Ohio’s Impact on the War Series: The Emancipation Proclamation inMemory and History

By arohmiller, posted on January 30th, 2013.
Filed under: News
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[The Ohio Civil War 150 Committee has chosen themes for each month of 2013 that focus on different aspects of the Civil War.  Every month, the Ohio’s Impact on the War Series will bring you posts on historical topics related to that month’s theme.   January’s theme is Emancipation.  We welcome comments!  Please leave your thoughts below.]

Written by Anthony Gibbs 

First reading of the Proclamation to the Cabinet

Print, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet, c. 1866

The 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation recently passed.  There was little fanfare on January 1st, 2013 regarding the historic document.  The blockbuster movie just released on Abraham Lincoln covered two years after the document and focused on Lincoln’s work with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  The Emancipation Proclamation (EP) in history has been both overinflated and underestimated in its scope and accomplishments.  As we march through the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, we get an opportunity to look back and examine the “real deal” about key moments in the war. We can see what events truly brought significant change that affected the war at the time and directly relates to conditions in our current reality.  To examine what the EP really accomplished we must examine the challenges Lincoln himself recognized and pondered before signing the EP.

On September 13th 1862, a group of gentlemen approached Lincoln about the potential of emancipation.  No doubt Lincoln had already contemplated emancipation and discussed it with his cabinet numerous times.  His response to these gentlemen reflects his struggles with the document.  The President began his position as such, “The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree”; a statement that summarized the divided country’s challenges with slavery and emancipation.  In characteristic storytelling fashion, Lincoln explains how northern men debated both sides of the issue and how Congress had a majority of anti-slavery representatives and still they could not agree on a policy regarding emancipation.  He goes on to explain that even in religious circles emancipation was a very much divided issue, and soldiers of both sides were earnestly praying for God to favor their particular side.

Lincoln, showing the influence of his law background, began to debate the case for emancipation:

“What good would a proclamation of Emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated?  I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative…Would my word free the slaves, when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the Rebel States?  Is there a single court, or magistrate, or individual that would be influenced by it there?….And, suppose they (slaves) could be induced by a proclamation of freedom from me to throw themselves upon us, what should we do with them?  How can we feed and care for such a multitude?….If, now, the pressure of the war should call off our forces from New Orleans to defend some other point, what is to prevent the masters from reducing the Blacks to Slavery again; for I am told that whenever the rebels take any Black prisoners, free or slave, they immediately auction them off!  They did so with those they took from a boat that was aground in the Tennessee River a few days ago.  And then I am very ungenerously attacked for it!”

Today, many historians agree that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, and that it was not done for any other reason. However, Lincoln did contemplate every reason for emancipation when deciding whether or not to issue the document:

“Now, then, tell me, if you please, what possible result of good would follow the issuing of such a proclamation as you desire?  Understand:  I raise no objection against it on legal or constitutional grounds; for, as Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy in time of war, I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy; nor do I urge objections of a moral nature, in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South.  I view this matter as a practical war measure, to be decided on according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the Rebellion.” 

The men Lincoln addressed continued to urge the President and brought up the potential of strengthening the Union’s position in Europe by taking a stance against the “degrading curse of American slavery”.  Lincoln began to concede the benefits of emancipation, but then displayed his beliefs and concerns with black soldiers and the issue of the border states:

“I admit that Slavery is at the root of the Rebellion, or at least its sine qud non.  The ambition of politicians may have instigated them to act; they would have been impotent without Slavery as their instrument.  I will also concede that Emancipation would help us in Europe, and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition.  I grant, further, that it would help somewhat at the North, though not so much, I fear, as you and those you represent imagine.  Still, some additional strength would be added in that way to the war; and then, unquestionably, it would weaken the Rebels by drawing off their laborers, which is of great importance; but I am not so sure we could do much with the Blacks.  If we were to arm them, I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the Rebels; and, indeed, thus far, we have not had arms enough to equip our White troops.  I will mention another thing, though it meet only your scorn and contempt.  There are fifty thousand bayonets in the Union army from the Border Slave States.  It would be a serious matter if, in consequence of a proclamation such as you desire, they should go over to the Rebels.  I do not think they all would-not so many indeed, as a year ago, or as six months ago-not so many today as yesterday.  Every day increases their Union feeling.  They are also getting their pride enlisted, and want to beat the Rebels.  Let me say one thing more:  I think you should admit that we already have an important principle to rally and unite the people, in the fact that constitutional government is at stake.  This is a fundamental idea, going down about as deep as anything.”

The President took a strong stand against emancipation and argued his point diligently.  It would seem that he was convinced that a proclamation would be unwarranted and impracticable.  But just nine days after this slightly heated discussion, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation that would change the war and forever mark a moment of hope for four million people in bondage and a half a million free men and women of color across both the North and South.

To be continued…

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1 Legacy Response to Ohio’s Impact on the War Series: The Emancipation Proclamation inMemory and History

  1. Good article. It is interesting to note that Lincoln decided to issue the proclamation in the event that Lee was driven back out of Maryland (Antietam), because he felt he needed a victory to support it. Lee was driven out. Then he got a bonus victory in that the Union under Rosecrans defeated Bragg at Stones River as 1863 ended. Lincoln was able to issue the proclamation on a high note.