by Jim Burran

Dalton 150th Civil War Commission


On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, the document that added an important new dimension to the Civil War.  Originally intended as a measure to disrupt the Confederate war effort, Lincoln’s proclamation eventually led to the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Prior to the Civil War, the American nation had never known a time without slavery.  In the days before the American Revolution, captured West Africans were imported into the British North American colonies to furnish a source of labor.  From these beginnings the institution of human bondage took root, and by 1776 slavery was present in all thirteen of the original United States.  Gradually, however, over the next 30 years all of the states north of the Chesapeake Bay region abolished this practice, thus setting in motion the sectional conflict between North and South that reached its zenith in 1860.

Like most members of the fledgling Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln was bothered by the existence of slavery as a legal institution, but was not all that concerned about people of color.   Except for a fringe group of abolitionists led by spokesmen such as William Lloyd Garrison and former slave Frederick Douglass, the majority of Republicans wanted to gradually suffocate slavery by preventing its expansion into the new western territories.  Early in the war, President Lincoln even backed a plan to remove slaves to a Federally-sponsored colony in Central America.

How then, did the Emancipation Proclamation come into existence?  As the war entered its “death grip” phase in 1862, Lincoln came to the realization that he could use his war powers to cripple the Confederate cause by confiscating its human property.  “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,” Lincoln wrote.  “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

Because of recent military reverses during the spring and summer of 1862, the President thought it necessary to wait for a victory before going public with his proclamation.  That victory came on September 17, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s bold offensive into the North ended at the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland.  Five days later, Lincoln issued perhaps the single most important document of his administration.

The Emancipation Proclamation essentially gave the wayward Southern states 100 days’ notice to lay down their arms, after which “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.”  It is important to note that through this language Lincoln was using his war powers to create mayhem among those Confederate regions not already in Federal possession.  He had no constitutional authority to abolish slavery in areas loyal to the United States—such action required Congress to authorize a constitutional amendment.  But he did have the authority to seize enemy property.  And Union armies would serve as his liberating agents as they moved through the South.

On January 1, 1863, a revised version of the Emancipation Proclamation made its appearance.  The most important difference from the preliminary version was the inclusion of a provision permitting African Americans to enlist in the armed forces of the United States.  Over the next several months the War Department established a Bureau of Colored Troops and began recruiting regiments.  Two of these, the 14th and 44th US Colored Infantry, were garrisoned in Dalton during 1864 and earned distinction as the only African American units to see combat within the boundaries of Georgia.  By the end of the war, an estimated 186,000 African Americans had been inducted into military service.

The Emancipation Proclamation was not without its critics.  Many white Northerners saw no need to liberate slaves, especially since many of those thus liberated would undoubtedly make their way into the northern states.  A number of Republicans in Congress feared that the proclamation would cost the party dearly in the elections of 1862 and 1864.  There were even a few abolitionists who criticized Lincoln for not going far enough.

The Confederate government was livid.  President Jefferson Davis proclaimed the Emancipation Proclamation as “the most execrable measure in the history of guilty man.”  And on the field of battle United States soldiers of color were frequently singled out for brutal treatment.  Several cases were recorded in which African American troops suffered death rates far in excess of what would otherwise have been characterized as normal.

In the end, however, the Emancipation Proclamation materially assisted the Union cause.  Not only did it increase the nation’s military ranks, it also prompted Great Britain, the most powerful nation on the planet, to back away from aligning itself with the Confederacy.  It also had the desired effect of disrupting the Southern war effort and striking fear into those regions with significant slave populations.  But most important, the Emancipation Proclamation set the stage for the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery altogether in 1865.

Sources:  James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988); Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black (1968)