An Unusual Valentine: Elmer E. Ellsworth, Esquire

Elmer Ellsworth about 1860

Every biography or biographical article about not-yet-colonel Elmer Ellsworth says the same thing: It is not known if Ellsworth passed, or even took, the Illinois State Bar Examination. I know this is not a bombshell issue for most people, but some of us care. I care. And, I am working like a madwoman to finish up my biography of Colonel Ellsworth before the next full eclipse of the sun. So imagine my surprise when . . .

March 30, 2017–the news breaks. “Joint Secretary of State & Supreme Court Restoration Project of Illinois Attorney Oaths Complete” is the headline of the For Immediate Release memo from the desk of Jesse White, Secretary of State for the great state of Illinois. This, apparently, had been a long-term project that sought to discover, restore, and preserve the attorney oaths for the Illinois Supreme Court. “Approximately 142,000 oaths, some preceding the Civil War, have been restored,” according to White. As explained in the memo, signing the Attorney Oath is the final step a newly minted lawyer takes before practicing law in Illinois. One must pass the bar exam before signing this oath.

The project was begun in 2009 and took until last year to complete. The Illinois Supreme Court was preparing to completely restore their building and needed a place to keep the court records while this was happening. Carolyn Taft Grosboll, current clerk of the Court stated, “Among the records were these historic oaths, so we contacted the State Archives. The State Archives graciously agreed not only to store the oaths for the Court but also to restore them.”[1] Most were in good condition, but some had been affected by mold or deteriorated by water damage. The amazing archivists in Illinois were able to restore almost all the badly damaged oaths using modern techniques, including the digitalization of some of the badly eroded signatures.

Clarence Darrow

Among the oaths in the Supreme Court’s collection are those for famed attorney Clarence Darrow, former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Robinson Obama, former U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Arthur Goldberg, 12 U.S. Senators, 12 Illinois governors, 59 Illinois Supreme Court justices and five Chicago mayors. Oaths from attorneys licensed before the Civil War, such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, were incorporated into the law license itself; therefore, no separate oaths for Lincoln and Douglas are included in this collection.[2]

And whom else did they find? Yes. Elmer Ellsworth. In 1860, Ellsworth began studying law with Abraham Lincoln, although he had studied with a couple of other men in Chicago before leaving with the Chicago Zouave Cadet Tour in the summer of 1860. Lincoln asked Ellsworth personally to study in Springfield at his law office. During the time he worked there, he became friends with Lincoln secretaries George Nicolay and John Hay, Mary Lincoln, the Lincoln children, and many of the movers and shakers in the Illinois political scene. Ellsworth worked the Republican Convention in Chicago for the Lincoln supporters, he walked with Mr. Lincoln to cast his vote in the presidential election, and he celebrated with the Lincolns on the night of Lincoln’s election.

History left an Ellsworthian blank between November 6, 1860, and February 11, 1861,

Lincoln in Illinois

when Elmer Ellsworth accompanied Lincoln on the Inaugural Express train from Springfield to Washington. We know that before Ellsworth left, he presented a bill for the organization of the Illinois State Militia to the state legislature. It passed several reviews and committees, but was never brought to a vote because within weeks of Lincoln’s inauguration, Fort Sumter had been fired on, and all available militia members were being asked to go to Washington.

Now, the blank has been filled in–between November 6 and February 11 Elmer Ellsworth was passing the bar exam in Illinois, and we have proof! A letter was found from Judge Pickney Walker to the Clerk of the Supreme Court William Turney that said to create a law license for Ellsworth. On the back of the letter is a note by Turney saying that the license was sent. Elmer Ellsworth’s documentation allowing him to practice law in Illinois became official on February 14, 1861. Now we know.


John Lupton

I will be interviewing John Lupton of the Illinois Supreme Court Historical Preservation Commission in the next couple of months for Mr. Lupton worked with me to get all the right documents signed that permit me to tell this story, and it is only because people like Mr. Lupton exist that the tiny-but-strong unifying threads of the past are able to be teased out of the huge historical knot we love so well. Stay tuned!


Happy Valentine’s Day.


[2] Ibid.

Not the Same African Americans We Always See

Civil War Medal of Honor

I was watching a television show a couple of weeks ago, and the subject of Black History Month was mentioned. One of the characters complained that America always trots out the same four African Americans every year to stand in for all the other African Americans about which no one knows anything. I immediately realized that this also applies to the African Americans we celebrate from the 1800s. This year, I think we
should give Mr. Frederick Douglas, the 54th Massachusetts, Ms. Harriet Tubman, and Ms. Sojourner Truth a break, and learn about some other men and women who made significant contributions to the American Civil War. For instance, Andrew Jackson Smith.

On September 3, 1843, in Grand Rivers, Kentucky, a baby boy was born to a slave mother, Susan, and her master, Elijah Smith. Susan named him Andrew Jackson Smith. When young Andy was ten years old, his father put him to work on a ferry that transported people and supplies across the Cumberland River. Andy worked at this job for eight years.[1] When the Civil War broke out, Elijah Smith joined the Confederate military and planned to take Andy, who was now 19, with him as a personal body servant to make the rigors of campaigning less odious–less odious for Mr. Smith, anyway.

Smithland, KY

Andy was having none of it. He convinced another slave to run away with him, through pouring rain, to a Union regiment camped at Smithland, Kentucky, twenty-five miles away. At that time the Union First Confiscation Act of 1861 was in place. This act directed that slaves not be returned to their masters if those masters were in Confederate service. Major John Warner, of the 41st Illinois Regiment, hired Andy as a servant and took him along when the 41st returned to the regiment’s post in nearby Paducah, Kentucky.[2]

Major John Warner

On March 19, 1862, the 41st moved from Paducah to Pittsburgh Landing, in Tennessee. A month later the regiment took part in the Battle of Shiloh. During the fighting at the Peach Orchard, Major Warner had two horses shot out from under him. Although it placed him under fire, young Smith brought one and then another mount to Warner. As he helped Warner into the saddle, Andy was struck in the head by a “spent Minié ball that entered his left temple, rolled just under the skin, and stopped in the middle of his forehead.”[3] The regimental surgeon removed the ball, and after the battle was over, Warner obtained a personal furlough to bring Andrew Smith home with him to Clinton, Illinois. There Smith recovered from his wound and continued to work as Warner’s personal servant until he heard the news that President Lincoln was allowing black troops to join the Union Army.

Andrew Jackson Smith

Major Warner gave Smith the money necessary for the trip to Boston, Massachusetts to enlist with the Massachusetts Colored Volunteers. On May 16, 1863, Private Andrew Smith was mustered into the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, Company B. Along with sister regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, they fought in five military engagements. Smith was in the army when the black soldiers found out that they would be paid less than white soldiers, and would have to pay a “clothing allowance” as well. Colonel Alfred Hartwell of the 55th protested all the way up to Secretary of War Stanton himself. Hartwell threatened to resign unless the pay issue was resolved. It was settled in August 1864 and by October everyone was paid fairly.[4]

By November 30, 1864, Smith had been promoted to corporal in the color-bearing unit of the 55th Massachusetts. On that day both the 55th and the 54th Massachusetts participated in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina. Andrew Smith Bowden, Smith’s grandson, spoke of this at his grandfather’s Medal of Honor service in 2001:

                        When the battle began, you kept your eye on those flags.  And when the  flag went forward, you went    forward. And when the flag went back, you went back. Those men who carried those flags were extremely important, and as you might expect, were prime targets.[5]

The two units came under heavy fire while crossing a swamp in front of an elevated Confederate position. Rebel fire killed or wounded over half of the officers of the 55th and at least a third of the enlisted men in the full regiment of a thousand men. When the 55th’s color bearer was killed, Andrew Smith took up the Regimental Colors and carried them through the remainder of the fight. Smith’s regimental commander, Colonel Alfred Hartwell, recommended him for the Medal of Honor almost immediately after the battle. However, it was not until Smith’s family made a concerted effort that the medal was awarded to him posthumously, 137 years later.

Andy Smith, veteran

Andrew Jackson Smith was promoted to color sergeant and left the army after the war. He returned to Kentucky where he invested in property. He died on March 4, 1932, at the age of eighty-eight. Several people tried to get Smith’s medal awarded to him during his lifetime; he was nominated again in 1916, but the politics of racial unrest denied him once again.

Smith’s daughter receives her father’s medal

Smith’s grandson, Andrew Bowman of Indianapolis, Indiana, became determined that his grandfather would receive his Medal of Honor. Bowman spent several years collecting records, conducting research and working with government officials and a history professor at Illinois State University in order to make his grandfather’s public recognition a reality.  Smith’s records were found in the National Archives, where they had been since the end of the Civil War.  On January 16, 2001, 137 years after the Battle of Honey Hill, Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith was recognized for his actions. President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to his 93-year-old daughter, Caruth Smith Washington, along with several Smith descendants during a ceremony at the White House. I shall let Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who spoke at the ceremony, have the last word:

                        A wrong righted 137 years too late is a wrong righted nonetheless. This day has been a long time coming. But, with the dedication of his family and the Illinois State University History Department, Sgt. Andrew Jackson Smith’s contribution has finally taken its rightful place in history.[6]


[2] Ibid. and

[3] Quote is from medical records.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., words spoken by Smith’s grandson at Smith’s Medal of Honor ceremony on January 6, 2001.


The Emancipation Proclamation: An International Turning Point

In  his post, “Thenceforward and Forever Free”: The Emancipation Proclamation as a Turning Point, Dan Vermilya makes a good case that the president’s executive action was a turning point of the war because it clarified Union war aims on the issue of slavery.

The proclamation was equally crucial in another—frequently neglected—international arena: it inspired Great Britain to stay out of the conflict. In 1862, the British administration was under intense political pressure to intervene. A significant portion of the public opinion that mattered was sympathetic to the South. Why such affection for the Confederacy?

emancipation proclamationOne factor was lingering resentment over the Revolution, only eighty years past, and over the petty fuss ignited in 1812 while Great Britain was embroiled in a death struggle with Napoleon. British elites also disdained what they perceived as arrogance, condescension, and bad manners of former colonists, their incessant boasting about strength, freedom, democracy, and destiny.

And despite the 1846 repeal of the British Corn Laws (which erased the last vestiges of mercantilism, ensured the triumph of free trade, and inaugurated a surge of prosperity), the unenlightened United States clung to protective tariffs. This also was a long-standing complaint of the agricultural South.

But enthusiasm for the South also was genuine and positive. From across the pond, aristocrats and wealthy upper middle classes saw little of the South beyond the Virginia and Carolinas of Revolutionary familiarity, and were largely ignorant of the explosion in northern industry and transportation. Through summer 1862, British newspapers reported almost exclusively Southern victories.

The government of Jefferson Davis, noted one Briton, “spoke little and hit hard, came forth calm in adversity and modest in success, kept its eye fixed on its purpose, and strode towards it with resolute step.” Unlike Washington, Richmond behaved with dignity, “a countenance stern and haughty, a quiet air, absence of ostentation and brag.” The English were more inclined to advocate a bad cause defended in proper form than a good cause badly defended.[1]

Prime Minister Palmerston once remarked to a Confederate representative: “The common idea of England is that the Southern people are more like us in character than the Yankees, who have too much of the old Puritan leaven in them to suit us. You Southerners we consider only as transplanted Englishmen of the old stock.”[2]

Many accepted the South’s mythology. Rebels were fighting with fortitude and resolution for freedom under men cut from the same cloth as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, paragons of military genius, courage, patriotic valor, and sacrifice—men like the urbane Jefferson Davis (and in stark contrast to a bumbling frontiersman like Abraham Lincoln).

Robert E. Lee ranked with Wellington among the great generals of English blood; the death of Stonewall Jackson caused an extraordinary outpouring of grief; victories of the Confederate commerce raider, CSS Alabama, were cheered in the House of Commons.

There were of course those abroad who—for politics and/or profit—took satisfaction in the war and potential breakup of the Union. However, most British desired an end to this insane American conflict for national interests as well as for humanity and compassion; a prolonged war would devastate both sections along with Atlantic commerce.

International law permitted intervention by neutral nations to prevent irreparable harm in their own interests. The British people were not required to stand by as witnesses to economic chaos and political unrest in their homeland caused by other peoples’ quarrels. That summer, British ministers and Parliament seriously debated all options from mediation to mandated arbitration, with force if necessary, which almost certainly would have led to Confederate independence. No one doubted they had the navy to do it.

Perhaps the core misapprehension of the British (and foreigners generally) existed over causes. In the first place, the mystical concept of union advanced so eloquently by Abraham Lincoln had little resonance for a people with no experience of a written constitution or a federal system. Their constitution consisted of venerated institutions inherited from the mists of time, not a single document or an overarching principle. They were unified by history and by ethnicity, religion, and geography.

Elites seriously doubted that the strange structure cobbled together in 1787 would work and were not altogether disappointed to see it in trouble. Unlike a constitutional monarchy, large, democratic republics could not endure. They would either disintegrate or descend into tyranny as had Athens, Rome, and most recently, France.

British elite opinion also exhibited a nascent ambivalence toward their empire flourishing in Africa and Asia. While intensely proud of these accomplishments, many concluded that the Declaration of Independence may have been correct in some sense.

The United States was a child of England and had been an immense success, in which, despite differences, they could take great satisfaction. Perhaps the natural course of civilizing influence in overseas enterprise motivated colonies toward independence in a modern commercial and industrial world. It behooved them to accept and support this pattern of self-determination, not fight it.

The British sympathized with Greek and Italian freedom and supported independence for Spanish American colonies and Belgium. Their experiences in North America and the West Indies demonstrated the burdens as well as the benefits of colonial rule. But in stark contrast, the United States continued to grasp at empire by acquiring Louisiana, annexing Texas, grabbing the Southwest, brutally suppressing Indians, and, not coincidentally, threatening British Canada.

And finally, there was slavery. The British hated the institution. They had been the first society in human history to engender a broad moral consensus against involuntary servitude as antithetical to foundational principles. They were the first to officially outlaw it (1833) after a long, desperate struggle, despite severe political and economic consequences.

British abolition was a primary inspiration for American abolition, and an excellent reason not to favor the Confederacy. However, not perceiving President Lincoln’s domestic constraints, the British were confounded when for a year and a half he maintained that the war was not about slavery.

So, if union did not make sense, if independence was a natural consequence of colonial maturity, and if slavery apparently was not the issue, this war must be about conquering a people who wished to left alone.

Lord Acton wrote to Lee complementing him for fighting the battles of English freedom and civilization, concluding: “I morn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.” A cause fought for so valiantly by such men must be a just one. The Confederacy was the true champion of freedom (as opposed to equality, which these men did not favor).[3]

Eighty years ago in America, rightful rulers had been despised and rebels honored; now rebels were traitors. As insistently argued by Southerners, why shouldn’t the Confederacy do to the United States what the colonies had done to Great Britain? These were natural rights of revolution, freedom, and consent of the governed.

Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward were intensely concerned with countering this insidious line of thought. So, one of Lincoln’s primary motivations for the Emancipation Proclamation was to convince the British that the issue of slavery was indeed central to the war effort, and to discourage talk of intervention aimed at ending the conflict with anything less than total Union victory.

However, in a prime example of international misunderstanding, many Britons initially concluded that the proclamation was not a moral position, but a self-serving act of military desperation that could—perhaps intentionally—start a race war. Confederates, of course, adamantly agreed. Yankee hypocrisy on the subject was reinforced by pre-war complicity in the illegal slave trade, continued existence of slavery in border states, and now the narrow and selective application of emancipation.

The British did not, as Lincoln did instinctively, see a connection between preserving the Union and the end of the institution. In fact, many believed that Confederate independence would more rapidly extinguish slavery by isolating it in the south. Emancipation in the West Indian sugar plantations had been necessary and proper, but also an economic disaster and a bitter experience.

From a distance, Confederate rationalizations had made sense: slavery would be ended in their own good time, not as forced upon them by northern tyrants, and child-like Africans would benefit with enlightened, gradual freedom from kindly and paternal care.

But after Antietam and promulgation of the draft proclamation, the British paused their frantic debates and tabled decisions on intervention. The Emancipation Proclamation was a major and crucial first step, resetting the terms of discussion from then on. Confederate reverses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg the next summer accelerated the process, effectively ending serious discussion of the subject. The British would stay out. The Confederacy would sink or swim on its own.


Vanauken, Sheldon. The Glittering Illusion: English Sympathy for the Southern Confederacy. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1989.

Jones, Howard. Blue & Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Mahin, Dean B. One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1999.

Merli, Frank J. Great Britain and The Confederate Navy, 1861-1865. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

[1] Vanauken, The Glittering Illusion, 62.

[2] Jones, Blue & Gray Diplomacy, 158.

[3] Vanauken, The Glittering Illusion, 103.

A Rebel’s Duty

While researching the Southern Historical Society Papers on another topic, I came across the following passage from 1907:

When the question is asked what the followers of Lee and Jackson fought for, let the ringing, unchangeable and ever true response be given, that they fought against invasion and subjugation, and for their wives and children, their dear ones and their homes. As followers of our immortal Lee, in war, and in compliance with his admonitions after the surrender at Appomattox, for peace, we have had it demonstrated, indisputably, that we have not failed in our duty. This was proved in war, on every battle field, and the phenomenal recuperation of our dear Southland since, proves its truth in peace.[i]

William Whittle and S. S. Lee, Jr.

Shenandoah Lieutenants William Whittle (left) and Sidney Smith Lee, Jr. (nephew of R. E. Lee)

The occasion was a speech by former Lieutenant William C. Whittle, Jr., USN and CSN, to the Pickett-Buchanan Camp of Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Confederate Veterans at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, April 26 to December 1, 1907 in Norfolk, Virginia.

These are familiar sentiments to students of the Civil War. From a historical perspective, they reflect lost-cause romanticism, misplaced allegiance to a bad cause, and rationalizations for treason. But that is far from the whole truth. Whittle’s words are not irrelevant today and they are worthy of deeper consideration.

The speech caught my attention because I had come to know William Whittle while researching the Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah, in which he served as first lieutenant and second in command.

From October 1864 to November 1865, he and fellow Southerners carried the conflict around the globe and to the ends of the earth through every extreme of sea and storm, completing spectacularly a mission that no longer mattered.

Shenandoah PaintingOn that journey, Whittle poured his heart and mind onto the pages of his journal, describing daily and in detail every difficult turn of events. Here is a quote from that journal of August 2, 1865, four months after Lee’s surrender. In mid-Pacific, Shenandoah encountered the English bark Barracouta, thirteen days from San Francisco with newspapers only two weeks old, which confirmed the worst.

The darkest day of my life. The past is gone for naught—the future is dark as the blackest night. Oh! God protect and comfort us I pray…. Our dear country has been overrun; our President captured; our armies & navy surrendered; our people subjugated. Oh! God aid us to stand up under this, thy visitation. There is no doubting the truth of this news. We now have no country, no flag, no home. We have lost all but our honor & self respect, and I hope our trust in God Almighty. Were it not for my dear ones at home, I would rather die than live…. My heart bleeds in anguish…. “I have been young, and now am old, but never have I seen the righteous man forsaken, or his children begging bread.” [Psalm 37:25] Let this be my motto until I can get safely to some port. Oh! God protect them for Christ’s sake. I am almost mad, and will lay down my pen.[ii]

I was privileged to read that journal along with the other journals, letters, and memoirs. Having closely followed these wayward Americans throughout the Shenandoah odyssey, I came to like and respect them. These Confederates served their country as they understood it with honor, courage, and sacrifice.

Whittle is emphatic throughout his writings about what he was fighting for. Setting aside slavery, which he almost never mentions, we can find those causes compelling. His compatriots in 1865 and undoubtedly his audience in 1907 agreed. Reading Whittle’s later speech brought the issues to life again in personal terms. It was like meeting an old friend.

But how do we reconcile the contradiction between respect for Confederates as individuals and the wrongness of the fundamental cause—slavery—we know they represented? We can’t, and we shouldn’t try. It is better to embrace that contradiction, comprehend it, and consider what it means for our lives and for our children’s future. It is necessary to be clear on the distinctions between their historical context, our contemporary context, and universal values bridging the two.

Public discourse today also reflects seemingly irreconcilable divisions, deep anger, and occasional violence on many issues, many of which are the same conundrums plaguing our ancestors. Although conditions for civil war are not apparent, moral and constitutional implications run every bit as deep as slavery. Opponents often are viewed as enemies; the future is uncertain and threatening.

Eerily similar questions are asked and arguments advanced on both sides: What does freedom mean? What is the role of government in a free society? How is the concept of federalism applied? Who are citizens, and who are not? Where does duty in citizenship lie? What does the Constitution really mean? Some Americans must be as wrong on some of these questions now as Southerners were then.

Whatever we conclude about the wrongness of William Whittle’s beliefs, he unquestionably believed them, and he was a good man in his historical context. Honorable people can choose for honorable reasons to fight for a bad cause. Then perhaps Southerners had legitimate concerns on some issues.

History is unequivocal that the right won the Civil War on principle. In the ongoing struggle for universal values, the future will judge on principle the rights and wrongs of current differences. All we can do is struggle in that direction as they did, working with fellow citizens of all opinions, building on the foundation they bequeathed us.

Abraham Lincoln said at the beginning: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” He said near the end: “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” In the first inaugural address, he referenced “The better angels of our nature,” and in the second he called for malice toward none and charity for all, “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

William Whittle returned home to Norfolk in 1867, married Elisabeth Calvert Page (daughter of a Confederate general who was first cousin to Robert E. Lee), and raised two boys and four girls. For twenty years, Whittle commanded coastal steamers and superintended a fleet of them. In 1901, he helped organize the Virginia Bank and Trust Company, rising to vice-president and director, all the while active in Confederate veterans’ affairs. Whittle died in 1920 at age 82.

One final quote from the conclusion of Whittle’s 1907 speech: “We annually assemble, with no rancor in our hearts towards our late foes, but to keep in everlasting remembrance the fact that we have done our duty in war and in peace; and that those who come after may emulate the courage, loyalty and sacrifice of true patriots.”[iii]

Can we do less in our current troubles? Whatever their shortcomings, we can learn from them, perhaps come to respect and emulate them at least in this. Such history lessons are vital for coming generations. There are those who, in a false sense of moral superiority, would wipe our imperfect ancestors from common memory, but that would just rob the future of an invaluable heritage.

Reference: Dwight Sturtevant Hughes, A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah (Annapolis, 2015).

[i] Captain W. C. Whittle, “Merrimac and Monitor,” Southern Historical Society Papers 40 (September 1915), 301.

[ii] William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 2005), 182.

[iii] Whittle, “Merrimac and Monitor,” 304.

“Thenceforward and Forever Free”: The Emancipation Proclamation as a Turning Point

TurningPoints-logoWe are pleased to welcome Dan Vermilya, author of the upcoming Emerging Civil war Series book That Field of Blood: The Battle of Antietam. Dan, a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, is also a licensed battlefield guide at Antietam National Battlefield.

When reviewing the history of the Civil War, there are many so-called turning points that emerge. One most often looks to the great battles of the war for these moments of contingency, when the affairs of nations could go in distinctly different and opposite directions. Our historical memory tends to look to Gettysburg as the primary turning point of the Civil War due to the sheer size of the fight there with its immense bloodshed and suffering. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address several months after the battle framed the struggle there as one that determined the future course of freedom.

There were, however, numerous other turning points in the war as well. Battlefields such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Vicksburg, as well as the 1864 campaigns in Virginia and Georgia all played a vital role in the war’s ultimate outcome.

Despite these many crucial battles, perhaps the most significant turning point of the conflict did not occur on the battlefield per se, but instead one that, though influenced by a major battle of the war, was itself an executive action by the President of the United States: the Emancipation Proclamation.

We tend to minimize or discount the Emancipation Proclamation as a point of contingency in the war. One reason for this is it does not stand out as a landmark document of rhetorical power and beauty. Historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote that the proclamation had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Its prose is dense and particular, not grand and moving. The proclamation seems difficult to follow, with legal particulars relating to when and where the proclamation was to take effect. Its nuances lead to questions about its efficacy and impact. Doubts abound over whether or not it actually accomplished anything, or whether it was indeed a turning point.

Through its intricate verbiage, though, Lincoln’s Proclamation is surprisingly powerful, earning its place as one of the most significant—if not the single most significant—presidential actions in American history.

Indeed, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was perhaps the turning point of the war. For the first two years of the war, the Federal government had been taking incremental steps toward the cause of freedom and abolition. Congress passed two different Confiscation Acts granting the United States army the ability to seize Rebel property, including slaves, as part of the war effort. Various generals in the field had issued edicts of emancipation, though limited in scale to their specific theaters of operations.

However, by the summer of 1862, there had been no presidential action on slavery as part of the war effort. While clear that the war was indeed about slavery and freedom from the outset (a simple reading of Southern secession documents and correspondence makes this evident), Lincoln had yet to take the step of making abolition a war aim of the Federal government. He was waiting for the right time to make such a bold proclamation.

Events on the battlefield led Lincoln down this path toward emancipation. After a summer of setbacks and defeats for Union forces, the war centered on the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, in September of 1862. Lincoln had decided that previous July that he wanted to issue a proclamation of emancipation, but was waiting for a Federal victory to strengthen his hand. The sanguinary struggle at Antietam on September 17 provided the victory for which Lincoln had been waiting, forcing General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to retreat from Northern soil that autumn. In the wake of the battle there, Lincoln released his proclamation on September 22, 1862, to go into full effect on January 1, 1863, when the final version was issued.

The proclamation certainly did have its drawbacks. It did not apply to the Border States of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, or Missouri. It exempted parts of the Confederacy that were already under Union control. It didn’t speak of freedom for slaves beyond the scope of the war. All of this was due to the proclamation’s basis as a military measure under Lincoln’s authority as Commander-in-Chief, without which he would have had no basis for issuing the document at all. It had to be specific. It had to have limits to meet its legal requirements. Better to make sure it passed the legal muster by including exceptions than to be too ambitious and be thrown out in a court of law. Yes, the proclamation was not perfect, but it was a legal document written at a complex time in American history. We should embrace and understand its complexity.

What the proclamation did was make clear what the war was about. For the first time in American history, the President of the United States took a bold executive action on the issue of slavery, affecting the lives of millions of men, women, and children held in bondage. By declaring that, as of January 1, 1863, those slaves in the states then in rebellion against the Federal government would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free,” the proclamation was a turning point in American history. The war was no longer being waged to preserve the nation as it once was. That nation had perished on the battlefields of the war. The war was now being waged for a new and better Union, one without slavery. It was an executive action signaling, as Lincoln himself would proclaim eleven months later at Gettysburg, “a new birth of freedom” in the United States. The influential Horace Greeley recognized this significance at the time, writing of the Emancipation Proclamation, “It was the beginning of the end of the rebellion. It was the beginning of a new life for the nation.”

Perhaps the most understated impact the Emancipation Proclamation had on the war was opening up the door for African Americans to serve in the armed forces of the United States during the conflict. By war’s end, over 180,000 African Americans had served in the Union army, and over 20,000 more in the Union navy. This influx of manpower was unavailable to the South due to its firm refusal to arm African Americans until the death rattle of the Confederacy was audible for all in the spring of 1865. Not only did these African Americans help to boost Union forces at a crucial time in the war; their service also did something which was arguably more important. It proved that African Americans were every bit as brave, patriotic, and yes, as human, as white soldiers serving in the conflict. All of this was made possible by the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is also important to note that the Emancipation Proclamation was itself indelibly tied to the bloodshed of the war. If not for the Union victory at Antietam, the proclamation may never have seen the light of day in 1862. Thus, though the Emancipation Proclamation was an epochal turning point, it did not occur independently. Many veterans of Antietam would later recognize this connection between the battle there and Lincoln’s proclamation. In 1903, for a dedication ceremony for Ohio monuments on the Antietam Battlefield, Robert P. Kennedy, a veteran of the 23rd Ohio who would later go on to serve in Congress, noted this undeniable link between the battle and the expansion of freedom in the United States: “Upon this field of Antietam was fought one of the most desperate battles of the War of the Rebellion, upon the outcome of which hung the destinies and liberties of millions of human beings.”

The Union’s Great Crisis: The Fall of ’62

TurningPoints-logoMost of our “turning points” have focused on a single event, but if we widen the lens and look at the broader pendulum swings of the Civil War, certainly fewer periods of the conflict had more at stake than the fall of 1862.

In the summer of that year, Robert E. Lee had reversed the fortunes of the war in Virginia, shifting the front from the gates of Richmond to the doorstep of Washington. At the same time Lee eyed a stab northward, Southern forces had stabbed into Kentucky in an attempt to bring the Border State fully into the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis ordered additional attacks in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana as a way to turn up the pressure all across the board.

“The Confederate resurgence demoralized the United States,” says ECW’s Chief Historian, Chris Kolakowski, in his ECW Digital Short The Union’s Great Crisis: The Fall of 1862

Great Crisis DS-coverIn those autumn months, major battles at Antietam, Perryville, Fredericksburg, and Stones River—along with smaller clashes at Iuka, Baton Rouge, Charleston, and Chickasaw Bluffs—would raise serious questions about the war effort and the North’s ability to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. The fall elections of 1862 and a crisis in Lincoln’s own cabinet created additional layers of political complexity on top of the already-difficult military situation.

“Hindsight has diminished perspective on the trials and tribulations of the period September 1 to December 31, 1862,” Kolakowski writes. “These four months witnessed important political and military engagements that both thwarted a Confederate resurgence and recast the war’s scope and conduct. The Civil War in January 1863 was a fundamentally different conflict than in August 1862, and the events of 1862’s last quarter changed it forever.”

The Union’s Great Crisis: The Fall of 1862 by Chris Kolakowski is available as an ECW Digital Short from Amazon for only $2.95 (click here). It’s well worth the read.