The Civil War was the darkest period in American history. But from the midst of the horror came a moment of hope.
Today marks the 160th anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history.
The Proclamation provided a beacon to millions of enslaved Blacks, and helped change the ideology of the war from Union preservation to Black freedom.
“The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most significant documents in American history,” Kathryn Harris, the retired director of library services at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. “It re-shaped our country in an attempt to have us live up to the principles and ideals of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal.”
Lincoln had waited for a major Union victory to issue the Emancipation, believing that the Proclamation would not be taken seriously after a defeat. Though many consider Antietam a tactical draw, Lincoln considered it enough of a win to act.
The Proclamation went into effect the following Jan. 1, and Harris describes the anticipation until then.
“For the slaves that had actually heard about the Proclamation, they were full of anxiety for those hundred days to pass,” she said. “On Dec. 31, there were Watch Nights across the north, with big celebrations at churches and prayers for their enslaved brethren in the South. They were preparing for the jubilee, the coming of freedom.”
Lincoln was roundly criticized for the Proclamation, even in the North, where emancipation was a divisive issue and opposed by many of the President’s generals and political allies.
While abolitionists had called for emancipation for years, many in both North and South were apathetic to Black freedom. As noted historian Richard Current wrote, “Emancipation was, indeed, the concern of only a comparative few.”
Some thought the document was unconstitutional, while others disdained the idea that only Blacks in states in rebellion would be freed, leaving slavery in border states largely intact.
Southerners and opposing Democrats were particularly vicious in their criticism. The New York World, a Democratic organ, ripped Lincoln as “adrift on a current of radical fanaticism.”
Many in the ranks were incensed that the ideology of the war had changed. A soldier in the 86th Illinois wrote his father that “only eight men in (our) company approve the policy and proclamation of Mr. Lincoln.”
But there was growing acceptance to the Emancipation as the war progressed, which further validated Lincoln’s boldness. The president later authorized the use of Black troops and worked strenuously for the passage of the 13th Amendment, banning slavery.
Lincoln also called for Black citizenship and voting rights, which did not come until the 14th and 15th amendments, respectively. Voting rights, however, were only for Black males, as women of any color did not gain the right to vote until 1919.
The president’s progressiveness inflamed proslavery men like John Wilkes Booth.
“Giving Blacks the franchise was what caught Booth the most, and that’s one of the things that prompted him to kill Mr. Lincoln,” Harris said. “Lincoln had once said, ‘As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,’ which was his idea of democracy. And he put himself at a lot of risk to protect that and save the Union.”
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 firstname.lastname@example.org.