Most members of the Republican Party believed that the Constitution protected slavery in the states. However, some Radical Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, argued that after the outbreak of the American Civil War the president had the power to abolish slavery in the United States.
In May, 1861, General Benjamin F. Butler, a strong opponent of slavery, was placed in command of Fort Monroe in Virginia. Soon afterwards, runaway slaves began to appear at the fort seeking protection. The slaveowners demanded that the runaways should be returned. Butler refused, issuing a statement that he considered the slaves to be "contraband of war". Butler's action was welcomed by those involved in the struggle against slavery and he immediately became a favourite with Radical Republicans.
Abraham Lincoln believed that Butler's action was unconstitutional. However, after a Cabinet meeting it was decided not to reprimand Butler. Three months later, Major General John C. Fremont, the commander of the Union Army in St. Louis proclaimed that all slaves owned by Confederates in Missouri were free. This time Lincoln decided to ask Fremont to modify his order and free only slaves owned by Missourians actively working for the South.
When John C. Fremont refused to back down he was sacked. Lincoln wrote to Fremont: "Can it be pretended that it is any longer the government of the U.S. - any government of Constitution and laws - wherein a General, or a President, may make permanent rules of property by proclamation." Fremont was replaced by the conservative General Henry Halleck. He immediately issued an order forbidding runaway slaves from seeking permission to be protected by the Union Army.
Radical Republicans were furious with Lincoln for sacking John C. Fremont. The Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, William Fessenden, described Lincoln's actions as "a weak and unjustifiable concession in the Union men of the border states. Whereas Charles Sumner wrote to Lincoln complaining about his actions and remarked how sad it was "to have the power of a god and not use it godlike".
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
The situation was repeated in May, 1862, when General David Hunter began enlisting black soldiers in the occupied district under his control. Soon afterwards Hunter issued a statement that all slaves owned by Confederates in his area (Georgia, Florida and South Carolina) were free. Lincoln was furious and despite the pleas of Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, the instructed him to disband the 1st South Carolina (African Descent) regiment and to retract his proclamation.
On 19th August, 1862, Horace Greeley wrote an open letter to the Abraham Lincoln in the New York Tribune about forcing David Hunter to retract his proclamation. Greeley criticized the president for failing to make slavery the dominant issue of the war and compromising moral principles for political motives. Lincoln famously replied on 22nd August, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it."
Despite this public dispute with Horace Greeley, Lincoln was already reconsidering his views on the power of the president to abolish slavery. He wrote that the events of the war had been "fundamental and astounding". He admitted that these events had changed his mind on emancipation. He was helped in this by William Whiting, a War Department solicitor, who told him that in his opinion, the president's war powers gave him the right to emancipate the slaves.
After consulting with his vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln wrote the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation. When Lincoln told his Cabinet of his plans to free the slaves in the unconquered Confederacy, Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General led the attack on the idea. Blair argued that if Lincoln went ahead with this it would result in the Republican Party losing power. William Seward, the Secretary of State, agreed with Lincoln's decision but advocated that it should not be issued until the Union Army had a major military victory.
On 17th September, 1862, George McClellan defeated Robert E. Lee at Antietam. It was the most costly day of the war with the Union Army having 2,108 killed, 9,549 wounded and 753 missing. The Confederate Army, who were now have serious difficulty replacing losses, had 2,700 killed, 9,024 wounded and 2,000 missing.
Although far from an overwhelming victory, on 22nd September, Lincoln felt strong enough to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. The statement said that all slaves would be declared free in those states still in rebellion against the United States on 1st January, 1863. The measure only applied to those states which, after that date, came under the military control of the Union Army. It did not apply to those slave states such as Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and parts of Virginia and Louisiana, that were already occupied by Northern troops.
Lincoln signed the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation on the 1st January, 1863. There were two major chances to the document published on the 22nd September. This included the omission of the passage that the government would "do no act or acts to repress such persons in any efforts that they may make for their actual freedom". It was argued by conservatives in Lincoln's Cabinet that this passage suggested that the government was willing to support slave rebellions in the South.
The other change was that that under pressure from Radical Republicans, Lincoln agreed to accept a clause accepting former slaves in the Union Army. Over the next two years six regiments of US Colored Cavalry, eleven regiments and four companies of US Colored Heavy Artillery, ten batteries of the US Colored Light Artillery, and 100 regiments and sixteen companies of US Colored Infantry were raised during the war. By the end of the conflict nearly 190,000 black soldiers and sailors had served in the Union forces.