Abraham Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation before his cabinet. From an engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie after a painting by Francis Carpenter.
Abraham Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation before his cabinet. From an engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie after a painting by Francis Carpenter.Bettmann Archive

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln, was a significant part of the end of slavery in the United States and a turning point during the American Civil War.

The Civil War started because of the dispute over whether slavery would be permitted to expand into the western territories, leading to more slave states, or be prevented from doing so. Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery’s expansion and, after he was elected president in 1860, seven southern slave states responded by seceding from the United States and forming the Confederacy, which later resulted in a war with battles across the country.

The path towards emancipation

In December 1861, Lincoln endorsed legislation to address the status of contraband slaves and slaves in loyal states, possibly through buying their freedom with federal money. On March 13, 1862, Congress approved an Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves to their owners. On April 16, 1862, slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia, and owners were compensated.

On June 19, 1862, Congress banned slavery in all current and future U.S. territories, and Lincoln signed the legislation. Later, the Confiscation Act of 1861 freed the slaves who were employed “against the Government and lawful authority of the United States,” which meant that every slave who was living under any of the Confederacy states was freed. A later version would state that “all slaves of persons who shall hereafter be engaged in rebellion against the government of the United States, or who shall in any way give aid or comfort thereto, escaping from such persons and taking refuge within the lines of the army; and all slaves captured from such persons or deserted by them and coming under the control of the government of the United States; and all slaves of such person found on [or] being within any place occupied by rebel forces and afterwards occupied by the forces of the United States, shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.”

Although Congress lacked the power to free the slaves in the Confederacy, Lincoln argued that he could do so if he deemed it a proper military measure.

By the summer of 1862, Lincoln had drafted the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which he issued on September 22, 1862. In it, Lincoln declared that on January 1, 1863, he would free the slaves in states still in rebellion. The preliminary Proclamation cited both Confiscation Acts as sources for his authority to issue the Proclamation.

'Freedom for All, Both Black and White', honoring Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves.
‘Freedom for All, Both Black and White’, honoring Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves.GraphicaArtis (Getty Images)

The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

In July 1862, Lincoln discussed the proclamation with his cabinet. He drafted the preliminary proclamation. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton supported the Proclamation and advised the President to issue it after a major Union victory. In September 1862, the Battle of Antietam resulted in a victory for the Union, which Lincoln seized to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln called his cabinet into session and issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. According to Civil War historian James M. McPherson, Lincoln told cabinet members, “I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back from Pennsylvania, I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.”

The final proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, affecting South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina.

The Emancipation Proclamation declared the freedom of over 3.5 million enslaved individuals in the United States. Although approximately 25,000 to 75,000 people were immediately emancipated in regions of the Confederate states where the U.S. Army was present, enforcement was delayed in some areas. Texas, the most remote state of the Confederacy with 250,000 slaves, learned of the Proclamation after its issuance, but the Union army had not yet reached the state to enforce it.

The Proclamation’s full implementation came after the surrender of Confederate forces in 1865. On June 19, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Proclamation with General Order No. 3, effectively freeing all remaining slaves in the state. While the event is celebrated as the end of slavery (today Black Americans celebrate Juneteenth on June 19), it’s important to note that emancipation in the Union border states of Delaware and Kentucky did not occur until December 18, 1865, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.

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