The Civil War Connections Blog

The Emancipation Proclamation: A Military Necessity

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the official issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Though many mistakenly believe that the Proclamation is a document tied solely to the date January 1, 1863, a preliminary proclamation was presented in September 1862 calling for reunion.  If the rebellious states failed to rejoin the Union by January 1 of the next year, all slaves residing in those states would be deemed free; the Emancipation Proclamation we celebrate today officiated this threat.

Abraham Lincoln. President of the United States. Signing the Emancipation Proclamation

The document did not exist without controversy, nor were all Northern citizens initially in favor of the freedom it promised.  Lincoln was cognizant of the number of those who would view such an act with disfavor and worded the freedom of the qualified slaves in terms of “military necessity,” not equality.  The Proclamation would do harm to the rebellious states by encouraging runaways and depleting their domestic labor force.  In addition, Lincoln promised, “Such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”[1]

However, framing the Proclamation in such a way merely minimized the dissent that ensued; by characterizing the measure as a military tactic, Lincoln in effect shifted the purpose of the war.  The Union cause was now tied directly to the elimination of slavery.  This sparked an initial backlash among many troops who fought for the sake of reunion alone, not the freedom of slaves.  In his book What They Fought For, James M. McPherson explains, “Whereas a tacit consensus united Confederate soldiers in support of ‘southern institutions,’ including slavery, a bitter and explicit disagreement about emancipation divided northern soldiers.”  By analyzing a number of letters written by Union soldiers, McPherson identifies a general shift in opinion toward the importance of emancipation over the course of the war.  Before the Proclamation, slavery was a topic seldom discussed.  Following its issuance, the troops became more vocal on the subject, but a majority did not emerge in favor or against the abolition of slavery; the men remained staunchly divided, some even deserted.  However, as the war ensued, the men began to overwhelmingly adopt Lincoln’s logic from the proclamation; the abolition of slavery “was the only way to win the war and preserve the Union.”[2]

Below is the transcript of the Proclamation that rang in the New Year 150 years ago today.  Presently celebrated as a monumental step toward equality, the document was complex and controversial, reflecting a social demographic far more hesitant of abolition than our modern psyches would hope.

 

The Emancipation Proclamation
January 1, 1863

A Transcription

 

By the President of the United States of America:

 

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, 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.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

 

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.


[1] “The Emancipation Proclamation: A Transcription,” National Archives and Records Administration, accessed January 1, 2013, <http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/transcript.html>.

[2] James M. McPherson, What They Fought For: 1861-1865, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), p. 57.