A special Cabinet meeting. The subject was the Proclamation for emancipating the slaves after a certain date, in States that should be in rebellion. For several weeks the subject has bee suspended, but never lost sight of. When submitted, and in taking up the Proclamation, the President stated that the question was finally decided, the act and consequences were his, but that he felt it due to us to make us acquainted with the fact and to invite criticism on the paper which he had prepared… In the course of the discussion which was long, earnest, and on the general principle involved, harmonious, he remarked that he had made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation… God had decided this question in favor of the slaves…
He read the document. One or two unimportant emendations suggested by Seward were approved. It was handed to the Secretary of State to publish tomorrow…
For myself the subject has, from its magnitude and its consequences oppressed me, aside from the ethical features of the question. It is a step in the progress of this war which will extend into the distant future. The termination of this terrible conflict seems more remote with every movement, and unless the Rebels hasten to avail themselves of the alternative presented, of which I see little probability, the war can scarcely be other than one of subjugation. There is in the Free States a very general impression that his measure will insure a speedy peace. I cannot say that I so view it. No one in those States dare advocate peace as a means of prolonging slavery if it is his honest opinion, and the pecuniary, industrial and social sacrifice impending will intensify the struggle before us. I cannot see how the subject could be avoided. Perhaps it is not desirable it should be.
Gideon Welles, U.S. Secretary of the Navy; Diary excerpt, September 22, 1862.
Announced on September 22, 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation promised to free slaves in the states still in rebellion against the Federal Government on January 1, 1863. That meant, as Union armies conquered the Southern states, freedom would come for the enslaved.
The proclamation was both a promise and a threat. A promise that freedom would come and that Lincoln was willing to free the slaves. A threat to the Confederacy – if the states didn’t return to the Union, there would be no compromise on the issue of the slavery and no gradual emancipation.
As Lincoln had stated earlier, he would use any means possible to save the Union. In this case, freedom and union could go hand in hand for the first official time in this war’s history. It was a major turning point in ideology and Northern cause.
Lincoln had been considering this proclamation for some time, but he had been advised to wait for a Union military victory. Without a battlefield victory, the proclamation wouldn’t have weight and force. However, it took a while for a victory to happen to trigger Lincoln’s announcement.
The Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) forced the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to abandon the Maryland Campaign and recross the Potomac River into Virginia, leaving the Union Army of the Potomac victorious over a bloody field. Despite the staggering casualties, Lincoln and the Union could claim a victory. The needed “success” paved the way for a proclamation and precedent for freedom.
Gideon Welles notes his reservations about the proclamation. He reveals that Northerners thought it would bring a quick end to the war (the Southern states would want to keep slaves and would return to the Union), but he felt that idea wouldn’t happen.
He may have had some reservations about the war powers taken by the president through the proclamation. Lincoln was taking a huge step that would have large-scale national impact without consulting Congress. On many levels, the proclamation and the Civil War set precedent for America – one of those precedents was expanding the power of the executive branch.
With hindsight, the Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most important documents in American History. It promised freedom and started the movement toward the adoption and ratification of the 13th Amendment (1865) to the U.S. Constitution which guaranteed freedom for all. It was a large, bold step for the president, but Lincoln had revealed his position previously. He wanted all men to be free and he wanted to preserve the Union. His announcement in September 1862 could do both.
Imagine the debates, reactions, and tension during 1862. Here in the 21st Century, we know that the Southern States didn’t come back in 1862 and that the proclamation went into effect, but they were creating that history 155 years ago. Southerners, Northerners, civilians, soldiers, politicians, generals, freedmen, and slaves all waited, watching, and reacting in their own spheres of influence. They were making history…and they didn’t know how it would end.