Final Essay

Abraham Lincoln's Journey to the Emancipation Proclamation.


President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is arguably one of the most important events in American history. The Civil War had originated to maintain the Union, however it became more famous as a war over slavery. The Civil War opened the door to future civil rights movement and the Emancipation Proclamation was a key document in this initial step. I argue that the Emancipation Proclamation was an analytic political move rather than an act of advocacy for African American rights. I am using previous attempts of emancipation to analyze the change and intended impact of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The development of the Emancipation Proclamation is valuable to understand how political leaders can use their powers to benefit abused populations. It is also valuable in understanding how military power and precise timing can impact the success or failure of a policy.

Prior to the American Civil War in 1860 14,000 African Americans living in Washington D.C.; a little over three thousand of the African Americans living there were slaves1. In 1861 seven Southern States succeed from the Union and created their own government. President Abraham Lincoln did not initially plan to free the slaves in rebelling southern states2. The Congress passed a Compensated Emancipation Act in 1862 that paid slave owners to release their slaves3. After two years of war, President Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in rebelling Southern states. He was concerned that freeing all slaves would alienate slave-holding boarder states. President Lincoln repeatedly stated he had no intention of abolition. President Lincoln also stated he wanted to avoid military emancipation of Southern states4. This factor leads me to believe that the Emancipation Proclamation was intended to be a political movement against the rebelling Southern states rather than an act of advocacy for African American rights. President Lincoln was concerned that total rejection of slavery would alienate boarder states5. Because so many boarder states had slaves, Lincoln wanted to use a gradual, compensated, and most importantly voluntary emancipation6. The Emancipation Proclamation did not bring an effective end to slavery, but it did initiate the process and established a way for minorities to attain equality.

Two army generals had previously made unsupported Proclamations to free slaves in rebelling Southern states. Major-General J.C. Fremont in 1861 was first to radically use martial law for military emancipation of slaves. However General Fremont’s 1861 Proclamation in Missouri stated:

All persons who shall be taken with arms in their hands within these lines shall be tried by court-martial, and, if found guilty, will be shot. The property, real and personal, of all persons in the State of Missouri who shall take up arms against the United States, and who shall be directly proven to have taken active part with their enemies in the field, is declared to be confiscated to the public use; and their slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared free.


President Lincoln believed Fremont’s Proclamation directly countered the Congressional First Confiscation Act of 1861. The First Confiscation Act emphasizes seizure of rebel property and states slaves in the Confederate army were freed7. The Act did not extend emancipation to privately owned slaves in rebelling states, which was the population General Fremont was intending to emancipate. President Lincoln did not believe that confiscation of civilian-owned slaves was in military power8. Martial law threatened to become a dictator ship, the generals were not allowed to take what they pleased indefinitely, which included freeing slaves9.

The second military Proclamation came from Major-General David Hunter in 1862. General Hunter replaced General Fremont in the Department of the South. Despite the fact that General Hunter shared President Lincoln’s views on slavery, he also created his own proclamation to free slaves in rebelling states. His General Order Number 11 reads:

Hilton Head, S.C., May 9, 1862

     General Orders No. 11 --The three States of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, comprising the military department of the south, having deliberately declared themselves no longer under the protection of the United States of America, and having taken up arms against the said United States, it becomes a military necessity to declare them under martial law. This was accordingly done on the 25th day of April, 1862. Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States -- Georgia, Florida and South Carolina -- heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free. ... DAVID HUNTER (Official)
Major General Commanding 

Ultimately President Lincoln retracted both Proclamations on the grounds of them violating the law and trespassing on executive privilege10

President Lincoln took precautions to ensure Union soldiers would not go looking to emancipate slaves to fight in the Union army. He believed voluntary emancipation was vital to his political success. It was not the military's job to improve slave's daily lives. In March of 1862, there was a proclamation that prohibited any armed forces to return fugitives11. President Lincoln was not originally in favor of using slaves as labor in the Union army. There was a potential for too much competiton and escalation. President Lincoln wanted it to be known his Proclamation was not created with the intent of using slaves as Union army labor12. Without this direct intention, the Proclamation did benefit the Union army, by the end of the Civil War around 200,000 slaves joined the Union army13. 

The general consensus among historians is the Emancipation Proclamation was a political maneuver that ultimately benefitted military strength. Lincoln effectively used his executive power at the most effective time to unite the Union and weaken the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation ultimately was an act of executive power and control. I think that by rejecting previous military-imposed emancipations President Lincoln made his Proclamation more final and official. The Emancipation was an act of war, with the additional benefit of human rights. 


  1. tp://

  2. “10 Facts About the Emancipation Proclamation” Civil War Trust, 2013,
  3. United States Congress, “D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act,” National Archives and Records Administration, 1862,
  4.  Welling, James. “The Emancipation Proclamation.” The North American Review. 1880.

  5.  The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Confiscation Acts (United States history [1861-64])." Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

  6. National Archives and Records Administration. "DC Emancipation Act." National Archives and Records Administration. 

  7. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Confiscation Acts (United States history [1861-64])." Encyclopedia Britannica Online
  8. Lincoln, Abraham. "Abraham Lincoln to Orville H. Browning, Sunday, September 22, 1861 (Fremont's Proclamation)." .
  9.       .      Lincoln, Abraham. "Abraham Lincoln to Orville H. Browning, Sunday, September 22, 1861 (Fremont's Proclamation)." .   

  10.              Siddali, Silvana. "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America." . 

  11. United States Congress. “Law Enacting an Additional Article of War,” Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America. 1863.

  12. Welling, James. “The Emancipation Proclamation.” The North American Review. 1880.
  13. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Confiscation Acts (United States history [1861-64])." Encyclopedia Britannica Online