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A Bombshell on the American Public’

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Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress
President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan (second from left) after the Battle of Antietam, October 3, 1862

In a Thanksgiving sermon in 1862 at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, the prominent clergyman Reverend Albert Barnes reflected on the momentous events of that second year of the Civil War. “It has been such a year as our country has never experienced before,” he said, “and will make more work for the calm and impartial historian of future times, than any one year in all our public history.” The four historians whose books are reviewed here have written about 1862 in a manner that is perhaps neither entirely calm nor impartial, but quite suitable to the tumultuous atmosphere of wartime crisis that pervaded the era. All four point toward the climax on the first day of 1863, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, one of those “great national acts,” in the words of the black leader Frederick Douglass in a speech that year,

which by their relation to universal principles, properly belong to the whole human family…. Henceforth that day shall take rank with the Fourth of July. [Applause.] Henceforth it becomes the date of a new and glorious era in the history of American liberty.

When Lincoln published a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, warning Confederate states of his intention to issue a final edict on January 1, he did not realize that those two dates stood precisely one hundred days apart. Louis Masur’s Lincoln’s Hundred Days focuses on that crucial period, but it starts more than a year earlier to set the stage for those hundred days, and follows up with the aftermath and consequences of Lincoln’s historic action. Masur and Harold Holzer argue persuasively that the progression of events during that critical autumn of the war were full of contingencies and that the final outcome was by no means certain.

Seven Southern states had seceded in 1861 because they feared the incoming Lincoln’s administration’s designs on slavery. In a vain effort to stem further secessions and bring back the states that had gone out, Lincoln declared that he had no intention or power to interfere with slavery in the states, but only to restrict its further expansion. Southerners were not reassured. When the war began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, four more states seceded. Many members of Lincoln’s own Republican Party urged him to strike against slavery. The slaves provided much of the labor that sustained the Southern economy and the logistics of Confederate armies. From almost the first days of the war, slaves began coming into Union lines wherever Northern armies and naval vessels penetrated the South. By the fall of 1861, tens of thousands of them had gained sanctuary and a practical if not yet legal freedom. Their labor was lost to the Confederacy and gained by the Union.

Abolitionists, black leaders, and radical Republicans pressed Lincoln to ratify and expand this process by using his war powers as commander in chief to seize enemy property—slaves—being used to wage war against the United States. But Lincoln hesitated to embrace such a sweeping policy. He was trying to hold together a precarious war coalition of Northern Democrats and Unionists from the border slave states that had not seceded (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) as well as Republicans. He was concerned—with good reason—that the first two parts of that coalition might break away if he took the kind of bold action the radicals wanted.

When General John C. Frémont issued an order freeing the slaves of Confederates in the border state of Missouri in August 1861, Lincoln revoked it. To a friend who protested this revocation, Lincoln explained that if he had let Fremont’s edict stand, Kentucky would have seceded. “Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol.”1

Apart from these practical consequences, wrote Lincoln, neither Fremont nor the president himself had the constitutional authority to order the freeing of slaves. “Can it be pretended,” he wrote, “that it is any longer the government of the US—any government of constitution and laws,—wherein a General, or a President, may make permanent rules of property by proclamation?” Masur notes the irony of the date of this letter: September 22, 1861, one year to the day before Lincoln issued his proclamation stating an intention to do precisely what he had said a president could not do. “Lincoln had much intellectual work ahead of him,” writes Masur; “events would help to take him there.”

All four of these books provide detailed and careful renderings of these events and of Lincoln’s intellectual journey. In August 1861, Congress in effect freed slaves who had worked in any capacity for Southern armies and who subsequently came within Union lines. The secretary of the navy ordered ship captains to accept all slaves (called “contrabands”) who sought asylum and to recruit able-bodied young males into the navy. In March 1862 Congress prohibited the army from returning to their owners any slaves who came into Union lines. The following month Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, and in July 1862 passed a second act that “confiscated” the slaves and declared free all slaves of owners who could be proved to have supported the Confederacy.

Lincoln signed all of this legislation. He also tried to persuade representatives from the Union border states to accept a plan for gradual abolition of slavery in them, with compensation from the federal government. They refused, and that refusal moved Lincoln toward a decision to issue an emancipation proclamation. Confederate military counteroffensives in the summer of 1862 culminating in the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August reversed the momentum of Union victories earlier in the year, undercutting the hope that the war would soon be won without resorting to radical measures. Lincoln had grown disillusioned with Southern Unionists, such as Reverdy Johnson of Maryland and Thomas J. Durant of Louisiana, whom he had previously tried to conciliate. He declared that he could no longer fight this war “with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water.” The government

cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt.

The demand by supposed Southern Unionists “that the government shall not strike its open enemies, lest they be struck by accident” had become “the paralysis—the dead palsy—of the government in this whole struggle.”2

Lincoln had overcome his earlier doubts about the constitutionality of a president making “permanent rules of property.” He was impressed by the arguments of William Whiting, a prominent New England lawyer and solicitor of the War Department, whose pamphlet The War Powers of the President, and the Legislative Powers of Congress in Relation to Rebellion, Treason and Slavery went through seven editions in little more than a year. Whiting maintained that the laws of war “give the President full belligerent rights” as commander in chief to seize enemy property, including slaves. “This right of seizure and condemnation is harsh,” wrote Whiting, “as all the proceedings of war are harsh, in the extreme, but is nevertheless lawful.” And once the slaves were “seized,” the government would surely never allow them to be reenslaved.3

As the war took a turn for the worse in the summer of 1862, Lincoln now fully embraced the idea that as commander in chief he could proclaim emancipation as a means of weakening the enemy. During a carriage ride on July 13, 1862, to attend the funeral of the infant son of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the president startled his seatmates William H. Seward and Gideon Welles, the secretaries of state and the navy. He told them that he had made up his mind to issue the proclamation. As Welles later reported the conversation, Lincoln said that emancipation had become “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” The bondsmen were “undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.” Lincoln brushed aside any question of the constitutionality of such action.

“The rebels,” he said, “could not at the same time throw off the Constitution and invoke its aid. Having made war upon the Government, they were subject to the incidents and calamities of war.” The border states, Lincoln now acknowledged, “would do nothing” on their own; indeed, perhaps after all it was not fair to ask them to give up slavery while Confederates retained it. Therefore “the blow must fall first and foremost” on Confederates. “Decisive and extreme measures must be adopted…. We [want] the army to strike more vigorous blows. The Administration must set the army an example, and strike at the heart of the rebellion”—slavery.4

Nine days later, on July 22, Lincoln informed the full Cabinet of his intention. After some discussion of details, Seward advised that the proclamation be withheld during this period of defeatism in the North over Union reverses in the Seven Days Battles in Virginia some three weeks earlier. To issue it now might give the appearance—especially abroad—of an act of desperation, an appeal for a slave insurrection, “our last shriek on the retreat.” Wait until you can make it public backed by military success, counseled Seward. Lincoln accepted this advice and tried to turn the delay to his advantage. As Harold Holzer describes, he began to expand the circle of Washington insiders who knew his plan during this time. Meanwhile, he put the proclamation away and waited for a victory.

It proved to be a long, agonizing wait, but the success of the Army of the Potomac in turning back the Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, was the victory Lincoln had waited for. Five days later he called a special meeting of the Cabinet. “I think the time has come now,” he told them. “I wish it were a better time…. The action of the army against the rebels has not been quite what I should have best liked. But they have been driven out of Maryland.” When the enemy was at Frederick, Maryland, Lincoln had made a “promise to myself, and…to my Maker” that “if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, [I] would consider it an indication of Divine will” in favor of emancipation. Antietam was God’s sign that he “had decided this question in favor of the slaves.” Thus he intended to issue that day the proclamation warning Confederate states that unless they returned to the Union by January 1, 1863, their slaves “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”5

As Harold Holzer points out, there had been plenty of hints that something like this was forthcoming. Nevertheless, the proclamation landed like a bombshell on the American public. Republicans praised it, Democrats denounced it, some officers and soldiers in the Union army welcomed it, others including General George B. McClellan privately condemned it, many in the border states reprehended it, Southern whites ridiculed it, and blacks both free and slave thanked God and Abraham Lincoln for this righteous decree.

  1. 1

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Ray P. Basler, 9 vols. (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), Vol. 4, p. 532. 

  2. 2

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, pp. 344–345, 346, 350. 

  3. 3

    William Whiting, The War Powers of the President, and the Legislative Powers of Congress in Relation to Rebellion, Treason and Slavery, 7th ed. (John L. Shorey, 1863). 

  4. 4

    Selected Essays by Gideon Welles; Civil War and Reconstruction, edited by Albert Mordell (Twayne, 1959), pp. 237–239. 

  5. 5

    Diary of Gideon Welles, 3 vols. (Norton, 1960), edited by Howard K. Beale, Vol. 1, pp, 142–145; The Salmon P. Chase Papers, Vol. I: Journals, 1829–1872, edited by John Niven (Kent State University Press, 1993), pp. 393–395. 

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