A few days after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued a document that changed the very nature of the Civil War. This preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, stated that unless the seceded Confederate states voluntarily returned to the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves within those states would be free. The historic declaration also called for the inclusion of blacks into the U.S. armed services.
Lincoln's desire to issue such a proclamation had been growing for some time. He believed that Northern support for the war would increase if its people came to believe that it was fighting not only to preserve the Union, but also on behalf of basic American principles of freedom and liberty for all men and women. In addition, he recognized that slaves remained a vital labor source for the
South, and that any loss of slaves would hurt its ability to continue its rebellion. As Lincoln later stated, "The moment came when I felt that slavery must die that the nation might live!"
By the summer of 1862, Lincoln was ready to issue his Proclamation. But Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872) convinced him to wait. Seward pointed out that if the president issued the decree at a time when the war was going badly for the North, many people would dismiss it as a desperate attempt to avoid defeat. He encouraged Lincoln to wait until his army registered a big victory before making his declaration.
The Union's ability to hold its own at Antietam gave Lincoln the opening he needed. His announcement triggered a storm of reaction all across the divided nation. In the North, most free blacks and abolitionists reacted with delight. Black leader Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895), for instance, wrote that "we shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree." Many Northern newspapers praised Lincoln. But not everyone in the North embraced the Emancipa tion Proclamation. Some abolitionists complained that Lincoln's proclamation did not include slaves living in the Union slave states of Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky. Northerners opposed to the war— many of them members of the Democratic political party—also spoke out against Lincoln's stand, which they worried might extend the war.
In Richmond and other cities of the Confederacy, most people ridiculed Lincoln's Proclamation. They pointed out that the Union had no power to enforce the Proclamation in the Confederacy. Many Southerners viewed the announcement as an obvious attempt to trigger a slave rebellion in the South. In the days following Lincoln's announcement, countless Southern newspapers and lawmakers expressed renewed determination to resist the North.
As time passed, however, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation turned out to be an invaluable weapon in the Union arsenal. It dramatically broadened Northern civilian support for the war effort, and gave Union soldiers another noble cause for which to fight. It also helped convince Europe not to interfere in the war. As Bruce Catton wrote in The Civil War, the simplicity and, yet, dramatic impact of the Emancipation Proclamation "changed the whole character of the war and, more than any other single thing, doomed the Confederacy to defeat."
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