#AskACWM African American History Mission in Action

The Emancipation Question

With our doors closed to the public, we love hearing from our visitors. This week we have a question about instituting the Emancipation Proclamation.

Bill asks:

If the civil war was fought to free slaves why did Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation only free slaves in Confederate states?

Chris Graham, our Curator of Exhibit’s answered:

Thanks for your question. Not an easy one to answer, but I’ll try to sum up how we understand it at the Museum. 

Gary Gallagher begins his book, The Union War, by saying “The loyal American citizenry fought a war for Union that also killed slavery.” That is to say that while the slaveholding states that formed the Confederacy did secede to protect slavery from what they saw as an abolitionist party that achieved power through a democratic election, the motivation for the United States to mobilize for war was to protect the integrity of the United State’s experiment in democratic self-government. The United States, in short, did not go to war to end slavery. 

The process of ending slavery was accomplished on multiple fronts, some of which represented a desire to use the war to end slavery and some of which represented simply a desire to undermine the Confederate military effort by attacking slavery. Among the former were radical Republicans who advocated the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people from the very beginning. These were aided by certain army officers like John Fremont and David Hunter, who very early began emancipating slaves in Confederate territories they occupied. Of course, enslaved people themselves understood the power of the United States Army in securing safety from slavery (even before the Confiscation Acts allowed the Army to protect escaped slaves) and thousands seized their freedom whenever it was near. 

Lincoln’s measured approach to declaring limited emancipation with the Emancipation Proclamation arose from the legal foundation of the Confiscation Acts and the Militia Acts… and because he anticipated that it would be challenged in the Supreme Court, rooted it firmly indefensible and legal war powers. The United States was not at war with slaveholding states like Maryland and Kentucky, so he couldn’t emancipate enslaved people in those places. 

Through all of these processes, the war ended slavery. Many Americans at the time celebrated the war as the cause of emancipation, even if the United States didn’t begin 1861 with that particular outcome in mind.