January 1, 2023 marked the 160th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order that famously granted freedom to enslaved people in rebelling states and allowed for the inclusion of African Americans in the military. In honor of that momentous occasion, the Lincoln Shrine looks back at the decision that had such a significant impact on the war.
Coming on the heels of the devastating Battle of Antietam, where nearly 23,000 people lost their lives, the Emancipation Proclamation was the final part in a series of steps toward emancipation in 1862. In March, Congress passed the Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves, forbidding the return of self emancipated people by the American military. The Act was followed by the emancipation of enslaved people in the District of Columbia in April and the end of slavery in US territories in June. In July, the Second Confiscation and Militia Act was passed, declaring free any person enslaved by a soldier in the rebel armies.
The September 17, 1862 clash between the forces of General George B. McClellan and Robert E. Lee near Antietam Creek in Maryland ended in a draw leaving the ground strewn with dead and injured soldiers. Five days later, despite the lack of a clear victor, President Lincoln utilized the opportunity to publicly announce his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the active recruitment of African American soldiers began.
Going into effect on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation changed the objective of the war and led to the enlistment of nearly 180,000 African American men, almost half of whom were formerly enslaved. Reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation in the North was mixed, with the majority of Democrats opposed and a preponderance of Republicans in favor. Supporters emphasized the positive effect it would have on the war effort. For the states in rebellion, the order was interpreted as an act of aggression, leading to the end of prisoner exchange agreements, which had far reaching consequences for the remainder of the conflict.
The formal end to the institution of slavery in the United States came in December 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Lincoln Memorial Shrine’s vast collections include a variety of items related to slavery and emancipation. To learn more about these topics, see the “Slavery Shall Not Exist in the United States” online exhibit or visit the current exhibits on the experiences of enslaved people at the Lincoln Memorial Shrine.