By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society
A victory on the field of battle gave President Lincoln opportunity to issue a document that would change the nature of the Civil War.
Coming a few days after a narrow Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. It declared “that all persons held as slaves” within rebel states as of January 1, 1863 “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Prior to this point, the war had been about quelling the secession of the Southern states and preserving the Union. Now this document, one of the greatest in human history, casts the war in a new light. The Civil War became a moral conflict about human freedom.
A bold gamble, the Proclamation also strengthened the North militarily and politically with the announcement of the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy. By the end of the war almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors served in the armed forces.
As can be seen by the North Star’s editorial, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation was by no means a clear call.
North Star Oct 4, 1862–The President’s Proclamation
The President’s Emancipation Proclamation has elicited various comments from the press. The old abolition journals applaud it highly with reservations – that is they wanted it to proclaim universal emancipation in all States, loyal and disloyal – and furthermore, they want immediate emancipation, and not have the matter deferred until January – not because they have any great fears that the rebellious States will acquiesce in the President’s policies but because they do not wish to afford them the least pretext for returning to the Union with slavery still existing. Were the rebels to immediately lay down their arms, and propose to return to their allegiance, or in any way were the slave states to be brought back to the Union, this class of men would most fiercely denounce it. They are thus far disunionists and in this sense have been disunionists for the last thirty years. It matters not to them, what sacrifices the border slave states may make to sustain the Union and the flag – it matters not what are the guarantees of the Constitution, nor what may be the effect of attempting to suddenly change the social relations of the whole Southern population – their “one idea” is to them paramount to all considerations in favor of the Union, or the safety and expediency of making so great a change.
They support the proclamation solely for the reason that they hope it will carry out their idea of indiscriminate immediate emancipation. And further this class of radicals… are endowed with those human infirmities which lead to ambitious designs; and it is our belief that they will never be fully satisfied unless their leaders obtain power and place – unless they can bring about a policy whereby McClellan will superceded, and no one entertaining conservative notions be permitted to hold important positions. As to this, time will tell…
…For our own part, we have grave doubts as to its [Emancipation Proclamation] beneficial effect. It will be no easy task to liberate 4,000,000 of bondmen at the point of a bayonet.The history of emancipation throughout the civilized world presents no similiar plan. Whatever slaves have been emancipated, it has been done either by a gradual process of liberation, or by the free, full assent of the masters accompanied by compensation. Never, in civilized communities, have so many millions of slaves been liberated by military force. It therefore may be regarded as a great untried experiment. If successful, it will only be through terrible and sanguinary opposition – and is it not questionable, even then, whether the shock will not be so great as to permanently divide the Union. If not – if slavery is thus forcibly and generally abolished – then will arise another mighty question for the community to solve – that of the two races.
It seems to us that there never can be anything like social and political equality, but that the poor blackman will be worse off, if possible, than before he was emancipated. But in these apprehensions we may be mistaken. We really hope that time and the progress of events will speedily and effectually quell the rebellion, followed by a restored Union, with the slavery question forever at rest.
October 11, 1862 The North Star–The President’s Proclamation, A Southern View
In another place, we gave a sketch of the debate and contemplated action of the rebel, the Congress on the President’s Emancipation proclamation. It will be seen that they propose severe retaliatory measures, and suggest the policy of raising the “black flag” or the policy of granting no quarter. This, it is truly said, is a game that two can play and if adopted by one party, it will probably be the other, thus adding new horrors to this sanguinary contest. It is to be hoped that neither side will resort to it: but at best, the President’s proclamation, if carried out, will tend greatly to exasperate the enemy, and it is to be feared, will give a barbarous character to the war, which it is hoped might be avoided.
The Richmond Enquirer of October 1… declares [Emancipation proclamation] it as ordaining a servile insurrection in the Confederate States and says it is not misunderstood in the North or South. It is a dash of the pen to destroy four thousand millions of our property, and is as much as a bid for the slaves to rise in insurrection, with the assurance of aid from the whole military and naval power of the United States. It speaks of the cruelty of the Administration.
The Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 set the stage for President Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation which was drafted over the summer. While the course of the war was very much uncertain, Lincoln wanted to wait for positive Union development so that the proclamation did not seem like an act of desperation.
The conflict featured General Lee against McClellan, with the rebels outnumbered two-to-one, the Federal commander deployed less than three quarters of his troops while Lee went all in, fighting the Northerners to a standstill. The rebel general chose to skirmish with McClellan the next day and then withdrew across the Potomac River to Virginia.
Although the battle was essentially a draw, the repulse of Lee from Union soil gave Lincoln the political cover to issue his proclamation which expanded the Union cause beyond a fight against secession to freeing 4,000,000 people from bondage and disabused the British and French governments from any notion to give recognition to the Confederacy.
October 11, 1862 The North Star–Charge of the Vermont Brigade at Antietam
A correspondent of the Bennington Banner gives the following account of the charge of the Vermonters at Antietam.
As we passed through Bucketsville, we were cheered on by the ladies of the place, who for some reason unknown to me, had not been removed from town before the battle commenced. We passed through the entire length of the village, the shot and shell from the enemy flying like Satan’s angels over our heads. Skirmishers were thrown out as we neared the enemy’s line, and hardly had they been deployed before they were engaged. By this time, the bullets began to whistle around our heads in rather close proximity to be safe.
…As we entered the [barn] yard, one of the men was shot through the neck, and fell dead without a groan. A few moments after a gallant charge was made by a brigade of Slocum’s division on our right, they driving the enemy before them like sheep. It was a noble sight. The time had come: it became necessary for us to “goin:” we filed from behind the barn, passing by the left into a smooth meadow, halted and came to a front as coolly as if on drill. Next came the order to charge and forward we went at the double quick, our Lt. Colonel – who is in command of the regiment, leading us a yard or two in front of the colors, which were flung out to the breeze showing that the stars and stripes were once more moving onward to victory.
The position which we were ordered to charge upon was one of great strength, and if the enemy had held it with half the courage with which it was stormed, we should have all gone under before we could have taken it. … onward we moved over the wall, through the woods, up the mountain sides, sweeping with irresistible fury, everything before us. The top of the mountain was gained, and every man was thankful that he was alive and realizing that it was indeed a miracle that one of us was left to tell the tale. We halted a moment to take breath and then started along the ridge of the mountain, determined to take the battery which had been throwing all kinds of deadly missiles during our charge… Onward we went, however, deterred by nothing that obstructed our route, yet the rebels got the start of us and had their battery removed before we reached the spot where it was posted.
In our charge, we captured the battle flag of the 19th Virginia, one Major, three Lieutenants and sixty prisoners…The Major states that we utterly annihilated the 19th, and it is now classed among the the things that were.