By Duane Soubirous
January 1, 1863, the day Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and declared freedom for all slaves living in the Confederate States of America, was just like any other New Year’s Day to those slaves. In order to gain freedom, they would need to escape behind Union lines or wait for Union troops to advance past them. Slaves living in the loyal border states and parts of the Confederacy that had been pacified by the Union army were kept in bondage. The Emancipation Proclamation freed no one the moment it was issued, but it was the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. Three years later, slavery was abolished throughout the U.S. with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
Though the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln had issued a preliminary proclamation 100 days earlier, on Sept. 22., This warned that emancipation was coming, but rebels could keep their slaves if they put down their arms and rejoined the Union (no one took that offer). Midterm elections in November 1862 showed that many in the Union agreed with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who called the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.”
Racial violence perpetrated both sides of the conflict. That year, the Democratic Party ran a racist, anti-war campaign, warning that emancipation meant black people would move North in droves and force whites out of their homes. “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, and the negroes where they are,” was their campaign slogan. Democrats gained 34 seats in the House of Representatives, won gubernatorial races in New York and New Jersey, and won control of several state legislatures. In 1863, Horatio Seymour, the Democratic governor of New York, said, “I assure you I am your friend,” to anti-draft rioters who had lynched black doormen and burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City.
Unfazed by backlash to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln pressed for emancipation in the loyal states. He encouraged a constitutional amendment that would gradually emancipate slaves (until 1900) and provide compensation to slaveholders. Lincoln believed that his emancipation plan for the border states was “one of the most potent, and swift means of ending” the Civil War. “Let the states which are in rebellion see, definitely and certainly, that, in no event, will the states you represent ever join their proposed Confederacy, and they can not, much longer maintain the contest.” To people who didn’t want tax dollars spent on buying slaves, Lincoln replied that compensated emancipation would cost less than a prolonged war: “I had not asked you to be taxed to buy negroes, except in such way, as to save you from greater taxation to save the Union exclusively by other means.” Lincoln also warned that failing to accept gradual, compensated emancipation might lead to immediate, uncompensated emancipation.
Many soldiers who had enlisted to defend the Union had reservations about fighting to free the slaves. Lincoln deployed his power of persuasion in a letter to be read at a Union rally in Springfield, Illinois: “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union.”
General Ulysses S. Grant was one soldier who didn’t need convincing. He wrote in a letter to Lincoln, “I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heavyest blow yet given to the Confederacy … by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.”
After the major Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, the war dragged on through 1864 and Democratic anti-war sentiment rose again. Democrats believed the war could end and the Union restored by negotiating a peace agreement that upheld slavery. Such a treaty would overturn Emancipation Proclamation, which said slaves with disloyal masters “are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” Lincoln was up for reelection that year, and though his electoral prospects looked grim that summer, he decided to hold firm on his proclamation and insist upon abolitionism in any peace talks.
By the fall of 1864, a string of Union victories dampened anti-war sentiment, and Lincoln and Republican legislators were resoundingly endorsed by the electorate. During the lame-duck session of Congress, when many Democratic congressmen had only a few months left before being replaced by Republicans, Lincoln pressed the House to pass the 13th Amendment, which had passed the previous April with the requisite 2/3 majority in the Senate. After much personal lobbying by Lincoln, just enough lame-duck Democrats either abstained or voted yes to clear the amendment through Congress on Jan. 31, 1865. It was then sent to the states and finally ratified in December 1865.
Lincoln’s second inauguration happened on March 4, 1865, when Union victory was imminent. He closed his Second Inaugural Address by extending an olive branch to the defeated Confederates and looking ahead to Reconstruction: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
After news reached Washington that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, crowds gathered at the White House to hear Lincoln speak. Instead of delivering a bombastic victory speech, he addressed Rreconstruction. It was the last speech he gave, and true to form, he encouraged moderation. Radical Republicans didn’t want to accept Louisiana back into the Union because its constitution didn’t enfranchise black people. While Lincoln said that he personally supported enfranchisement for “the very intelligent” and “those who serve our cause as soldiers,” he asked, “Will it be wiser to take [Louisiana’s constitution] as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject, and disperse it? Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding her new State Government?”
A distraught Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth attended Lincoln’s speech and was outraged to hear Lincoln endorse black suffrage in Louisiana. “That means n—-er citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make,” Booth reportedly said. He assassinated Lincoln three days later.
Abraham Lincoln closed the Gettysburg Address by saying, “We here highly resolve that these dead men shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Freedom for all Americans was a work in progress when he died, but it began when Lincoln insisted that for slavery to end, its expansion must be culled.
Lincoln is exalted as a god among men today; he is seen as the savior of black American slaves, and the sole reason that slavery ended. Like all people, Lincoln was flawed–his actions and thoughts, judged by today’s society, would make many uncomfortable. Still, he believed in moderation, in fairness, and in the importance of listening to both sides. This, in any era, makes him one of the nation’s most remarkable leaders. He certainly deserves credit for his handling of the Civil War years.