The Emancipation Proclamation that became effective on January 1, 1863, near the height of the US Civil War, is one of the most significant events in the history of the USA.
“It is my greatest and most enduring contribution to the history of the war,” President Abraham Lincoln said of emancipation in February of 1865, two months before his assassination. “It is, in fact, the central act of my administration, and the great event of the 19th century.”
At the outset of that conflict, Lincoln insisted that the war was not about freeing enslaved people in the South but about preserving the Union. Four border slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) remained on the Union side, and many others in the North also opposed abolition.
When one of his generals, John C. Frémont, put Missouri under martial law, declaring that Confederate sympathizers would have their property seized and their enslaved people would be freed (the first emancipation proclamation of the war), Lincoln directed him to reverse that policy, and later removed him from command.
But hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children were fleeing to Union-controlled areas in the South, such as Fortress Monroe in Virginia, where Gen. Benjamin F. Butler had declared them “contraband” of war, defying the Fugitive Slave Law mandating their return to their owners. Abolitionists argued that freeing enslaved people in the South would help the Union win the war, as enslaved labor was vital to the Confederate war effort.
In July 1862, Congress passed the Militia Act, which allowed Black men to serve in the U.S. armed forces as laborers. The Confiscation Act mandated that enslaved people seized from Confederate supporters would be declared forever free.
Lincoln also tried to get the border states to agree to gradual emancipation, including compensation to enslavers, with little success. When abolitionists criticized him for not coming out with a stronger emancipation policy, Lincoln replied that he valued saving the Union over all else. But that would change.
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the formal Emancipation Proclamation, which not only freed the slaves in all occupied states but also allowed those men to join the Union Army. The freed slaves, along with free blacks from the North, became the 200,000 strong United States Colored Troops (USCT) and performed nobly in the war.
Finally, the Emancipation Proclamation paved the way for the permanent abolition of slavery in the United States. Because Lincoln and his allies in Congress realized emancipation would have no constitutional basis after the war ended, they soon began working to enact a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. By the end of January 1865, both houses of Congress had passed the 13th Amendment and the states ratified the amendment that December.
What many people don’t know is that the ripple effect of freeing slaves and enabling some of them to serve as soldiers in the US Colored Troops also played a minor role in helping Mexico defeat French occupation forces in 1867 after the US Civil War ended.
The award-winning book Abraham Lincoln and Mexico by historian Michael Hogan has a chapter that documents the involvement of discharged black soldiers in helping Mexico.
“After the war, the USCT was disbanded. However, many of these demobilized black freemen, finding little work at home and much prejudice, joined the Americans fighting in Mexico as part of the American Legion of Honor recruited in late 1865 and early 1866. They saw action in the last battles of the Franco-Mexican War including the battle of Zacatecas, the final siege at Querétaro, and triumphal march to Mexico City.”
In his presentations discussing the book, Dr. Hogan also traces the history of the Emancipation Proclamation from its origin to Congressional approval and becoming the 13th amendment to the Constitution ratified by the states in 1865.
For further discussion, you can see a full-length YouTube video of Dr. Hogan’s 2017 live appearance on the Author’s Voice radio program sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Bookstore in Chicago.
The events leading to leading to the formal Emancipation Proclamation began when Lincoln presented the first reading of the proclamation to his cabinet on July 22, 1862. On September 22, he issued an Executive Order declaring that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
The website History.com also has a good overview of events regarding The Emancipation Proclamation.