it would have to be total war, as that term was understood in the nineteenth century.

In other words, the Federal Government would have to destroy slavery in order to destroy the Confederacy.

Congress pointed the way. On July 12, it passed a new confiscation act, providing sterner penalties for secession and saying flatly that slaves who escaped from, or were captured from, masters engaged in rebellion “shall be forever free of their servitude and not again be held as slaves.” To meet the objection that Congress legally had no power to do anything at all about slavery, there was a proviso stating that such slaves were war captives and hence the property of the Government — which, of course, could dispose of its own property in any way it chose.

This was not exactly emancipation, but it was a significant step in that direction.

Abraham Lincoln needed no prodding. His determination to do whatever needed to be done to win the war was unabated. He warned one correspondent: “It may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.” He pleaded vainly with Senators and Congressmen from the border states to support compensated emancipation, a plan under which the Federal Government would reimburse, at the rate of $400 a head, any state which would adopt a program of gradual emancipation. And he spent a good deal of time in a little War Department office which he used as a hideaway, writing a sentence or two, meditating on what he had written, putting the result in a desk drawer and then returning a day or two later to write a bit more. Here, a line at a time, the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation took form.

Lincoln presented his draft to the Cabinet on July 22, saying that he did not exactly want anybody’s advice because he had already made up his mind about the course he was taking, but adding that he would be glad to listen to any comments. Then he read the draft.

It began as a simple recital of the fact that Congress had passed a new confiscation act, and it warned people affected by that act to take note of it and be guided accordingly. It served notice that at the next session of Congress the President would again push the compensated emancipation idea, and it went on to say that the sole purpose of the war remained what it had always been — to restore and maintain “the constitutional relation between the United States, and each of the states, and the people thereof, in which states that relation is, or may be suspended or disturbed.”

Then came the meat of it: “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 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 cabinet was just a little taken aback, but it was receptive. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair warned that such a document might cost the Republican party the fall elections, and Secretary Chase feared that it might lead to bloody slave uprisings, but in the main the Cabinet voiced warm support. Secretary of State William H. Seward did have a word of caution: The war had been going badly of late and, if this proclamation came out now, it might sound as if the Government were asking the slaves for help rather than offering its help to them. Lincoln saw the point at once. The proclamation could not be issued until some Federal army had won a victory. Until then it would lie in a pigeonhole.

By one of the great ironies of the war, the essential victory was at last provided by a soldier who had no sympathy at all with the Emancipation Proclamation and would undoubtedly have been glad to have it stay in its pigeonhole forever — General McClellan, a strong anti-abolitionist and in private life a conservative Democrat who detested most of the Republican leaders and had very little regard for President Lincoln himself.

After brilliant maneuvers had compelled the withdrawal of McClellan’s army from the James River and had beaten a second Federal army that tried to advance on Richmond overland, General Lee took his army to northern Virginia and, early in September, crossed the Potomac into Maryland bound on an invasion of the North. McClellan followed him and brought him to battle on Sept. 17, on the hills overlooking Antietam Creek, on the edge of Sharpsburg, Maryland.

This was the bloodiest single day’s fight of the entire war, costing McClellan 13,000 casualties and Lee more than 10,000 and, although it was tactically a draw, it was a definite strategic victory for the Union. Compelled to abandon his plan of invasion, Lee retreated into Virginia—and Lincoln, seizing the opportunity, issued the preliminary proclamation.

He appears to have spent Sunday, Sept. 21, writing a new draft, working from the first draft he had put together earlier in the summer. On Monday, Sept. 22, he called the Cabinet together, read the revised draft, accepted one or two minor corrections in phrasing, and then signed the document and had it published. It appeared in the press on the following day.

The profound effects which the proclamation ultimately had were not visible at once; indeed, the immediate effect seemed to be unfavorable to the Union cause.

The Confederates were aroused to a new grimness. It seemed to them that the proclamation was nothing better than an attempt to excite a slave insurrection; it confirmed all their worst suspicions about the “black Republicans,” and Jefferson Davis called on the South to resist to the death.

In the North, the Republicans met a sharp setback in the fall elections, retaining a working majority in Congress by the narrowest of margins. Simple war-weariness was no doubt a factor here, and so was the political axiom that the party in power always suffers a decline in the mid-term Congressional elections, but the proclamation undoubtedly offended many Democrats and cost the Administration a substantial number of votes.

Over the long pull, however, the proclamation had decisive importance. It changed the climate of the war, broadening its objectives and giving the Northern people reason to feel that the terrible sacrifices exacted by battles like Antietam would finally be justified. After all, a majority of Northerners — the majority that had elected Lincoln in 1860 — had deep anti-slavery convictions. This majority had been willing to tread softly as a matter of tactics; it had agreed that the central Government could not lawfully interfere with slavery in peacetime; but, in a showdown, it would support emancipation with everything it had. It might, in the end, have given up a fight solely for reunion; it would never give up a fight for reunion and for human freedom.

Overseas the effect was equally profound. The war had changed in a way that made British intervention impossible, and the change had come just in time.

The British cabinet had been drifting toward recognition of the Confederacy for months, impelled by a need for Southern cotton and a general dislike of Yankees, and the question was to come up for decision late in the fall of 1862. Lee’s defeat at Antietam induced a certain caution; and then, suddenly, the Emancipation Proclamation persuaded the British public that this American war was not a simple attempt to keep certain states from having their independence but was a war to end slavery. Once that idea took hold, no British cabinet could recognize the Confederacy.

It was a different war, once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. The words which ordained freedom for those who had been slaves could not be recalled once they had been spoken. They would go on and on, generation after generation, broadening the nation’s ideals and changing its life — then, thenceforward and forever.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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