When it was announced on January 1st, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a promise yet to be fulfilled. The Civil War still raged, and the Confederacy had no intention of abiding by President Abraham Lincoln’s laws; for the slaves to truly be freed, the Union would have to win the war.
Thousands of free African American men in the north had known this from the start. With the first news of Fort Sumter’s bombardment, they had rushed to enlist in the war against the South, only to be turned away. Although African American men had fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, a Federal law dating from 1792 banned them from U.S. military service.
For the first two years of the war Lincoln resisted the call to repeal this law, fearful that such a move would prompt the Union’s slave-holding border states to secede. By mid-1862, however, the grim logic of escalating casualties and a dwindling supply of white volunteers dictated the necessity of recruiting black troops. Concurrent with the first issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1962, African Americans were at last allowed to enlist.
Military service itself was fraught with discrimination for “U.S. Colored Troops,” who were paid much less than white troops and segregated into all-black units commanded by white officers. Moreover, most African American soldiers were denied the opportunity to fight in the front lines by commanders who preferred to keep them in mundane non-combat support roles as cooks, laborers, and supply troops.
Lincoln himself recognized this as a waste of military resources: “The colored population,” he remarked in March 1863, “is the great available and yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union." Eventually, military practicality triumphed over racial prejudice, and by war’s end, over 185,000 African American soldiers and sailors served in the US Army and Navy, of which 40,000 were killed in battle or died of disease. Twenty-three African Americans were awarded the nation’s highest military decoration—the Medal of Honor.
Frederick Douglass, in calling for black recruitment, eloquently captured what was at stake for African American soldiers of the Civil War, and why so many would go on to fight so hard for a nation that was only beginning to recognize them as Americans at all:
"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."
Gates: What changed Lincoln’s mind about slavery was the war itself. It was the summer of 1862, and the war was going badly. The Confederate Army had defeated superior northern forces or fought them to a standstill.
Lincoln knew he needed what we might today call a “game-changer” -- a bold stroke to alter the course of the war. Abolishing slavery would strike at the heart of the Southern economy, and cripple its forces.
Blight: Slavery was the biggest resource the South had. It was the largest financial asset in the United States.
Gates: So he doesn't say, let my people go, He says, (OVERLAP) that is the heart of their economy and that is the only way we can win.
Blight: No I’m not saying that. The first thing out of his mind and his mouth might indeed be the basic fact, I can't win this war without destroying slavery. That doesn't mean he wouldn't also go on and say, you know we're doing the right thing.
Gates: David Blight and I toured the Soldier’s Home in Washington D.C. It was here at his summer cottage that Lincoln worked on his famous Emancipation Proclamation.
Blight: Lincoln spent endless, sleepless nights he weighed over and over and over the form it would take, how to do it, the timing of it. I mean he genuinely feared as did many of his generals as did members of his cabinet who cautioned him not to do it that if he issued an executive order freeing the slaves and transformed the purpose of the war, transformed the meaning of the war, the fear, of course, was that thousands of white Union soldiers would just throw down their arms and go home.
Gates: Casting aside his fears, Lincoln decided to issue an executive order to end slavery. On January 1, 1863, in cities and towns all across the north, there was sense of great anticipation. Lincoln signed the final proclamation with a steady hand.
“I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right,” he said, “than I do in signing this paper. If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.” Blight: That’s a man who’s grown. Now history made him grow. History dragged him in some ways, to do what he did. But he did it.
Gates: When word finally came that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, there was wild celebration. Many people shed tears of joy for a day they thought would never arrive.
But few who rejoiced that day fully understood the delicate political calculus in which Lincoln had engaged. To keep the border states from leaving the union and to remain within the president’s authority under the constitution, he’d limited the proclamation to the rebellious confederate states.
Why did not Abraham Lincoln not free the slaves over which he had jurisdiction? He could have done so with the stroke of the pen.
Horton: And the fact is he is doing all that he has the constitutional power to do. That is, he doesn’t have the constitutional power to take the property of law abiding Americans. He has the constitutional power to take the property of those Americans who are not law abiding.
Holzer: And how do you decide which person harbors loyalist sympathies within a rebellious territory? He’s on very dangerous ground and he knows it.
Blight: Very dangerous ground, unenforceable ground
Holzer: Totally unenforceable
I think Lincoln believes from the very beginning that the Emancipation Proclamation will not stand in court.
Blight: That’s why it’s such a legal document. It’s a legal brief.
Horton: Fact is no matter what we 21st century historians say about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s true, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves. However, the fact of life is, most black people, saw him as the great emancipator. You could have told my great grandmother all this stuff about what the Emancipation Proclamation did and didn’t do until you were blue in the face, but she would...she would always said to you, but he was the Great Emancipator
Blight: African-Americans gave their own meanings to the Emancipation Proclamation. Frederick Douglass famously said on the night of emancipation it was not logic we were looking for it was the trump of jubilee.
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