The Emanicipation Proclamation

The disintegration of slavery began early in the war. As Northern armies occupied Southern territory, slaves by the thousands abandoned plantations and headed for Union lines. Their actions helped to propel a reluctant white America toward emancipation.
Lincoln said in his second inaugural address that slavery was "somehow" the cause of the war. But in 1861 his main concern was keeping the border slave states in the Union and consolidating Northern backing for the war effort. The goal of restoring the Union generated the broadest public support.

By 1862 the flight from the plantations and the failure of Union armies to produce military victory led many Northerners to favor emancipation as a blow against the Confederacy. In July of that year Congress liberated slaves owned by disloyal masters in Union-occupied territory. Responding to these pressures, Lincoln promised federal aid if any state agreed to free its slaves gradually, and he flirted with the idea of colonizing African-Americans outside the country. Finally, Lincoln decided that immediate and uncompensated emancipation had become a political and military necessity.

Issued on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to areas under Union control. But the vast majority of the slaves, more than three million men, women, and children, it declared, "are and henceforth shall be free." The Proclamation transformed a war of armies into a conflict of societies. It ensured that Union victory would produce a social revolution in the South, and it redefined the place of African-Americans in the nation's life.

War, Politics, and Society Exhibit

Copyright 2002 The Chicago Historical Society
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