Know Your History: What the Emancipation Proclamation Really Did

It freed the slaves.

Not really.

What’s the deal? Let’s break it down a little so we can understand exactly why Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a master stroke of genius – even if it didn’t free one slave!

It was late summer in 1962 and the war between the Union and Confederacy was not going particularly well for the North. Lincoln was desperate for a victory and even more desperate to build some momentum which might help this terrible conflict to come to a close.

The idea of issuing an emancipation for the slaves was something he greatly wanted to do, but it couldn’t be seen as a desperate plea. He needed a victory to back it up.

The Battle of Antietam ultimately gave him that chance, not because it was a huge route for the Union – far from it. It was, at best, a draw, a very bloody one, which cost a lot of lives. It did, however, drive Lee’s forces back further south. If the Union had been led by a general slightly more interested in progress than indecisive General McClellan, Antietam might have been the huge victory that Lincoln wanted. But McClellan, even though he had 7000 more troops than General Lee, allowed Lee’s army to retreat into Virginia without being pursued.

In Washington, the Union chief was desperate, and the news of Lee heading south was enough of a victory to make Lincoln want to exploit it to maximum effect. On September 22, just days after Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. The proclamation would come into effect on January 1, 1863.

So it did free the slaves?

Not exactly. It freed the slaves in all the territories currently held by the Confederacy. Therefore, no slave was technically free. However, it did serve as a huge boost to the Union side. It put, in unequivocal terms, that the war was indeed about slavery and that if the Union won, slavery would be finished. It boosted the morale of many fighting units, and it gave un-told hope to the many southern  fragmented communities of slaves who heard about the emancipation through the grape-vine. If the Union captured territory in the south, slaves from those regions would be forever free.

By the time the war ended, the 13th Amendment  was quickly passed, officially outlawing slavery and ending a horrible period of time for citizens of African descent. It also ushered in another 100 years of struggle for true equality, but that is for another day.

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