Freedom At Antietam

As the glowing sun set over the bloody fields of Antietam, the Civil War became a different war. Five days after the battle, armed with pen and paper, Abraham Lincoln changed the war when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

"...all persons held as slaves within any State...the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863

The proclamation reflected Lincoln's new way of thinking about the conflict. Until this time, it was seen as a rebellion, a fight to preserve the Union without touching slavery. Now Lincoln was threatening to crush the Confederacy by destroying slavery, the basis of its economy and society. Now the North was waging a moral crusade to free the slaves.

While the Emancipation Proclamation reflected Lincoln's high-minded morality, the president was under great pressure to act. Congress was urging emancipation. Escaped slaves were fleeing to the Union army as it advanced in the South, complicating military operations. And the enlistment of black Americans as soldiers could give the Union's ailing war machine a much-needed boost.

Forever Free, But When?

Lincoln's preliminary proclamation, issued on September 22, 1862, declared that on New Year's Day, 1863, slaves in areas then "in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." For areas not deemed to be in rebellion, slavery would be unchanged.

The final proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, identified those areas "in rebellion." They included virtually the entire Confederacy, except areas controlled by the Union army. The document notably excluded the so-called border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, where slavery existed side by side with Unionist sentiment. In areas where the U.S. government had authority, such as Maryland and much of Tennessee, slavery went untouched. In areas where slaves were declared free - most of the South - the federal government had no effective authority.

By the summer of 1862, Congress was pushing hard for emancipation. Now Lincoln's proclamation, a vital step on the gradual path to freedom for American slaves, articulated emancipation as the government's new policy.
Although his famous proclamation did not immediately free a single slave, black Americans saw Lincoln as a savior. Official legal freedom for the slaves came in December 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery

Political Tightrope

Like everything else in Lincoln's administration, the slavery issue was fraught with political pitfalls. On one hand, Lincoln was under pressure from Congress and some of his own generals to attack slavery.

But Lincoln was beholden to the Union border states of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, where some slave owners were loyal Union men. Lincoln was afraid to seize their private property (their slaves) and lose those states to the Confederacy, so he exempted them from his Emancipation Proclamation.

The timing of the proclamation was also political. Lincoln penned his first copy in July 1862, when Union armies were losing one battle after another. But Secretary of State William Seward persuaded Lincoln that emancipation then would look like the "last measure of an exhausted government . . . stretching forth its hands to . . . Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government." (In the mid-19th century, black Americans were sometimes called Ethiopians.)

So Lincoln decided to wait for a victory on the battlefield. Antietam gave him his opportunity.

Military Necessity

Photo of African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C
African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

After the proclamation, Union troops became an army of liberation as they advanced in the South. During the war, one out of every seven Confederate slaves (about 500,000) escaped to the Union army. The South was thus deprived of desperately needed labor to till fields, build forts and fix railroads.

The Emancipation Proclamation also paved the way for the enlistment of black Americans as soldiers. During the summer of 1862, as Lincoln pondered emancipation, the North was facing a shortage of soldiers. Lincoln even offered volunteers enlistments for only nine months instead of the usual three years, hoping that a shorter enlistment would attract more recruits. One solution: enlist black Americans, whether free men from the North or freed slaves from the South.
Despite deep and widespread prejudice, the Union began recruiting black Americans in earnest in early 1863. Believed to be physically and spiritually unfit as fighting men, they were initially confined to non-combat jobs. However, African American soldiers proved their mettle on the battlefield. They distinguished themselves in May 1863 when they bravely attacked Port Hudson across open ground on the Mississippi River in Louisiana. A month later, black troops made another valiant charge when they stormed Fort Wagner near Charleston, S.C. This famous attack was depicted in the movie "Glory."

About 186,000 African Americans served in the Union army, making up about nine percent of Federal forces. The North's advantage in military manpower was a critical factor in its victory in the Civil War. Some northerners supported Lincoln's measure on moral grounds. But many endorsed emancipation because they favored any action that would help defeat the enemy and end the war.

Last updated: July 11, 2019