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.
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.
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.
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 free the slaves in that region.
Additionally, the limited scope of Lincoln’s proclamation was prompted by the limited powers of the president under the Constitution. Lincoln pointed out that, as president, his only constitutional power to emancipate slaves was derived from his power as commander in chief to order the military destruction of property that supported the enemy’s war effort. Slaves belonging to masters in states loyal to the Union and slaves belonging to masters in areas of the Confederacy previously captured were not currently being used to support the enemy’s war effort. In making this argument, Lincoln was not being evasive or cautious in seeking the emancipation of all American slaves. One month before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln proposed to Congress the passage of a constitutional amendment that would have freed all slaves living in the loyal border states and in currently occupied portions of the Confederacy.
In the end, perhaps two-thirds of American slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. The remainder of American slaves were freed by the laws of state governments in loyal slave states and by the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), which abolished slavery in the United States.
Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992), by Ira Berlin et al., LaWanda Cox’s Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981), Eric Foner’s Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), John Hope Franklin’s The Emancipation Proclamation (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), and James M. McPherson’s Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (2d ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992) discuss the proclamation and its effects from a variety of viewpoints.