On January 1, 1863, as the nation entered its third year of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It exempted many parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Union control. Most importantly, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.
Although its effects were gradual, the Emancipation Proclamation fundamentally transformed the Civil War from a war to save the Union into a war for freedom. It placed the issue of slavery squarely atop the wartime agenda, adding moral force to the Union cause and strengthening the Union militarily and politically. After January 1, 1863, every Union victory meant freedom for more people.
The Proclamation also announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the Union to draw additional manpower and encouraging recently freed slaves to join the fight to free others. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.
Within two years of Lincoln’s proclamation, the states had ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, formally outlawing slavery nationwide. In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, giving African American men the right to vote.
Because of its pivotal role in slavery’s destruction and in the history of our nation, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is revered today as one of the great documents of human freedom.
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The National Archives’ 155th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation is presented in part by