The battle at Sharpsburg resulted in just enough of a Union victory to make Lincoln comfortable in communicating a politically dangerous proclamation to the nation. The idea that it could be so is preposterous to us now. Of course the South would object, we might think, but would anyone in the Union, or abroad? Yet many in the Union army were furious at Lincoln’s decision, either because they hated the idea of freeing slaves per se, or they felt that ending slavery was not what they had gone to war for. Some soldiers even advocated marching on the capital to depose him (and presumably replace him with Little Mac, whom they loved).
The London papers excoriated Lincoln more vigorously than even the Southern ones did, accusing him of playing a last, desperate card by trying to foment slave insurrections. The English cabinet came as close as they ever did to intervening in the war. Only the practical difficulties of mediating between the parties at great distance, and Russia’s absolute refusal to support any European meddling, prevented them.
In more recent years, it has become popular for cynics to attack Lincoln because the Emancipation Proclamation did not go far enough. It is especially popular to say that the Proclamation did not free any slaves. The claim is simply false. Several thousand slaves held as ‘contraband’ were, in fact, freed immediately when the proclamation went into effect. Moreover, as the Union armies advanced, the Proclamation was the instrument by which slaves in occupied territories were set free. By itself it did not end slavery in the USA, but without it there would have been no 13th Amendment to finish the job.
From the comfortable seat of distant history it is easy to criticize the Emancipation Proclamation as not enough, to forget that this document, with its form and ideas so obvious to us, nearly destroyed the Union when it was issued. It’s easy to forget how bold and dangerous it was to do what Lincoln did.
One hundred days later, the proclamation went into effect…
By the President of the United States of America:
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
“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; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”
Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.
By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN