September 22, 1862—The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln was a public document shaped with the law and international diplomacy in mind, but made, paradoxically, possible and necessary by the massive expenditure of blood five days earlier at the Battle of Antietam.
By warning the Confederacy that slaves in states under Northern control after the coming January 1 would be considered “forever free,” the President did so from what was, ostensibly, a position of strength: victory, albeit an incomplete one, on the bloodiest day in the nation’s history. That was, in actuality, an illusion: The war was dragging on for longer than anyone had expected, and the President had determined that he must strike at the institution that not only was at the heart of the Southern economy but that enabled its able-bodied males to engage en masse in rebellion against the Union.
Lincoln had wanted to emancipate the slaves a few months earlier, but Secretary of State William Seward had persuaded him that, given the Army of the Potomac’s recent string of losses, it was better to do so after a victory, when the North would be seen not as desperate but as a credible battlefield victor.
That moment had come on September 17, on the 75h anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, when thousands of young soldiers under the command of General George B. McClellan had repelled Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North at Sharpsburg, Md. (In keeping with prior practice, the North named the battle after a prominent geographic feature, in this case Antietam Creek, while the South named the fight after the nearest town.) The result, while not as clear-cut as both sides would have liked, ensured that the national experiment in freedom would continue.
It should not have been shocking that Union and Confederate casualties would total more than 25,000 (including at least 5,000 dead) at Antietam: In a battle pitting one overconfident commander against a timorous (if arrogant) one, amid a larger war that began with massive miscalculations on both sides, it was inevitable that so many would pay for the mistakes of leaders. The war’s great paradox on this particular week was that a battle rife with enormous blunders had ended with the signing of a document so meticulously planned that many abolitionists regarded it with all the joy of beholding a legal contract.
The chief military mistake was made by Robert E. Lee, with his initial decision to invade the North. His triumph at Second Manassas at the end of August (see this prior post of mine) solidified his belief that his soldiers were skilled and brave enough to do whatever he asked of them.
But the Army of Northern Virginia was not good enough to overcome the disadvantages of being divided in the face of the enemy and of passing through a part of Maryland filled more with German immigrants loyal to the Union that with Confederate sympathizers. Nor could Lee’s troops overcome the impact of his famous Lost Orders, which had been found in an abandoned Rebel encampment and presented to the Union commander. Here was the intelligence coup of the war for the Union: Lee's whole strategy and plan for attack.
McClellan then proceeded to make his own critical errors—notably, taking more than a day to move his army, which allowed enough time for several units of Lee’s army return in time for battle. On the day of battle itself, McClellan, wildly overestimating his fee’s strength, kept several major units out of the fight, and he ordered uncoordinated troop movements that failed to deliver the knockout blow.
There are a number of fine accounts of the subsequent battle, notably Stephen W. Sears’ Landscape Turned Red. But there is no substitute for actually visiting the battlefield, which, unlike other areas (including Gettysburg), remains largely undefiled by modern development. On my visit to the battleground site nearly two decades ago, I crossed the narrow, stone arch bridge that it took Union General Ambrose Burnside hours to seize because of ferocious Confederate fire. My eyes swept over The Cornfield, where, that morning, 40% of Union General John Sedgwick’s division had become casualties. I walked along the half-mile Bloody Lane, where, a century and a half ago, I could not have touched ground without stepping on a body, the result of 5,600 killed or wounded in only three hours of fighting.
McClellan had been congratulated (none doing more so than himself) as the victor, but he squandered his chance, before and during the battle, to eliminate Lee’s army as a fighting force, just as he would do so again, over the next six weeks after the bloody engagement, in allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to slip back to the Richmond region to replenish itself. Yet he felt eminently qualified to offer his President not merely military, but also political advice. Before the battle, he had sent Lincoln a memo noting that his soldiers would fight for the Union but not for emancipation.
By this time, Lincoln was having none of it, from McClellan or, indeed, anyone else. As far back as June, he had taken into his confidence his loyal Vice-President, Hannibal Hamlin, and read him what would become the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. (The abolitionist-minded Veep was delighted.) A month later, before his Cabinet, Lincoln had taken Seward’s advice about not issuing the proclamation when it could be misinterpreted as an act of desperation.
There had been a million reasons, in the first year of the conflict, why Lincoln had not moved decisively against the “peculiar institution” that had made the rebellion inevitable, especially the need to keep in the Union fold the border slaveholding states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, as well as his recognition that under the Constitution, he had no authority to interfere with slavery where it already existed.
But it did not escape his notice how much slavery had buoyed the war effort of the Confederacy. “For as many slaves who ran away,” notes historian Allen Guelzo in his analysis of Emancipation in today’s Wall Street Journal, “many thousands more were being used as manual laborers, teamsters and camp followers to help the Confederate war effort. They might tip the military balance in the Confederacy's favor.”
That brought the President to a crucial juncture in his thinking. “I must save this government if possible,” he wrote Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson in the summer of 1862. “What I cannot do, of course I will not do; but it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”
The last “available card” was emancipation. In his Cabinet meeting of September 22, Lincoln told his principal advisers that he had made up his mind, and that there wasn’t going to be any further discussion about it, either among themselves or with Congressional Democrats, whom he had come to see as obstructionist.(The only surviving draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln's handwriting, by the way, is now touring New York State, including a stop at the Schaumburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem through September 24. See this New York Times Artsblog post.)
The document Lincoln signed that day, which thrilled abolitionists and outraged Confederates, noted at its beginning that the war was being fought with the purpose of “practically restoring” the Union, then went on to note that he would send Congress proposals for compensation for slaveholders and African colonization of freed slaves. Lincoln was not only laying out this ground with an eye on the border states with this doctrine of military necessity, but also on the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the infamous opinion in the Dred Scott case, stood ready to rule as an unconstitutional infringement on private property any attempt to strike at slavery. Nor did Lincoln want any chance that, with any possible resolution of the war by either himself or a predecessor, that the freed slaves would be returned to their owners, as had happened at the end of the War of 1812. An argument for emancipation based on his war powers as President was the most likely to be sustained at the polls and in the courts, he felt.
In the year after Lincoln issued his proclamation, much changed on the political and military fronts. The proposals for slaveholder compensation and colonization went nowhere on Capitol Hill, disabusing the President of any notion that anything other than the most radical means necessary would be required to root out slavery. In the Western theater of operations, the victories of Ulysses S. Grant put more slaveholding territory directly under Union control, ensuring that plantations would not have the labor required to sustain them—and swelling the ranks of Union armies with African-American troops. Moreover, Great Britain and France, which had been itching to recognize the Confederacy as a means of cutting down to size the new colossus on the North American continent, had second thoughts about supporting a government propped up by slavery. For the first time, a document with no practical effect when it was first signed now posed a mortal threat to slavery.
Two decades before, in 1841, with Lincoln’s depression reaching near-suicidal levels, the ambitious Springfield lawyer feared that his life would end without him having accomplished anything. After the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, however, he told longtime confidante Joshua Speed that this feeling had at last passed. He had taken a long time to free the slaves, but now there was no going back, and he would press for their freedom with ever-greater tenacity until his life ended at the hand of someone other than his himself two and a half years from this point. The onetime religious skeptic believed that he had become an instrument of divine providence in eliminating the greatest defect of the American government. Lincoln had indeed now done something "to make any human being remember that he had lived."