Countdown to Emancipation

On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.You can read it here.

Much will be written between today and New Year’s Day 1863 about the promise of emancipation.  Some people will correctly remind us of the limited nature of that promise, restricted as it was by geography and the military situation. A few folks will even remind us of Lincoln’s final plea for gradual and compensated emancipation followed by voluntary colonization of the freedpeople. Yet each of these themes explores emancipation looking forward.

In truth, the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is as much a last look backward as it is a step forward. It represents Lincoln’s last attempt to preserve the Union more or less as it was without damaging the institution of slavery any more than had been already done by war and legislation. Properly understood, it is as much a document of reconstruction as it is of emancipation.  It details how white southerners could avoid the impact of emancipation by returning to the Union.

Once more, as at Fort Sumter, Lincoln left to white southerners the choice of what would happen next. It’s worth remembering that the president did so by defining the choices available. In April 1861 it was allowing the reprovisioning of Fort Sumter or war; in September 1862 it was an end to war and reunion with slavery or a continued war that would now target slavery in the Confederacy. In both cases Confederates did not hesitate to make their choice: war in 1861, war in 1862.

Much has been done on the debate in the North over the next hundred days.  It might be worthwhile to recall that the debate in the South was rather short, with Confederate patriots reminding everyone that from the beginning they had warned everyone that Lincoln’s ultimate goal was to destroy slavery. That realization served to strengthen Confederate morale and determination: it complicated the lives of those southern unionists who had tried to keep separate the issues of opposing secession while supporting slavery.

In short, we might do well not to anticipate January 1, 1863 as we reflect upon September 22, 1862. Much happened within the next one hundred days that deserves examination on its own merits, and without peeking ahead to what we now know happened.

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34 thoughts on “Countdown to Emancipation

  1. Pingback: Other Historians’ Perspectives on the Emancipation Proclamation « Civil War Emancipation

  2. I believe we would do a great service to our history by recognizing that the Emancipation Proclamation, while certainly having a significant historical impact, was really the final nail in the coffin. We need only refer to two letters which were written by Thomas Jefferson in the shadow of the Missouri Compromise decisions.

    April 13 1820- to William Short
    the “Missouri question aroused and filled me with alarm. I have been among the most sanguine in believing that our Union would be of long duration. I now doubt it very much.”
    April 22 1820- to John Holms
    Jefferson describes the M.C. as “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror.”

    I include these notes from our history in order to disabuse the notion (of those unfamiliar with a more complete picture of the times) that secession was not a decision that was made on some rainy day when there was nothing else to do. The tensions had been growing for decades and with each passing year the Southern states were becoming increasingly adamant about protecting there way of life and talk of secession became increasingly more serious.

    By the time of the Lincoln/Douglas debates the animosity the South held toward the North had reached a climax. It should also be recognized that much of the North also took a dim view of liberating millions of slaves. Northern attacks on Abolitionists and the censorship of abolitionist propaganda were clear evidence of what the true Northern sentiments were.

    If we look at “Lincoln’s last attempt to preserve the Union” in light of the histories going back to the Missouri Compromise we might perhaps understand how futile these efforts were. The time to save a life is when there is blood to stanch. Once rigor mortis sets in it’s just too late.

  3. A good presentation on what is one of the most important and most complex documents in American History. By itself the EP was, among other things, ‘a new birth of freedom.’ I fully concur that this was a ‘looking back’, and the actual January 1, 1863 issuance was the move forward. He gave the South 100 days to think, and they passed up the opportunity. If there was a turning point during the war, at least for the Union, it was during these 100 days.

  4. I would also note that the CS government seemed almost blind to the situation, and the full consequences of their gamble should it lose. It’s a shame, no, more than a shame, that so few risked so much that so many would pay for.

  5. Yes, it was more than a shame. But you have to weigh the resolve of the South to stick to their belief that what they were doing was right. It was “more than a shame” with the benefit of hindsight. A Confederate victory was still possible in the collective mind of the South and there was no way they could foresee the destruction that awaited them, the next years of the war, Sherman’s March, and more pointedly the Reconstruction. Remember what General Lee was reported to have stated. “I would never have surrendered the army if I had known how the South would have been treated.”

    • Yes, Lee was reported to have said that. Whether he actually said it is a different matter entirely. That said, the idea that Lee simply accepted the results of the war without complaint is likewise challenged by the record of what we know he said at the time.

      • I do like to think he said it. Whether or not it’s true, it makes a great t-shirt. Would you kindly direct me to a source for the record you allude to?

      • Furthermore, it would have been a ridiculous statement if Lee had made it, which I don’t believe. Based on the history of the treatment of similar failed rebellions in the Western world, the South got off incredibly easy. Lee wasn’t a fool. By the time he surrendered his army at Appomattox, there were no options remaining to him other than to surrender and try to get the best terms he could. Either circumstances had eliminated them (joining forces with Joe Johnston) or Lee had rejected them (Alexander’s idea of trying to break out as guerrilla units).

      • Douglas Southall Freeman looked into this and finds little to give it credence. He calls it “doubtful.” See R. E. Lee, Vol 4, p. 374, footnote 7. Freeman had personally spoken with one of the people named as a source of this alleged quotation and said he never heard the individual claim Lee said anything like that.

  6. The mid-term elections of 1862 are coming soon after this. The Democrats, if I’m not mistaken, did better in these elections than Republicans. Some of this apparently had to do with the Emancipation Proclamation, but I’m guessing it also had to do with the ongoing War.

    Which of the two was more important in the elections of 1862 you think?

    • The outs always do better in mid-term elections — vide 2010. But the reality is that, unlike many previous mid-terms, the Republicans did not loose control of either House. And Congressional elections were held in September through November 1862 and in some states on into 1863. In addition, most states did not allow absentee balloting by soldiers, something that changed by 1864. Contemporary observers felt that it was more likely that statistically the soldiers favored Lincoln and the Republicans.

      • Those are good points. The Republicans did take a licking in the congressional and gubernatorial elections in fall, 1862 but not to the extent supposed. There is good evidence that the Proclamation was only one factor. And, as Bob points out, the vote might have turned out differently had the troops voted (though probably not as solidly in favor of Lincoln as in 1864). The Proclamation did not cause the universal dissatisfaction in the ranks which had been feared.

  7. Another point – Many Confederates Congressman wanted to retaliate for the EP. Many saw it as an incident to “Slave insurrections.” They wished to treat Union Soldiers not as soldiers -but as criminals -invading the South for the purpose of stealing their property. No action was taken by Davis, primarily because he understood the South too weak for a “war to the knife.”

    • You are only talking about white Union enlisted men and commission and non-commissioned White officers serving with white Union units. As Gen. E.A. Hitchcock, Maj. Gen. of Vols., Commissioner for Exchange of Prisoners, later report to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:

      >>The first indication on the part of the rebels of a disposition to disregard the [prisoner exchange] cartel became public through a message by Jefferson Davis to the rebel Congress, in which, after alluding to the proclamation of the President announcing emancipation, he makes use of the following language:
      I shall, unless in your wisdom you deem some other course more expedient, deliver to the several State authorities all commissioned officers of the United States that may hereafter be captured by our forces in any of the States embraced in the proclamation, that they may be dealt with in accordance with the laws of those States providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection.
      This announcement of Mr. Davis was made January 12, 1863, and received the modified approval of the rebel Congress, as shown in the following sections of an act approved May 1, 1863, to wit:
      SEC. 4. That every white person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command negroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize, or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprise, attack, or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, be put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.
      SEC. 5. Every person, being a commissioned officer or acting as such in the service of the enemy, who shall during the present war excite, attempt to excite, or cause to be excited, a servile insurrection, or who shall incite, or cause to be incited, a slave to rebel, shall, if captured, be put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.
      * * * * * * * * * *
      SEC. 7. All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war or be taken in arms against the Confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, to be dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.<< AR 121_799-810

    • Another point – Many Confederates Congressman wanted to retaliate for the EP. Many saw it as an incident to “Slave insurrections.” They wished to treat Union Soldiers not as soldiers -but as criminals -invading the South for the purpose of stealing their property.

      That view was widespread. Here is the account of a conversation discussing the EP with captured Union naval officers on January 2, 1863, after the Battle of Galveston:

      Some of the officers asked the father to interpose so as to protect them from rudeness and harsh treatment when taken into the interior. “Oh,” said he, we are not savages. You will receive all due courtesy as prisoners of war. Should you overhear some hard things said, you will not think it strange, in view of Lincoln’s late proclamation.” “What proclamation?” “That in which he suggests to our slaves to rise and massacre the whites in pretendingly advising them not to do it.” “We have seen no such proclamation.” “Is it possible that you have not?” “It is probably from the fiendish brain of Seward, and is really the greatest outrage of the war.” They held down their heads in very shame, and in manner confessed that they could of right claim no gentle treatment.

      Did you catch that phrase, “suggests to our slaves to rise and massacre the whites in pretendingly advising them not to do it”? That’s some unhinged, panicked thinking, right there.

  8. Union soldiers as criminals……Hmmmm. Remember, ethnocide was never adopted by the Geneva Convention for lack of definition.

  9. I finished Barnet Schecter’s The Devil’s Own Work last night. He argues that the Emancipation Proclamation marked the beginning of Reconstruction because a) there was no turning back after its release, and b) the Democrats, including in the North and especially in New York City, organized immediately after its release to fight against the proclamation while at the same time exploiting it for political gain. Horatio Seymour and Boss Tweed along with his cronies were certainly expert at exploiting white fears about emancipation and how it might effect labor.

  10. “In both cases Confederates did not hesitate to make their choice: war in 1861, war in 1862.” Actually that should read: Independence in 1861, Independence in 1862.

  11. Basically the South started the war for no good reason, escalated it, refused any compromise or generous peace terms – even after July1863 when there was no hope of Victory – fought to the bitter end and then spent 147 years whining about badly they were treated. The North was extremely generous in its treatment of the South given things like Andersonville and 360,000 dead.

      • There was no good reason to secede, and therefore, there was no good reason following that to start the war. Sort of “fruit of the poisoned tree.” If you accept that there was no good reason to seceded, nothing that followed in the way of decisions by the South can be justified.

        Secession was a long planned for event, and highly manipulated Southern public opinion is what backed it in the South. Efforts by the Southern elites had been ongoing for decades, and physical steps had been taken for the entire decade of the 1850s in preparation for that event. Nevertheless, there was no legitimate reason to secede, only the public declamations and distortions of the Southern Elites that inspired fear in the Southern public.

        Pointing to Lincoln’s election was a red herring. They simply chose to ignore a legal and lawful election under the Constitution of the US.

        • >> Secession was . . . highly manipulated Southern public opinion is what backed it in the South.

          There was that element, but as others have pointed out or hinted, things had been boiling for decades and the way the sides saw each other had become quite distorted. Anyway, the view that the elites manipulated the rest was the widespread view of Northerners for the first year at least of the war. But as it dragged on their view changed. Still, if the fuse hadn’t been lit by elite manipulation your point still stands.

          On the changing views of the Unionists towards the South as the war dragged on and the politics of the relationship of the sections this book is quite good:

  12. I was introduced to this part of American history when I picked up Eric Foners book on the Reconstruction four years ago. As a descendent of 20th century immigrants I had no previous convictions and immediately developed a sympathetic connection to the Southern cause. I have been a devoted student of 19th century history ever since and part of this is the romanticism and mythology that emerged from the Civil War. This alleged statement of R.E. Lee’s fit’s right in with my tacit connection with the war, the myth, and the way things played out during the failed Reconstruction. But I digress. The subject of this section is the Emancipation Proclamation and my descent into personal ruminations is of no real consequence. Just responding to Ms. Blough (pronunciation?) here.

  13. Pingback: This Day (Nothing Left to Lose Edition) | Encyclopedia Virginia: The Blog

  14. Pingback: Responding to the Emancipation Proclamation | Yesterday…and Today

  15. As we approach the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, many people say, “Well, since it only applied to the Confederate states, it did not actually free a single slave.”

    From one perspective, that’s obviously true. But from a practical perspective, wasn’t it one more thing that helped free slaves? Like Benjamin Butler’s invention of the term “contraband” helped free slaves — because they knew there was Union backing for their running away — can’t it also be said that in a very practical sense, the Emancipation Proclamation did free slaves, because it was one more thing that inspired them that the Union soldiers would stand behind them if they ran away?

    So basically, is it absolutely true that not a single slave was freed, or should we be looking at broader, practical implications? By removing one more layer of ambiguity in the status of the enslaved people in the Confederacy, did it not give practical aid to their attempts to free themselves?

    • It’s not true literally or figuratively. There were people freed at the moment the proclamation went into effect, and in millions of other cases the status of enslaved people in areas under Confederate control was clarified so that the arrival of the Union army made good the promise of freedom.

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