The Civil War Connections Blog

Remembering Emancipation

Hello folks, and welcome back to the Connections blog! In today’s society, Abraham Lincoln is often remembered as not only one of our most popular presidents, but as the president who freed the slaves. The popular conception is that Abraham Lincoln, using the Emancipation Proclamation, freed the slaves and ended slavery during the Civil War. While President Lincoln did in fact issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and while slavery was indeed ended during the Civil War, the fact of the matter is that the Emancipation Proclamation is not what destroyed slavery: it was the 13th amendment that did that.

This is the 13th Amendment. From the National Archives Website, located HERE.


The Emancipation Proclamation, despite being quite famous as the “ender” of slavery, was actually just a wartime measure meant to harm the rebellious states. The southern economy was heavily dependent on slavery, and President Lincoln used the Emancipation Proclamation to strike at that economy as much as possible. Under the Emancipation Proclamation, only those slaves located within states that were already in rebellion were proclaimed free: slaves in the loyal border states of Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland remained enslaved. Also, the unorganized territories of the American west were still technically open to the adoption of slavery, if their constituents wanted it. As a result, all of the Confederacy’s slaves could be “liberated,” and a first step was taken on the road to the end of slavery. However, the Emancipation Proclamation remains just that: a first step.

This is the first page of the Emancipation Proclamation, from the National Archives Website: to see this page and the other four pages there, click HERE.


The problem with the Emancipation proclamation being a wartime measure was that as soon as the war ended, Lincoln’s special wartime powers – including the ability to use the Emancipation Proclamation – would end. In theory, any slaves still under bondage when the rebellious states rejoined the union could remain slaves, and slavery could be extended into the vast area of the American west. To completely end slavery throughout the United States, there needed to be an amendment to the constitution. That amendment, the 13th one, was passed over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, in January of 1865. This was just a few short months before the war ended. While Abraham Lincoln had himself issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and certainly pushed hard for the passage of the 13th amendment, he was not solely responsible for freeing the slaves and slavery was not ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Abraham Lincoln giving the camera an unsettlingly direct stare.


One question that this issue brings to mind is why popular memory associates the Emancipation Proclamation with the end of slavery, rather than the 13th amendment? A possible explanation is because it was the first real step towards emancipation, and resulted in the freeing of millions of slaves who came over to Union lines. Even if some slaves were technically still in bondage, those slaves who were freed could take up arms and join the Union army, which might have made for a very memorable and cathartic moment in time. While slavery was not officially expunged until the passing of the 13th amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation is remembered as the start of that process, even if it did not complete the job itself. After all, the mental image of slaves being freed and taking up arms to fight against their former masters is a very powerful and thematic one: is it any wonder then that it therefore remains in the forefront of our memory of the emancipation movement?