The Civil War Connections Blog

How Emancipation Changed the War

Hey there, folks, and welcome back to the Connections blog! Today, I want to discuss the Emancipation Proclamation and how it forever altered our memory of what the Civil War was fought over. Before the Emancipation Proclamation was made public on September 22nd, the purpose of the Union’s side was to quash the rebellion and reunite the country. The issue of slavery was a hot topic in the north, especially in Border States such as Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, which all allowed slavery but remained loyal to the Union. In order to retain their loyalty, the Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in areas currently rebelling against the government – it was more of a strike at the Confederacy’s resources than a nationwide abolishment of the institution. Nevertheless, by emancipating the Confederate slaves, President Lincoln fundamentally changed how each side interpreted the war.

Although the proclamation wouldn’t go into effect until January 1st 1863, the announcement in September 1862 is widely seen as the start of it’s legacy.


By changing their war-goals from “quelling the rebellion” to “quelling the rebellion and also ending slavery,” the Emancipation Proclamation gave the Union the moral high ground, an increase in relations with European powers, and a potentially large new segment of manpower ripe for recruitment. Abolitionist elements in the Union north were very vocal about the need to vanquish slavery, but the everyday people of the northern side initially didn’t have very strong feelings of support. Instead, they – like many of their brethren in the Confederate south – didn’t much care for blacks or their plight. Binding slavery to the war goals of the Union proved wildly unpopular for some, but for most northerners it underscored the need to defeat the Confederates once and for all. In addition, some of the hard feelings against blacks were mitigated by their large-scale recruitment to the Union army.

The 54th Massachusetts, a famous Union unit immortalized in the movie Glory, was comprised almost entirely of black soldiers.


For the south, binding the issue of slavery to the Civil War was more of a formality than anything else. After all, the powerful southern slaveholding population was the one that pushed for and narrowly managed secession in the first place. By tying slavery to their economic system and their identity as southerners, slaveholders had convinced just enough of the population to vote for secession in most of the Confederate states in 1861. For example, the population of Georgia seceded by only a few percentage points, while states like Tennessee and Virginia had to re-vote to secede after their first votes failed and Lincoln called for volunteers to invade the south.

“It’s cool, we won’t secede… wait, you’re going to FIGHT to keep the deep south in the Union?! Have at you!! En Garde!!!” – Virginia


Ironically, the average Confederate soldier was a poor white from a non-slaveholding family, who voted against secession to begin with. Like their northern counterparts, most non-slaveholding southerners initially didn’t give two wheats about blacks or slavery, but again the emancipation changed that. It reinforced the idea that the Union was waging war on the south’s culture and economy, which hardened the resolves of slaveholder and non-slaveholder alike. In addition, the proclamation served to sever any remaining chance of European intervention, since the Europeans were morally opposed to slavery before the war even started. The Confederates would have to win the war on their own now, amidst rapidly depleting pools of white military manpower and black labor manpower.

And the Union manpower pool was much larger than the Confederate one to begin with…


That’s all for today folks, but if you tune in next week I’ll have another post for you on Civil War memory! In the meantime, have a good weekend and thanks for stopping by!