On today's date in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order emancipating all slaves in the Confederate States of America. From this moment on the war will be a crusade to free slaves.
|First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln|
Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864
Most Americans have been schooled to think of the Civil War as having been fought over slavery. But that was not the case, at least at the beginning of that great conflict. Even after more than a year into the War Between the States, the abolition of slavery was not a key political or military objective of the Union, nor of President Lincoln himself. Many people, North and South, opposed slavery but did not favor emancipation. They were willing to let slavery die on its own over time. They were not willing to let the slavery issue bring on a war.
Lincoln felt differently. While he had personal and moral convictions about the institution of slavery, his political views were conflicted. In his first inaugural address in 1861, he stated:
Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that—
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
However, in his second inaugural speech, 4 bloody years later, Lincoln clearly stated his belief that slavery had been "the cause of the war."
According to Civil War author, Michael R. Bradley, Lincoln was on the right track about slavery being a major cause of the war, at least in part. Many believe that all other causes or contributing factors to the rebellion could have been mitigated. However, extremist views on both sides destroyed all hope of reaching consensus about a process to bring the institution of slavery to an end, facts Lincoln alluded to in his second inaugural address.
To the extent that Lincoln was right about slavery being a major cause of the war, he was wrong about it being a motivation for Northerners and Southerners to fight each other.
At the time of the war, few Southerners actually owned slaves—less than 10 percent. Only the rich could afford slaves, and few, if any Southern soldiers were willing to risk their lives for the advantage of the wealthy class. For the Confederate soldier, the loss of slaves meant nothing to him.
On the other side of the battle lines, most of those soldiers were fighting to preserve the Union, not to free slaves. They were in agreement with Lincoln's previous sentiments, expressed in an open letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862:
My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it—if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it—and if I could do 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 this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save this Union.*
Now, many of these same brave soldiers felt betrayed and insulted, their cause to preserve the Union now supplanted by Lincoln's expanded goal for saving it. It is true—a sad truth—that 19th century white men of both sides of the conflict held long-standing convictions about their supremacy over the black race. Northern soldiers certainly did not see themselves as the Lord's mighty army bringing freedom to the captive Negro. This was not why they had joined to fight in the Union cause.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was about to change that. Interestingly, it only affected territory under the Union's actual control. Those slaves in territory Lincoln actually controlled, he left enslaved. Furthermore, slaveholders in Northern states continued to own slaves after Lincoln's order. The political value of emancipation was what was important to Lincoln.
The true nature of the proclamation was not lost on the Union army commanders. They ordered only slaves of Confederate owners to be pressed into labor for the Union army. Slaves of "loyal" men were left in place, under the authority of their masters. It was now illegal to help slaves of loyal owners run away or to prevent any loyal slaveholders from reclaiming their slaves. According to Bradley, "Rosecrans and his subordinates perceived the Emancipation Proclamation not to be a means of freeing slaves so much as a device by which their labor could be denied to the Confederate armed forces and their supporters. Slaves were not seen so much as human beings to be supported and cherished as brothers but as an economic commodity... to be denied an enemy."
For my Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes, serving on this date in the Confederate Army of Tennessee in the midst of the Battle of Murfreesboro, Lincoln's Proclamation had little impact. Even in the areas in which the army operated in the months ahead, Lincoln's order did little to affect the Confederates. However, many Southerners had been thinking already about how to resolve the slavery issue. One novel idea soon would be put forward by the commander of Great Grandfather's division, Patrick Cleburne: Why not enlist black men to fight for their liberation on the side of the Confederacy? It would be a controversial proposal, and not seriously considered again until the South's near defeat.
On the other hand, the Union army already was utilizing freed slaves as laborers, then as soldiers. By May 1863, the U.S. government established the Bureau of Colored Troops to manage the swelling numbers of black soldiers within its ranks. By the end of the war, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) will serve as U.S. soldiers and another 19,000 in the service of the Navy.
Lincoln’s Proclamation didn't actually outlaw slavery. Neither did it make the freed slaves citizens of the United States. What it did accomplish was to make the destruction of slavery an explicit goal of the war in addition to reuniting the severed Union through military force and occupation. Also, by making the abolishment of slavery a war goal, Lincoln's executive order had the effect of turning foreign opinion in favor of the Union. That shift doomed the Confederacy's hopes of gaining official recognition from European countries, particularly Britain, which had abolished slavery 30 years earlier.
* Actually, Lincoln had an even more concise war aim in 1864: My enemies pretend that I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. So long as I am President it shall be for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. Pretty clear. The rest of the quote adds: But no human power can subdue this rebellion without the use of the emancipation policy, and every other policy calculated to weaken the moral and physical forces of the rebellion. Apparently, these words are inscribed in stone in the interior walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The quote is also contained in Lincoln's collected works.
Sources: Tullahoma: The 1863 Campaign for the Control of Middle Tennessee, Michael R. Bradley; National Archives website; The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 7: 1863-1865 (Kindle Edition)