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The Emancipation Proclamation And Its Consequences

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The Emancipation Proclamation And Its Consequences


During his election campaign and throughout the early years of the Civil War, Lincoln vehemently denied the rumour that he would mount an attack on slavery. At the outbreak of fighting, he pledged to 'restore the Union, but accept slavery where it existed', with Congress supporting his position via the Crittendon-Johnson Resolutions. However, during 1862 Lincoln was persuaded for a number of reasons that Negro emancipation as a war measure was both essential and sound. Public opinion seemed to be going that way, Negro slaves were helping the Southern war effort, and a string of defeats had left Northern morale low. A new moral boost to the cause might give weary Union soldiers added impetus in the fight. Furthermore, if the Union fought against slavery, Britain and France could not help the other side, since their 'peculiar institution' was largely abhorred in both European nations. Having eased the American public into the idea, through speeches that hinted at emancipation, Lincoln finally signed the Proclamation on January 1st 1863, releasing all slaves behind rebel lines. Critics argued that the proclamation went little further than the Second Confiscation Act and it conveniently failed to release prisoners behind Union lines. Nevertheless, Henry Adams summed up public reaction to the Proclamation as an 'almost convulsive reaction in our favour'.

During 1862, the abolition movement enjoyed previously unparalleled levels of support and respectability. Wendell Phillips gave rousing speeches in towns where only a year previously, he would have feared for his life. Senator John Sherman wrote to his brother, the general: 'You can form no conception of the change of opinion here as to the Nero question. I am prepared for one to meet the broad issue of emancipation.' A New-England, and therefore radical-dominated Congress received a flood of anti-slavery bills, which they eagerly turned into law. However, feelings of front-line troops were somewhat different, with horrific reports of violence against Negroes, and a general reluctance to further the cause of emancipation. Most soldiers shared the view of a New York private, who wrote: 'we must first conquer, and then it is time enough to talk about the dam'd niggers.' Even those regiments who welcomed black contrabands set them to menial work such as cooking and washing clothes.

The circumstances generated by the war forced generals to make decisions about what to do with escaped slaves who sought refuge in their lines. Some, like Butler in May 1861, put Negroes to work, while others went much further. In August 1861, John C Fremont declared all slaves belonging to rebels free, while Hunter declared all slaves in the states of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to be free. Neither general had consulted Lincoln; both earned a rebuke. However, their actions made Lincoln acutely aware of both the need for a policy decision, and the independence with which his generals might interpret one.
Lincoln was not an abolitionist. Rather, he would have preferred to coax slaveholders into freeing their Negroes, through persuasion, compensation, and perhaps gentle coercion. However, during 1862, his position gradually shifted towards emancipation. In March, he offered federal compensation to slaveholders in the border states who released their slaves. This was defeated in Congress through border state opposition. In April, Lincoln successfully abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, with compensation for those affected. In June he outlawed slavery in the territories, and in July he went further still, passing the Second Confiscation Act, which freed the slaves of all those aiding rebellion, perhaps agreeing with George Julian of Indiana, who said in January 1862: 'The four million Negroes cannot be neutral. As labourers, if not soldiers, they will be the allies of the rebels or the Union.'

Lincoln had no desire for said Negroes to be allies of the rebels. The bitter fighting of the Seven Days' campaign, coupled with an intensification of Republican feelings, had moved the conflict towards a total war, not simply to conquer, but to destroy the Old South. Thus, the seizure of rebel property could be justified as a war aim, and brought an emancipation proclamation within Lincoln's jurisdiction. James McPherson commented, 'July 1862 brought a hardening of attitude in both army and executive'. This is borne out by the actions of newly-appointed Pope, who proved to be a fierce and ruthless general, ordering the seizure of rebel property without compensation, the shooting of captured guerrillas who had fired on Union troops, and the expulsion of any locals who refused to take the oath of allegiance. After January 1st 1863, Lincoln too acknowledged the new turn the war had taken, saying to a colleague; 'The South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas.'

In July, Lincoln tried once again to foist compensated emancipation on the border states. Once again they rejected his proposals, on the grounds that it represented too great a change in their society, and that he was interfering with what was essentially a state matter. This was the last straw for Lincoln, who from then on gave up trying to compromise with border-state conservatives. Soon afterwards he made it know to his cabinet that he was considering an emancipation proclamation. Seward urged him to wait until favourable military news, so that it would not appear; 'the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help'. Lincoln heeded this advice, which he later admitted; 'struck me with very great force'.

Emancipation would potentially yield several benefits to the Union, not least in that it would deprive the Confederacy of a significant proportion of their workforce. Public opinion, which threatened to seriously weaken Lincoln's party in Congress in the forthcoming elections, seemed to be moving towards emancipation. Furthermore, attacking slavery would prevent Britain or France helping the Confederacy, since both countries were strongly opposed to bondage. However, the wait for military success proved a long and tense one, with pressure mounting from abolitionists and radicals who grew impatient, and from Democrats who were united in their opposition to emancipation. Antietam, albeit a somewhat dubious Union victory, finally provided the opportunity for Lincoln to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. In September 1862, Lincoln repeated his earlier aims of saving the Union, but added that on January 1st 1863, 'all persons held as slaves within any state.. the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.'

Cynics noted that only slaves held in rebel lines were freed by the Proclamation, and that it seemed to go little further than the Second Confiscation Act. In England, the Times commented that, 'Where he has no power Mr Lincoln will set the Negroes free; where he retains power he will consider them as slaves.' However, McPherson points out the inaccuracy of this criticism, noting that Lincoln did not have the constitutional right to emancipate slavery in the Union, and could only do so in the South because of his war prerogatives. Henry Adams described the 'almost convulsive reaction in our favour' following the Emancipation Proclamation, and William Lloyd Garrison considered it 'an act of immense historical consequence'.

Public reaction to the proclamation can be gauged to an extent by the Congressional elections of 1862. The Democrats fought on a fierce anti-emancipation platform, with one delegate at their conference adapting their slogan to read; 'The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, and the Niggers where they are' Rarely had an issue split the two parties so decidedly, with Republicans unanimously behind Lincoln and the Proclamation, and Democrats foursquare opposed to it. The results seemed to endorse Democratic opposition to emancipation, with a net gain for them of 36 Congressional seats, and other victories including the governorship of New York and New Jersey. Many historians shared the view of Peter Parish, in his book The American Civil War, that 'the verdict of the polls showed clearly that the people of the North were opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation'. However, some revisionist historians hold a different view. They argue that Democratic majorities were very small, that the Republican Party actually gained five seats in the Senate, and that soldiers who were unable to vote through absence were largely Republican, a fact borne out when Lincoln introduced absent voting later in the war.

In the Second Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln also formally recognised the right of black men to enlist in the army, and shortly afterwards the first all-black division, the 54th Massachusetts, was formed. However, the reaction to these coloured recruits was not always favourable, and Negro soldiers suffered attacks from Confederate and Union troops alike. Their contribution to the Union war effort was considerable: at the end of the war, 10% of the army was black, and 38,000 Negro soldiers gave their life for the cause. McPherson states that 'the organisation of black regiments marked the 'transformation of a war to preserve the Union into a revolution to overthrow the old order'. Unsurprisingly, the Confederacy viewed the Emancipation Proclamation with disgust, threatening to execute prisoners of war in retaliation. Although this was rarely carried out, Confederate forces routinely butchered captured black troops, and their refusal to accept Negroes as soldiers led to the eventual breakdown of prisoner of war exchanges, with tragic consequences.

The Emancipation Proclamation marked the transition from a war to preserve the Union, where fighting was restricted to the battlefield, to a total war, seeking to destroy the Old South and using any means possible to achieve it. It enraged the Confederacy and emphasised the divided nature of the Union. Racial integration was a concept that seemed unpleasant to the majority of American people. However, Lincoln was keen to speed up the Confederate demise, and depriving them of around 3.5M workers would certainly help this aim. Black soldiers fought bravely in the Union army, and in some cases won the respect of their colleagues. The growing abolitionist movement was pleased, and the Proclamation ended the threat of British or French aid for the Confederacy. Unpopular and divisive it may have been, but Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was a bold and courageous step towards racial equality, and Union victory.

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