Learning Objectives

  • Explain the development and the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation
  • Describe the experiences of African-American soldiers and their impact on the war

Early in the war, President Lincoln approached the issue of slavery cautiously. While he disapproved of slavery personally, he did not believe that he had the authority to abolish it. Furthermore, he feared that making the abolition of slavery an objective of the war would cause the border slave states to join the Confederacy. His central objective in 1861 and 1862 was to restore the Union.


President Lincoln wrote the following letter to newspaper editor Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862. In it, Lincoln states his position on slavery, which is notable for being a middle-of-the-road stance. Lincoln’s later public speeches on the issue take the more strident antislavery tone for which he is remembered.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save Slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy Slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere, could be free. Yours, A. LINCOLN.

How would you characterize Lincoln’s public position in August 1862? What was he prepared to do for enslaved people, and under what conditions?

Since the beginning of the war, thousands of enslaved people had fled to the safety of Union lines. In May 1861, Union general Benjamin Butler and others labeled these refugees from slavery contrabands. Butler reasoned that since Southern states had left the United States, he was not obliged to follow federal fugitive slave laws. Escaped enslaved people who made it through the Union lines were shielded by the U.S. military and not returned to slavery. The intent was not only to assist them but also to deprive the South of a valuable source of manpower.

Congress began to define the status of formerly enslaved people in 1861 and 1862. In August 1861, legislators approved the Confiscation Act of 1861, empowering the Union to seize property, including the enslaved, used by the Confederacy. The Republican-dominated Congress took additional steps, including abolishing slavery in Washington, DC, in April 1862. In July of that year, Congress passed a second Confiscation Act, which extended freedom to escaped enslaved people and those captured by Union armies. In that month, Congress also addressed the issue of slavery in the West, banning the practice in the territories. This federal law made the 1846 Wilmot Proviso and the dreams of the Free-Soil Party a reality. However, even as the Union government took steps to aid enslaved individuals and to limit the practice of slavery, it passed no measure to address the institution of slavery as a whole.

Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln moved slowly and cautiously on the issue of abolition. His primary concern was the cohesion of the Union and the bringing of the Southern states back into the fold. However, as the war dragged on and many thousands of contrabands made their way north, Republicans in Congress continued to call for the end of slavery. Throughout his political career, Lincoln’s plans for formerly enslaved people had been to send them to Liberia. As late as August 1862, he had hoped to interest African Americans in building a colony for former slaves in Central America, an idea that found favor neither with Black leaders nor with abolitionists, and thus was abandoned by Lincoln. Responding to Congressional demands for an end to slavery, Lincoln presented an ultimatum to the Confederates on September 22, 1862, shortly after the Confederate retreat at Antietam. He gave the Confederate states until January 1, 1863, to rejoin the Union. If they did, slavery would continue in the slave states. If they refused to rejoin, however, the war would continue and all slaves would be freed at its conclusion. The Confederacy took no action. It had committed itself to maintaining its independence and had no interest in the president’s ultimatum.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln made good on his promise and signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. Most importantly, the freedom it promised depended upon Union (United States) military victory.

The Proclamation

Read through the full text of the Emancipation Proclamation at the National Archives website. It begins with this most famous section:

“Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

Lincoln relied on his powers as commander-in-chief in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew the proclamation could be easily challenged in court, but by excluding the territories still outside his control, enslavers and slave governments could not sue him. Moreover, slave states in the Union, such as Kentucky, could not sue because the proclamation did not apply to them. Enslavers in Kentucky knew full well that if the institution were abolished throughout the South, it would not survive in a handful of border territories. Despite the limits of the proclamation, Lincoln dramatically shifted the objective of the war increasingly toward ending slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation became a monumental step forward on the road to changing the character of the United States.


Watch this video about Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

You can view the transcript for “Abraham Lincoln: The Emancipation Proclamation | Biography” here (opens in new window).

The proclamation generated quick and dramatic reactions. The news created euphoria among enslaved people, as it signaled the eventual end of their bondage. Predictably, Confederate leaders raged against the proclamation, reinforcing their commitment to fight to maintain slavery, the foundation of the Confederacy. In the North, opinions split widely on the issue. Abolitionists praised Lincoln’s actions, which they saw as the fulfillment of their long campaign to strike down an immoral institution. But other Northerners, especially Irish, working-class, urban dwellers loyal to the Democratic Party and others with racist beliefs, hated the new goal of emancipation and found the idea of freed slaves repugnant. At its core, much of this racism had an economic foundation: many Northerners feared competing with emancipated people for scarce jobs.

An illustration depicts the race riots in New York; white and black men pummel one another with sticks and rocks in the streets, whereas police officers attempt to intervene.

Figure 1. The race riots in New York showed just how divided the North was on the issue of equality, even as the North went to war with the South over the issue of slavery.

In New York City, the Emancipation Proclamation, combined with unhappiness over the Union draft, which began just two months after Lincoln’s issuance, fanned the flames of White racism. Many New Yorkers supported the Confederacy for business reasons, and, in 1861, the city’s mayor actually suggested that New York City leave the Union. On July 13, 1863, two days after the first draft lottery took place, this racial hatred erupted into violence. A volunteer fire company whose commander had been drafted initiated a riot, and the violence spread quickly across the city. The rioters chose targets associated either with the Union army or with African Americans. An armory was destroyed, as was a Brooks Brothers’ store, which supplied uniforms to the army. White mobs attacked and killed Black New Yorkers and destroyed an African American orphanage. On the fourth day of the riots, federal troops dispatched by Lincoln arrived in the city and ended the violence. Millions of dollars in property had been destroyed. More than one hundred people died, approximately one thousand were left injured, and about one-fifth of the city’s African American population fled New York in fear.

African American Soldiers

A photograph shows an African American soldier standing in front of a long line of cannons alongside a railroad track.

Figure 2. This 1865 daguerreotype illustrates three of the Union’s distinct advantages: African American soldiers, a stream of cannons and supplies, and an extensive railroad grid.

At the beginning of the Civil War, while Lincoln, his cabinet, and the War Department devised strategies to defeat the rebel insurrection, Black Americans quickly brought the issue of slavery into the debate. As early as 1861, Black Americans implored the Lincoln administration to allow them to serve in the army and navy. Lincoln initially waged a conservative, limited war. He believed that the presence of African American troops would threaten the loyalty of slaveholding border states, and White volunteers might refuse to serve alongside Black men. However, army commanders could not ignore the growing populations of formerly enslaved people who escaped to freedom behind Union army lines. These former enslaved people took a proactive stance early in the war and forced the federal government to act. As the number of refugees ballooned, Lincoln and Congress found it harder to avoid the issue.

In May 1861, General Benjamin F. Butler went over his superiors’ heads and began accepting freedom-seeking escapees who came to Fort Monroe in Virginia. In order to avoid answering whether these people were free, Butler reasoned they were “contraband of war,” and he had as much a right to seize them as he did to seize enemy horses or cannons. Later that summer Congress affirmed Butler’s policy in the First Confiscation Act. The act left “contrabands,” as these runaways were called, in a state of limbo. Once an enslaved person escaped to Union lines, her enslaver’s claim was nullified. She was not, however, a free citizen of the United States. Runaways lived in “contraband camps,” where disease and malnutrition were rampant. Women and men were required to perform the drudge work of war: raising fortifications, cooking meals, and laying railroad tracks. Still, life as a contraband offered a potential path to freedom, and thousands of enslaved people seized the opportunity.

Fugitives posed a dilemma for the Union military. Soldiers were forbidden to interfere with slavery or assist runaways, but many soldiers found such a policy unchristian. Even those indifferent to slavery were reluctant to turn away potential laborers or help the enemy by returning his property. Also, enslaved people could provide useful information on the local terrain and the movements of Confederate troops. Union officers became particularly reluctant to turn away freedom-seeking people when Confederate commanders began forcing enslaved laborers to work on fortifications. Every enslaved person who escaped to Union lines was a loss to the Confederate war effort.

A photograph shows a small group of casually posed black and white Union soldiers.

Figure 3. African American and White soldiers of the Union army pose together in this photograph, although in reality, Black soldiers were often kept separate and given only menial jobs.

At the beginning of the war, Union forces used escaped enslaved people for manual labor but after the Emancipation Proclamation, the army began enrolling African American men as Union soldiers. Huge numbers enlisted, both former enslaved as well as free Black people from the North. By the end of the war in 1865, their numbers had swelled to over 190,000. Racism among Whites in the Union army ran deep, however, fueling the belief that Black soldiers could never be effective or trustworthy. The Union also feared for the fate of captured Black soldiers. Although many Black soldiers saw combat duty, these factors affected the types of tasks assigned to them. Many Black regiments were limited to hauling supplies, serving as cooks, digging trenches, and doing other types of labor rather than serving on the battlefield.

African American soldiers also received lower wages than their White counterparts: ten dollars per month, with three dollars deducted for clothing. White soldiers, in contrast, received thirteen dollars monthly, with no deductions. Abolitionists and their Republican supporters in Congress worked to correct this discriminatory practice, and in 1864, Black soldiers began to receive the same pay as White soldiers plus retroactive pay to 1863.

For their part, African American soldiers welcomed the opportunity to prove themselves. Some 85 percent were formerly enslaved people who were fighting for the liberation of all of the enslaved and the end of slavery. When given the opportunity to serve, many Black regiments did so heroically. One such regiment, the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, distinguished itself at Fort Wagner in South Carolina by fighting valiantly against an entrenched Confederate position. They willingly gave their lives for the cause.

The Confederacy, not surprisingly, showed no mercy to African American troops. In April 1864, Southern forces attempted to take Fort Pillow in Tennessee from the Union forces that had captured it in 1862. Confederate troops under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the future founder of the Ku Klux Klan, quickly overran the fort, and the Union defenders surrendered. Instead of taking the African American soldiers prisoner, as they did the White soldiers, the Confederates executed them. The massacre outraged the North, and the Union refused to engage in any future exchanges of prisoners with the Confederacy.

Try It


President Lincoln and other political leaders during the Civil War relied on maps to convey critical information about war strategy, slavery, and more. Click through this exercise to learn more about this 1861 map of slavery.


contrabands: enslaved people who escaped to the Union Army’s lines

Emancipation Proclamation: signed on January 1, 1863, the document with which President Lincoln transformed the Civil War into a struggle to end slavery