Lincoln’s Military Necessity for Emancipation

Lincoln revokes Fremont’s Emancipation Proclamation (c. 1861) “I’m sorry to have to drop you, Sambo, but this concern won’t carry us both!”

Before the year 1861, Abraham Lincoln had crusaded for the anti-slavery cause and did his best to separate himself from the abolitionists. In September of that year, he revoked Union Major General John C. Frémont’s statute declaring the emancipation of slaves of citizens in rebellion, claiming it was “purely political, and not in the range of military law, or necessity” (110). In December, he requested Congress to approve a plan offering compensation to any state that agreed to gradually free its slaves. Although Congress did not initially approve it, Lincoln got his way in March of 1862. He issued a plea to Congress stating that the purpose of gradual and compensated emancipation of border states is to deprive the Southern states of the hope of Northern slave states leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy, thus “substantially [ending] the rebellion” (119).

Clearly, Lincoln did not choose to propose compensated emancipation because his moral standing on slavery changed, but rather the military necessity of emancipation increased. However, in May, when Union General David Hunter ordered all slaves in the occupied areas of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, Lincoln overturned his proclamation. Lincoln claimed that emancipation would be acceptable only when he issued it and when it was “a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government” (123) and furthermore, he had already established an offer of compensated gradual emancipation that required action only on the part of the states, not by the Union’s military commanders. Unfortunately, the Border States did not take up his offer, despite his warnings that otherwise they would lose slavery altogether and “have nothing valuable in lieu of it” (126).

In August of 1862, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, urged Lincoln to integrate slavery with the war effort. Lincoln replied and declared that his “paramount object in the struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery” and that all he does about slavery is “because [I] believe it helps to save the Union” (135). Exactly one month later, on September 22nd, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This came after the Union’s good-enough victory at Antietam, and gave the rebellion states 100 days to return to the Union, after which he would free the slaves in rebelling areas, but would continue offering compensation to the Border States and to those “who shall have remained loyal thereto throughout the rebellion” (137). This escalation of the war was again justified by the goal of “practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States” (136) – a goal which could not be reached without the threat of the abolition of slavery which, in turn, inflamed Confederate sentiment against the Union even more. In December, Lincoln stated “…Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” and “the proposed emancipation would shorten the war, perpetuate peace, insure this increase in population, and proportionately the wealth of the country. With these, we should pay all the emancipation would cost, together with our debt, easier than we should pay our other debt, without it” (146). He now directly linked slavery to the cause of the rebellion, but also showed that reunification would benefit the entire country by repaying Union debt as well as emancipation compensation, but omits any mention of how emancipation would help pay back Confederate debt.

President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom (David Gilmore Blythe c. 1862)

On January 1st 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in which he declared “all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward, shall be free…and…that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service” (152). The areas excepted from the proclamation were those already in Union possession, where gradual, rather than immediate, compensation would be enacted. He defended the act, citing his 100 days warning and continuing the offer of Union rights to states not included in the proclamation, so long as they agree to systems of gradual emancipation and establish apprenticeships for former slaves. In July, he responded to the Confederate action of enslaving any captured black troops and the execution of their white commanders by threatening mirrored retaliation against Confederate soldiers. In the same order, he stated that every government had the duty “to give protection to its citizens, whatever class, color, or condition…especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers” and “the law of nations…permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war” (169). This statement is extremely interesting, as it could suggest equal rights and treatment under law for blacks – despite his early denial of the establishment of such equality between the races (30).  August he wrote to General Grant and defends the use of black troops in the war as “it works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us” and allows the “relieving (of) all the white troops to serve elsewhere” (172). He again defended his proclamation to his fellow Republicans and claimed that the use of black troops was “the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion”. He also tells the men that if they will not fight for the freedom of the slaves, they should “fight…then, exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union” because the use of black troops would leave “so much less for white soldiers to do” (178).

Thus, Lincoln’s strategy against slavery evolved from one echoing the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the concept of equality to one imploring the military necessity of emancipation – the eventual weakening of the Confederate forces by using the same people who had previously fueled their society and war machine to literally fight against them. These black troops would also be used in place of the seemingly more valuable white troops. On November 19th 1863, Lincoln harkened back to the basic principles he had previously depended on when he issued his Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (184). Here, Lincoln returned to the reasoning that the war was for equality between blacks and whites due to moral and historical standings, not due to military or political necessity.

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