Lincoln’s Turning Point

"President Lincoln and His Cabinet: Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation," E. Herline, 1866

In the spring of 1862, General George B. McClellan led the Army of the Potomac on a major campaign to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. When the effort bogged down and failed, resulting in 15,000 casualties and northern despair, Lincoln’s views about slavery and how to save the Union began to change.

On July 13, 1862, Lincoln privately told Secretaries Seward and Welles that he had nearly concluded that he must free the slaves or lose the war. Nine days later, Lincoln informed his full cabinet that he planned to issue a formal Emancipation Proclamation if Confederate states did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863. They were astonished by the plan and Seward cautioned Lincoln to wait until Union forces scored a victory to issue the decree, otherwise it would appear to be a desperate measure. Thus, on September 22, five days after a victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation; six weeks later, he sent a powerful message to Congress that summarized his new thoughts:

The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.