On this day in 1862, Abraham Lincoln issues a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. You’ve heard of the official Emancipation Proclamation, of course, but this was an earlier version of it. Did you know that Lincoln gave southern states an opportunity to return to the Union—and to keep their slaves?
Lincoln had been contemplating the idea of emancipation for months. As early as July 1862, he’d suggested it to his cabinet. His plan was to ground an emancipation proclamation, as historian James McPherson describes, “in his war powers as commander in chief to seize enemy property (in this case, slaves) being used to wage war against the United States.”
But the proclamation wasn’t just some sort of altruistic measure.
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles described Lincoln’s move as a “military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.”
In other words, the Emancipation Proclamation was not only about freeing slaves. It was also about military strategy.
“Militarily,” Professor Mackubin T. Owens explains, “the Emancipation Proclamation opened the way to the next logical step in this process of weakening the South while strengthening the North: enrolling blacks as soldiers in the Union army. The manpower boon to the Union was substantial. . . . At the end of the war, [black soldiers] constituted 12 percent of the Union’s military manpower.”
Nevertheless, Lincoln chose not to make his preliminary announcement in July, when he talked to his cabinet. His Secretary of State, William Seward, argued convincingly that a proclamation should not be issued until the military effort was going better. If the proclamation were to be issued in a moment of weakness, then it would seem to be “a cry for help . . . our last shriek, on the retreat.”
Lincoln would say that Seward’s words “struck me with great force.” He decided to wait.
Lincoln’s moment came in September 1862, after the Battle of Antietam. That battle had been difficult, to say the least. McPherson estimates that the casualties were twice the casualties of the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War COMBINED. In the end, the Confederate army retreated. Technically, it was a draw, but Union forces retained the field. They declared victory.
Lincoln decided that this was his moment. Five days later, he issued his preliminary proclamation. Lincoln gave the Confederate states until January 1, 1863, to return to the Union. Any state that voluntarily returned, Lincoln promised, could keep its slaves. Meanwhile, those states refusing to comply would be subject to the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln intended to issue on the first day of the New Year.
Let’s just say that not everyone was happy with this outcome. Democrats in the North were upset, and they used it as a campaign issue during the mid-term elections that year. Many in the border states were also unhappy.
In the end, no state returned to the fold. Instead, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued his official Emancipation Proclamation, a document that freed slaves in the Confederate states, but did not free the slaves in the northern states. (Yes, there were some.)
What if the Confederate states had accepted Lincoln’s offer to return to the Union? Would we still say that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery?
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Anne-Marie Schmidt, The Rocky Road Over Emancipation to the First Black Regiments (2015)
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988)
James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (2002)
Mackubin T. Owens, Emancipation as Political-Military Strategy (Ashbrook Center; Nov. 1, 2007)
Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (1995)
The Emancipation Proclamation (National Archives)