The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation


Abraham Lincoln head and shouldersBy early 1862, President Lincoln had determined that the South would not rejoin the Union without more severe measures. After over a year of hard war, the Union government would need to turn up the heat on their former fellow Americans and threaten the emancipation of the South’s slave population.

The South’s slaves were the very basis of their wealth with 4 million people held in bondage and being employed as field hands, teamsters, factory laborers, house servants and body servants. Without their slaves, the South felt that their way of life would end forever.

Lincoln hoped that the threat of emancipation would bring the Southern leaders to the peace table. Remember, this was the man who said in a letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” 

For Lincoln, the overriding issue of the war was the preservation of the Union. In his book, The Union War, Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia made the case that the overriding motive in the North was preservation of the Union. In letters and diaries, Union soldiers continually refer to the preservation of the Union. Their battle cries are “For New York and the Union” or “For Maine and the Union”.

The “Union Forever” was their main concern, not the emancipation of the slaves. That may be difficult for modern Americans to understand but we need to understand the world of our forebears. Many parts of the North were devoid of African-Americans. American literature is replete with instances where characters and real people never met or even glimpsed a black person in their entire lives.

To expect them to fight for the emancipation of a race that they had no familiarity with was too much to ask of the soldiers of the northern states. However, they did harbor strong feelings for the preservation of the American Union. Many of their ancestors had fought in the American Revolution and the later War of 1812, so they were fully aware of the difficulties encountered during the formation of the country.

They saw secession by the southern states as the breaking of an oath to the Union. The South was leaving the Union in order to preserve their own financial interests. To do so at the point of a gun was seen as doubly egregious. Lincoln’s call for volunteers was met with an overwhelming response by the citizens of the North.

Reports from the battlefields on the Peninsula confirmed for Lincoln the belief that one way of hurting the Confederate war effort was to deprive First reading of the Emancipation Proclamationthem of their slave labor. Slaves were being used by the Confederate army as laborers who dug trenches and fortifications. They were also being utilized as teamsters, cooks and hospital attendants, freeing soldiers for field duty.

Away from the army, slaves worked the fields, again freeing white men to fight the Union troops. By depriving these assets to the South, the North would also be able to add them to their war effort, giving the Union forces a decided military advantage.

Lincoln first revealed his thinking to Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on the morning of July 13, 1862 as the three men rode to the funeral of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s infant son.

Lincoln’s description of his legal reasoning, according to Welles, overrode the constitutional protection of slavery with his constitutionally sanctioned war powers. Welles wrote in his diary that Lincoln had “come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.”

Abraham Lincoln first discussed the Emancipation Proclamation at a special cabinet meeting on July 21st. At this initial meeting, Lincoln read out several orders that he was contemplating. One would authorize Union generals to appropriate any property that they deemed necessary for the prosecution of the war. A second order would allow the payment of blacks that were in the army’s employ. When the cabinet discussed the arming of blacks, Lincoln was not prepared to make that decision yet.

The following day the cabinet met again. It was at this meeting that the President announced that he wished to read the preliminary draft of an emancipation proclamation. The cabinet listened in silence. After the reading of the proclamation, the members of the cabinet gave their opinions on its impact to the war effort. As was to be expected, their were varying opinions among the members of the cabinet.

Reproduction of the Emancipation ProclamationAfter much discussion Secretary Seward, who supported the President on this issue, said, “…I fear it may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help…our last shriek, on the retreat.” Seward urged the President to wait, “until the eagle of victory takes his flight.”

Lincoln agreed with Seward’s advice but spent the rest of July and into August editing the draft. He anxiously awaited a victory that would allow him to issue it. He spent the time by preparing the ground for emancipation by with both races.

He was particularly in favor of the idea of colonization of blacks in western Africa. He met with a delegation of freed slaves on August 14th but failed to fully convince them on the idea of colonization.After consulting with prominent blacks in Philadelphia, New York and Boston, the blacks reported that they met with widespread antipathy to the immigration plan. The blacks expressed the opinion that being born here and living here, they expected to die here in “the course of nature.”

Lincoln waited on events to allow him to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Events took place by the banks of Antietam creek in western Maryland on September 17, 1862.



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