Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

One hundred and fifty years ago on New Years Day, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln never liked slavery, and he recognized that having slaves gave the southern states advantages in the Civil War. For example, southern slaves worked as cooks or nurses on the sidelines to save soldiers energy for fighting.

In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided to write an emancipation proclamation. The document declared that any slave in a state that was fighting Union soldiers would be free on January 1, 1863.

Before issuing his proclamation, Lincoln asked his cabinet members to listen to a rough draft. He told them he would use his powers as president in wartime to free slaves who might otherwise help the Union cause. His Secretary of State, William Seward, supported the idea of freeing slaves, but warned Lincoln that the Union army’s losses during the year might influence the public’s opinion. He suggested that the president wait for a battle victory before announcing the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln agreed.

When the South’s General Lee retreated from the North after the battle at Antietam, Lincoln publicly announced his intention to sign the proclamation on January 1, 1863. Some people doubted that he would follow through on his promise, but they were wrong. On the morning of January 1, Lincoln made a major change in the proclamation. Though it still said that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebel southern states “are, and henceforth shall be free,” he added that African Americans could join the Union army. Lincoln knew the Union needed the manpower. In fact, though they served in all black units, between 180,000 and 200,000 black men fought for the Union during the war.

Before he could sign the document, Lincoln and his wife Mary hosted a New Years Day reception at the White House. First government officials mingled with the president, and then the public was invited to stand in a line to shake the president’s hand. Afterwards, Lincoln went back to his office to sign the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” His hands were so stiff after three hours of shaking hands that he waited before signing his name. He said, “If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated.’” After a few moments, Lincoln’s hand felt less numb and he put his signature on the historic document.

The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any slaves right away. It only declared the slaves in the rebel states free—something Lincoln could not enforce in 1863. The document was important because it changed the way people thought about the war. Now soldiers in the Union army were fighting not only to bring the southern states back to the Union, but also to free the slaves.

Elizabeth Van Lew: Southerner and Union Spy

Although she grew up in a wealthy household in Richmond, Virginia, Elizabeth Van Lew would later become one of the most successful spies for the Union during the Civil War. Like many southern households, Elizabeth’s family owned several slaves. When her parents sent her to school in Philadelphia, however, Elizabeth met people who thought slavery was wrong. After she returned home, Elizabeth tried to convince her father to free their slaves. Although he didn’t agree, Elizabeth convinced her mother to free them when her father died.

By the time of the Civil War, Elizabeth had grown up. She still loved her hometown, but she was devastated that Virginia decided to leave the Union. “Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me.” While some southerners with Union sympathies fled north, Elizabeth stayed, determined to help the Union cause from Richmond. Unionists who stayed behind often became agents for Elizabeth who slowly assembled a spy ring for the Union.

In July 1861, Elizabeth first visited Libby Prison where Union soldiers from the First Battle of Manassas were held.  From these men she got information about the location and movements of the Confederate forces and they received food and medicine from her. She was already considered by the townspeople to be odd because of her views on slavery. Some people called her “crazy Bet.” She used this perception to her advantage when visiting the prison. She talked aloud to herself and dressed in strange clothes so Confederate guards would think she was harmless. Her frequent visits allowed her to pass information to the Union army.

Some of the slaves she had freed and other Union sympathizers carried Elizabeth’s messages at various stopping points on the way to a federal fort in Hampton, Virginia. It was important that Confederates not intercept the messages, so Elizabeth devised different ways for her agents to hide information. Elizabeth later wrote, “Information was delivered by servants carrying baskets of eggs. One egg in each basket was hollow and contained notes…torn into small pieces. In addition, notes were carried in the soles of servant’s shoes.” Elizabeth got one of her servants, Mary Bowser, a position as a maid in the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The girl pretended to be illiterate, but she memorized letters Davis received and reported the information to Elizabeth so it could be sent to Union commanders.

Elizabeth’s spy ring was so reliable that she communicated with high-ranking officials, including General Ulysses S. Grant.  When the federal army overtook Richmond in 1865, General Grant stopped at the Van Lew home to thank Elizabeth. In a letter Grant wrote, “you have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

From Preserving the Union to Emancipation: President Lincoln’s Views on Slavery

President Lincoln believed that he would be best remembered for writing the Emancipation Proclamation. Although many people remember him as the president who freed the slaves, some of the facts surrounding that achievement have been clouded with the passing of time.

Although Abraham Lincoln hated slavery, his goal was not to free the slaves at the beginning of his presidency. Instead, he wanted the Southern states to remain in the Union and tried to prevent them from pulling out. He promised Southerners that he would not interfere with slavery in states where it already existed, but this assurance was not enough to prevent the Civil War.

As the war dragged on, however, Lincoln realized that freeing the slaves and preserving the Union were inseparable issues. Lincoln informed his cabinet of his plan to issue emancipation for the slaves in summer 1862, but was advised to wait for a Union army victory. When victory came, he pulled the proclamation out of his desk drawer. In his message to Congress in December 1862, he explained his actions: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.”

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It stated that from that date “all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized…shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.” Criticism came from within his own party. Conservative Republicans thought it was too radical, while the radicals complained that the proclamation only freed slaves in Southern states that the Union army had no authority to help.

In the military, some soldiers resented having to fight a war for the slaves and others did not want blacks to have the opportunity to join the Union army. Lincoln, however, felt that the former slaves had a stake in fighting for their freedom.  He was also impressed by the abilities of black troops on the battlefield. He wrote that when peace came, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation [eliminating slavery and saving the Union]; while…there will be some white ones unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” In just a few years, Lincoln transformed from a politician who wanted little to do with the issue of slavery, to a statesman who wanted to destroy it.