The Emancipation Proclamation

"Proclamation of Emancipation," R. A. Dimmick, 1864

When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he set into motion a process that ultimately transformed America. Lincoln’s carefully worded document declared free more than three million slaves in Confederate territory still in rebellion — the only areas where he had legal authority to act as the Constitution still protected slavery’s existence in the loyal border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, and in rebel territory under Union control.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation primarily for military purposes. It would, he believed, encourage slaves to flee their plantations, thus disrupting critical food supplies to Confederate forces. But, the decree would also give the war a moral purpose, assuaging abolitionist critics at home and abroad, particularly those in Great Britain where pro-Confederate forces were gaining strength.

More than a symbolic gesture, as some have claimed, Lincoln’s proclamation authorized Union troops entering rebel territory to recognize and protect black freedom, thus turning northern soldiers into an army of liberation. Furthermore, Lincoln’s decree authorized the enlistment of African Americans into the U.S. military, a key step toward granting them equal citizenship rights. On yet another level, the Emancipation Proclamation signaled the end of the old Union comprised of slave and free states — the Union Lincoln once claimed “perpetual” — and set America on a new course toward national freedom. The fiery trial of war had indeed changed Lincoln’s mind, and there would be no turning back.