The Emancipation Proclamation
One Americans Story
During the Civil War, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass continued their fight against slavery. Douglass urged President Lincoln to emancipate, or free, enslaved Americans. "Sound policy . . . demands the instant liberation of every slave in the rebel states," he declared.
A VOICE FROM THE PAST
“To fight against slaveholders, without fighting against slavery, is but a half-hearted business, and paralyzes the hands engaged in it. . . . Fire must be met with water. . . . War for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery.”
---Frederick Douglass, quoted in Battle Cry of Freedom
Douglass pointed out that the Confederate war effort depended on slave labor. He urged the president to make the conflict a war against slavery. Enslaved Americans worked in Southern mines, fields, and factories. They also built forts and hauled supplies for rebel armies. For both practical and moral reasons, he said, Lincoln should free the slaves.
Calls for Emancipation
Throughout the war, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass had been urging Lincoln to emancipate enslaved persons. Many criticized the president for being too cautious. Some even charged that Lincoln's lack of action aided the Confederate cause.
Still, Lincoln hesitated. He did not believe he had the power under the Constitution to abolish slavery where it already existed. Nor did he want to anger the four slave states that remained in the Union. He also knew that most Northern Democrats, and many Republicans, opposed emancipation.
Lincoln did not want the issue of slavery to divide the nation further than it already had. Although he disliked slavery, the president's first priority was to preserve the Union. "If could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it," he declared. "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."
By the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln had decided in favor of emancipation. The war was taking a terrible toll. If freeing the slaves helped weaken the South, then he would do it. Lincoln waited, however, for a moment when he was in a position of strength. After General Lee's forces were stopped at Antietam, Lincoln decided to act.
The Emancipation Proclamation
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in Confederate territory. The proclamation had a tremendous impact on the public. However, it freed very few slaves. Most of the slaves that Lincoln intended to liberate lived in areas distant from the Union troops that could enforce his proclamation.
A VOICE FROM THE PAST
“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, [thenceforth], and forever free.”
Abraham Lincoln, from the Emancipation Proclamation
Why, critics charged, did Lincoln free slaves only in the South? The answer was in the Constitution. Because freeing Southern slaves weakened the Confederacy, the proclamation could be seen as a military action. As commander-in-chief, Lincoln had this authority. Yet the Constitution did not give the president the power to free slaves within the Union. But Lincoln did ask Congress to abolish slavery gradually throughout the land. Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not free many enslaved people at the time it was issued, it was important as a symbolic measure. For the North, the Civil War was no longer a limited war whose main goal was to preserve the Union. It was a war of liberation.
Response to the Proclamation
Abolitionists were thrilled that Lincoln had finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation. "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree," wrote Frederick Douglass. Still, many believed the law should have gone further. They were upset that Lincoln had not freed all enslaved persons, including those in the Border States.
Other people in the North, especially Democrats, were angered by the president's decision. Northern Democrats, the majority of whom were against emancipating even Southern slaves, claimed that the proclamation would only make the war longer by continuing to anger the South. A newspaperman in Ohio called Lincoln's proclamation "monstrous, impudent, and insulting to God as to man."
Most Union soldiers, though, welcomed emancipation. One officer noted that, although few soldiers were abolitionists, most were happy "to destroy everything that. . . gives the rebels strength." White Southerners reacted to the proclamation with rage.
Although it had limited impact in areas outside the reach of Northern armies, many slaves began to run away to Union lines. At the same time that these slaves deprived the Confederacy of labor, they also began to provide the Union with soldiers.
In addition to freeing slaves, the Emancipation Proclamation declared that African-American men willing to fight "will be received into the armed service of the United States." Frederick Douglass had argued for the recruitment of African American soldiers since the start of the war. He declared, "Once [you] let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S. . . . there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship." Before the proclamation, the federal government had discouraged the enlistment of African Americans, and only a few regiments formed. After
emancipation, African Americans rushed to join the army. By war's end, about 180,000 black soldiers wore the uniform of the Union army.
African-American soldiers were organized in all-black regiments, usually led by white officers. They were often given the worst jobs to do and were paid less than white soldiers. Despite these obstacles, African-American soldiers showed great courage on the battlefield and wore their uniforms with pride. More than one regiment insisted on fighting without pay rather than accepting lower pay than the white soldiers.
The 54th Massachusetts
One unit that insisted on fighting without pay was the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first African-American regiments organized in the North. The soldiers of the 54th-among whom were two sons of Frederick Douglass-soon made the regiment the most famous of the Civil War.
The 54th Massachusetts earned its greatest fame in July 1863, when it led a heroic attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The soldiers' bravery at Fort Wagner made the 54th a household name in the North and increased African-American enlistment. The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts and other African-American regiments faced grave dangers if captured. Rather than take African Americans as prisoners, Confederate soldiers often shot them or returned them to slavery.
The war demanded great sacrifices, not only from soldiers and prisoners, but also from people back home. There were many hardships that the Civil War placed on the civilian populations in both the North and the South.