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The Civil War, The Emancipation Proclamation

Northern victory, preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, military necessity, support troops, white Southerners

At first, the Union and the Confederacy fought only over the question of secession. The leaders of both sides wanted to avoid talking about slavery—which all of them knew was the root cause of the war. Southerners did not present the war as a defense of slavery for two reasons. First, most white Southerners owned no slaves and might not fight to protect slavery. Second, the South was trying to win recognition and help from Britain and France—neither of which would have supported a war for slavery. The North included many abolitionists, but it also included Democrats and border–state slaveholders who would fight for the Union but not for abolition.

As the war dragged on, however, even Northern anti–abolitionists came to see slaves as a great economic and military asset for the South. Slaves grew most of the South’s food and performed work that freed white Southerners for military service. At the same time, thousands of slaves made the issue of slavery unavoidable by abandoning their masters—even those in the border states who were Unionists—and fleeing to Union lines. Union Army commanders called these escaped slaves contrabands (captured property). As the number of contrabands grew, President Lincoln proposed a gradual, compensated emancipation of slaves in border states. Lincoln hated slavery on moral grounds. But he could justify emancipation only as a military necessity in the war to save the Union.

In a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued after the Northern victory at Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln declared that slaves in all states that remained in rebellion on January 1, 1863, would be “forever free.” The proclamation exempted pro–Union border states and parts of the Confederacy already under Union occupation, and it was carefully worded as a measure to assist the North in preserving the Union. But it transformed the Union Army into an army of liberation—fighting to end slavery as well as to preserve the Union.

Blacks confirmed their emancipation by enlisting in the Union Army. The North resorted to conscription in 1863 and gladly accepted volunteers from among freed slaves. Blacks were first used as support troops and were paid less than white soldiers, but beginning in 1864 they became combatants serving at equal pay. In January 1865 Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery forever. It was ratified and became part of the Constitution in December 1865.

Article key phrases:

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