President Lincoln reflects on the Emancipation Proclamation
By the summer of 1863, the war was beginning to turn markedly in the Union’s favour. Victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg had stalled the Confederate offensive in the North and divided the Confederacy. The loss of Vicksburg, and thus the loss of the Mississippi River, compelled one Mississippi planter, O G Eiland, to write to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, to plead for the enlistment of “every able-bodied Negro man from the age of sixteen to fifty years old” to save the Confederacy. Such delusional beliefs about the willingness of slaves to fight for the Confederacy were however not entertained by the high command, who more practically sought to forcibly “refugee” slaves to the interior to prevent their capture and enlistment into the Union army.
In a letter to A. G. Hodges on the 4th of April 1864, Lincoln acknowledges the changing nature of the war and also reveals why he took certain decisions at various stages during the war. Lincoln begins by stating that he is “naturally anti-slavery,” that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Lincoln, however, adds that he never at any stage “understood that the Presidency conferred upon him an unrestricted right to act officially upon his personal judgement and feeling” regarding slavery. Lincoln declares that he has “done no official act in mere defence to my abstract judgement on the moral question of slavery,” and that all decisions were directly influenced by his official responsibility to preserve and respect the constitution.
Lincoln offers explanations for some of his earlier decisions to overturn the actions of individual Union generals who had attempted to act independently in relation to emancipation. His decisions to reverse both General Fremont’s attempt to emancipate slaves in Missouri and Hunter’s proclamation liberating all slaves in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, were made, because, he felt that at the time them, not an “indispensable necessity” to save the Union. Lincoln provided the same reason for objecting to General Cameron, the then Secretary of War when he proposed that the Union begin arming black men early in the war.
Lincoln also highlighted the changing nature of the war and the refusal of the border states to yield to his request to adopt a policy of gradual, compensated emancipation, for necessitating the use of black men in the Union effort. The decision to incorporate black men into the Union cause, Lincoln adds, was made in the hope that it would evoke “greater gain than loss, but of this,” Lincoln admits, that he was “not entirely confident.”
The decision, in fact, had proved to be a masterstroke. It neither damaged “foreign relations” nor “popular sentiment at home or in the army” as he feared it might, but what it had done, was provide the Union with a “gain of quite a hundred and thirty thousand soldiers, seamen, and laborers.” Lincoln is also quick to downplay his own contribution, claiming, “not to have controlled events, but that events had controlled him.”