Although the American Civil War (1861-1865) was the result of sectional conflict regarding the issue of slavery, both the Union and the Confederate governments initially denied that slavery was a war issue. The Confederate government claimed that it was fighting only to defend the principle of states’ rights. The Union government claimed that it was fighting to preserve the Union of states against Confederate efforts to destroy it.
Lincoln’s Cautious Approach to Emancipation
From the very beginning of the war, abolitionists, Radical Republicans, and black activists urged President Abraham Lincoln to use the war as an opportunity to strike down slavery. Lincoln, though, acted in a cautious manner in the early months of the war. Until September, 1862, Lincoln refused to include the abolition of slavery as one of the Union’s war aims. Furthermore, when radical commanders in the Union Army ordered the emancipation of slaves in parts of the occupied South in 1861-1862, Lincoln countermanded the orders.
These actions caused reformers to question the depth of Lincoln’s own commitment to antislavery. In Lincoln’s defense, it must be noted that Lincoln both publicly and privately often expressed a heartfelt abhorrence of slavery. Yet Lincoln knew that a premature effort to turn the war into a crusade for emancipation would be counterproductive to the cause of freedom. An early act of emancipation would prompt loyal slave states such as Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri to join the Confederacy and probably cause the defeat of the Union. From a practical point of view, the Union government could not abolish slavery in the South if it lost the war.
The Origins of Lincoln’s Emancipation Policy
Lincoln was finally encouraged to seek emancipation because of the actions of the slaves themselves. During the war, some 600,000 slaves—about 15 percent of the total—escaped from their masters. Slaves understood that the advance of the Union army through the South presented them with an unprecedented opportunity for escape. Most escaped slaves sought shelter with the Union army.
The presence of large numbers of slaves within Union army lines presented Union commanders with the question of whether the slaves should be returned to their rebellious masters or allowed to stay with the army and use up its scarce resources. Most Union commanders allowed the slaves to remain with the army, justifying this decision out of military necessity. Pointing to the right of armies under international law to seize or destroy enemy property being used to sustain the war effort, Union commanders claimed the right to seize the Confederacy’s slave laborers as contraband of war.
The actions of Union commanders shifted the focus of emancipation from human rights to military necessity, thereby encouraging Lincoln to adopt a general policy of emancipation and giving Lincoln an argument with which to win public support for this policy.
The Proclamation and Its Limits
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued January 1, 1863, declared that slaves in areas in rebellion against the United States were free. Slaves in the loyal slave states and slaves in areas of the Confederacy already under Union control were not freed by the proclamation. Because of this fact, some commentators have criticized the proclamation, claiming that the proclamation had little impact because it sought to free the Confederate slaves who were beyond Lincoln’s control and neglected to free the slaves within his control. This criticism ignores several facts regarding Lincoln’s action. The Emancipation Proclamation amounted to an announcement that henceforward, the Union army would become an army of liberation. Whenever the Union army captured an area of the Confederacy, it would automatically...
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