Antietam: A Battle for Freedom
Daniel J. Vermilya
Rarely in history has the link between the blood shed on the battlefield and the freedom of millions been so clear. At the Battle of Antietam, on September 17, 1862 over 23,000 men fell as casualties in a single day of battle—more battle casualties than had fallen in America’s previous wars combined. Just five days later, on September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation at a meeting of his cabinet. This preliminary document was the result of a long struggle, going back to the very foundation of the country. From the moment that Thomas Jefferson penned those immortal words, “all men are created equal,” a great national debate spread through the nation, attempting to define citizenship, personhood, and freedom. In 1861, that debate descended into war. By the summer of 1862, with casualties mounting across the country, Lincoln realized it was time to embrace a higher goal for the conflict. Something needed to be done about the causes of the war. With thousands of Americans dying on the field of battle, a decision needed to be made regarding the future of slavery in the United States. On July 22, 1862, Lincoln held a cabinet meeting, where he introduced a draft for a proclamation declaring that all slaves in the states in rebellion would be freed under his powers as Commander in Chief. While several of his cabinet members greeted the proclamation favorably, Secretary of State William Seward suggested Lincoln wait for a Union victory before issuing such an important document. Seward believed putting forth such a revolutionary measure amid the setbacks for Union forces on the fields of Virginia would take away much of the proclamation’s power, giving it the appearance of a desperate move rather than a bold act. Lincoln agreed. He held on to the document, waiting for a Union victory.
Lincoln later confessed to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase that at the start of the 1862 Maryland Campaign, he made his decision on Emancipation. When Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River and began its invasion of Maryland, Lincoln made “a solemn vow” that should Lee be stopped, he would “crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.” While the fate of the nation hung in the balance, and with the eyes of millions upon them, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed near the banks of Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862, in what was the bloodiest day in American history. Two days later, Lee was gone from Maryland, and Lincoln had his victory. He could now issue his proclamation.
On January 1, 1863, after standing in line for hours to greet the customary New Year’s Day visitors at the White House, Abraham Lincoln retired to his office upstairs in the Executive Mansion. There he would fulfill his promises from September and sign the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. His hands were tired and trembling from shaking so many hands, and as he prepared to sign the document, as if to reinforce his resolve, he declared, “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.” Lincoln affixed his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation, completing what he would later call, “the great event of the nineteenth century.”
Emancipation was indeed a great event. While it applied only to those states then in rebellion, and thus left alone slaver in the Border States, it was still a tremendous blow to slavery in the United States. It declared that from that point on, the war would be fought to preserve the Union not as it once was, but as it would and should be, one where all men and women would enjoy the blessings of liberty.
The Emancipation Proclamation was not a self-fulfilling document. It was an important war measure, but only the first of many steps on the road towards freedom for over four million slaves. More work still needed to be done to secure its promise of freedom. Along with winning the war, a constitutional solution to the problem of slavery was needed; that solution was eventually found in the 13th Amendment. By 1865, slavery was abolished throughout the country, and the union was not only restored, but rebuilt with a “new birth of freedom.”
In October of 1862, in reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass proclaimed, “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.” Despite having some reservations about the proclamation’s effectiveness, Douglass knew that history had been forever changed. Emancipation meant, in the words of newspaper editor Horace Greeley, “the beginning of the end of the rebellion; the beginning of the new life for the nation.”
When Lincoln first decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in July of 1862, he knew that in order for its promise of freedom to become a reality, it would require bloodshed and sacrifice on the battlefields of the Civil War. That is what occurred at Antietam on September 17, 1862, giving Lincoln the opportunity to issue his proclamation on September 22, 151 years ago today. The Battle of Antietam and its relation to the Emancipation Proclamation is a stirring reminder that throughout history, paper alone cannot secure freedom; only the blood, sweat, and sacrifice of soldiers can make freedom a reality.