The Emancipation Proclamation

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Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Emancipation Proclamation

In April 1862, Lincoln issued an executive order that freed all the slaves in Washington, DC. In September, he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which had two main provisions. First, it stated that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in any territory in rebellion against the United States would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Second, it invited African Americans to enlist in the Union Army.

The proclamation did not extend freedom to any slaves currently in the Union (four slaveholding states had not seceded with the rest). Confederate states that rejoined the Union could thus keep their slaves; those that remained in rebellion would lose them. The entire Confederacy spurned the offer; thus, by U.S. law, slavery officially ended in the old South on the first day of 1863.

Lincoln’s purpose in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was three- fold. His primary goal was to reunite the Union and the Confederacy; if even one Confederate state accepted the bargain and rejoined the Union, it would weaken the Confederacy and thus bring about a Union victory that much sooner. Lincoln also knew that slaves throughout the South would hear of the proclamation; he hoped to win their loyalty and support for the Union cause, and also hoped that many would enlist in the Union Army. Again, if the South lost a significant number of viable soldiers to the North, a southern defeat would come more quickly. (In the end, more than 180,000 former slaves would fight for the Union, many with distinction.)

Lincoln’s second goal was to end the era of compromise over slavery once and for all; the issue had divided the nation too violently for too many decades at far too high a cost. If the Confederate states had surrendered in order to keep their slaves, Lincoln would no doubt have advocated gradual emancipation—a plan he had been discussing with the representatives of slaveholding Union states such as Maryland. The alternative was, of course, immediate emancipation—enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation on schedule in states which continued to fight. (As it turned out, the Thirteenth Amendment would abolish slavery throughout the United States on December 6, 1865.) Third, Lincoln believed that slavery was indefensible, on both logical and moral grounds. The Emancipation Proclamation made it clear to all that the days of slavery were numbered.

The Confederates won a great victory at Fredericksburg, Virginia, just before the Emancipation Proclamation was due to take effect. Lee established his troops on high ground overlooking an open plain, in the perfect position to fire on the Union troops when they crossed the plain. Four months later, the South scored another victory at Chancellorsville, where Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson organized an ingenious double-pronged attack against the Union army. The South suffered a severe blow during the battle, however, when Confederate troops mistook Jackson for an enemy soldier and shot him. Jackson, who had been one of the ablest generals in the Confederate Army, died of his wounds a week later.

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Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Civil War Practice Test

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