“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.”