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".
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.
He should not allow himself to be outstripped by his Cabinet, by Congress, by the Major Generals, and by the people. He is the head of the nation, to which it naturally looks for forward movements. But in his late modification of Fremont's order, it almost appears as if he desired to go backward.
When General Fremont proclaimed freedom to the slaves of rebels in Missouri, it was greeted with almost universal joy throughout the free States. The popular instinct at once recognized it as a blow struck at the heart of the rebellion. The order that rebels should be shot did not carry with it half the significance of this proclamation of freedom of their slaves. But the President at once modified it, so far as its anti-slavery features went beyond the Confiscation Act. Their slave property must be held as more sacred than any other property; more sacred than their lives; more sacred even than the life of the Republic. Could any policy be more utterly suicidal?
It has been made as a military measure to meet a military exigency, and should, in my judgment be suffered to stand upon the responsibility of the Commanding General who made it. It will be cordially approved, I am sure, by more than nine tenths of the people on whom you must rely for support of your administration.
No commanding general shall do such a thing, upon my responsibility, without consulting me.
I do not intrude to tell you - for you must know already - that a great proportion of those who triumphed in your election, and of all who desire the unqualified suppression of the rebellion now desolating our country, are solely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regard to the slaves of the Rebels.
We think you are strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new Confiscation Act. Those provisions were designed to fight slavery with liberty. They prescribe that men loyal to the Union, and willing to shed their blood in the behalf, shall no longer be held, with the nation's consent, in bondage to persistent, malignant traitors, who for twenty years have been plotting and for sixteen months have been fighting to divide and destroy our country. Why these traitors should be treated with tenderness by you, to the prejudice of the dearest rights of loyal men, we cannot conceive.
Fremont's Proclamation and Hunter's Order favoring emancipation were promptly annulled by you; while Halleck's Number Three, forbidding fugitives from slavery to Rebels to come within his lines - an order as unmilitary as inhuman, and which received the hearty approbation of every traitor in America - with scores of like tendency, have never provoked even your remonstrance.
If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery. I do not agree with them. 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; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
The first of January, 1863, was a memorable day in the progress of American liberty and civilization. It was the turning-point in the conflict between freedom and slavery. A death blow was then given to the slaveholding rebellion. Until then the federal arm had been more than tolerant to that relict of barbarism. The secretary of war, William H. Seward, had given notice to the world that, "however the war for the Union might terminate, no change would be made in the relation of master and slave." Upon this pro-slavery platform the war against the rebellion had been waged during more than two years. It had not been a war of conquest, but rather a war of conciliation. McClellan, in command of the army, had been trying, apparently, to put down the rebellion without hurting the rebels, certainly without hurting slavery, and the government had seemed to coöperate with him in both respects.
Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and the whole anti-slavery phalanx at the North, had denounced this policy, and had besought Mr. Lincoln to adopt an opposite one, but in vain. Generals, in the field, and councils in the Cabinet, had persisted in advancing this policy through defeats and disasters, even to the verge of ruin. We fought the rebellion, but not its cause. And now, on this day of January 1st, 1863, the formal and solemn announcement was made that thereafter the government would be found on the side of emancipation. This proclamation changed everything.
One morning my master got the news that the Yankees had left Mobile Bay and crossed the Confederate lines, and that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed by President Lincoln. Mistress suggested that the slaves should not be told of their freedom; but master said he would tell them, because they would soon find it out, even if he did not tell them. Mistress, however, said she could keep my mother's three children, for my mother had now been gone so long.
All the slaves left the plantation upon the news of their freedom, except those who were feeble or sickly. With the help of these, the crops were gathered. My mistress and her daughters had to go to the kitchen and to the washtub. My little half- brother, Henry, and myself had to gather chips, and help all we could. My sister, Caroline, who was twelve years old, could help in the kitchen.
The Emancipation Proclamation sent forth from the pen of Abraham Lincoln, who eventually fell a martyr for American freedom, was the sublimest and most important State paper that had ever been sent out from the Executive Mansion at Washington to the American people. This legislative act elevated Lincoln above the high level of America's greatest statesman. He was a man eminently fitted for the supreme position which he occupied. He saw the peril of his country and knew that the important moment had come. In taking the strong, wise step which he did, he saved the country from ruin and disgrace, and, thank God, made over four million hearts to rejoice.
I know, as fully as one can know the opinions of others, that some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes believe the emancipation policy and the use of the colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion, and that at least one of these important successes could not have been achieved when it was but for the aid of black soldiers. Among the commanders holding these views are some who have never had any affinity with what is called Abolitionism or with the Republican Party politics, but who hold them purely as military opinions.