150 years ago today, the people of Maryland went to the polls to vote on a new constitution that would abolish slavery throughout the state. This post is the first of a series on freedom in Maryland. Today, we look at Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation, and why there was a need for a new state constitution 150 years ago.
The Battle of Antietam, fought Sept 17, 1862, was a epochal moment in American history. Its claims to fame and notoriety are numerous, ranging from the human cost of the battle—over 23,000 casualties in one day, being the bloodiest day in American history—to its impact on the nation at large.
On July 22, 1862, during a Cabinet meeting in Washington, President Abraham Lincoln introduced a potential emancipation proclamation, freeing the slaves in the southern states in rebellion. Lincoln presented the document by stating that he had decided to issue it, but was open to advice on when and how to declare the slaves to be free. After much discussion, Secretary of State William Seward suggested that the president wait for a military victory; the summer of 1862 had many setbacks for Federal forces, and issuing such a measure amidst defeat, Seward suggested, could give the proclamation an appearance of a desperate move. Lincoln thought this advice to be wise, and thus decided to wait for a Union victory before issuing his proclamation.
During the Maryland Campaign, in the weeks leading up to Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln was awaiting the outcome of the impending battle with great anxiety. Lincoln had made a solemn promise to himself and to God. He decided that should Union forces successfully push Confederates out of Maryland in September 1862, he would then have the military victory necessary to issue his proclamation freeing the slaves in the South. As the armies of Lee and McClellan closed in on the town of Sharpsburg and the banks of Antietam Creek, much more than the fate of the soldiers in the field was at stake. For Lincoln, and for the nation, the future of freedom in the United States hung in the balance.
On the 17th of September, over 23,000 men fell as casualties in the Battle of Antietam. On the evening of September 18th, Confederate forces began to withdraw from Maryland. Once news reached Washington of the final Confederate withdrawal, Lincoln made some final edits on his proclamation, and decided to go forward with emancipation. Two months to the day from when Lincoln first announced that he would issue the document, he finally went ahead with the measure. On September 22, 1862, as a direct result of the bloodshed at Antietam, Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation.
In what is arguably the greatest single presidential action in American history, Lincoln’s proclamation declared that, as of January 1, 1863, when he signed the final version, all slaves in those states then in rebellion against the federal government would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
The proclamation was a landmark event, signaling that the war—and indeed the nation—had crossed a point of no return. There was now no possibility of going back to the country as it once was. The Union of 1860 had died alongside the soldiers who were slain at Antietam. Now, the war would be fought for a new and better Union. It would be a Union without slavery. The war had a higher purpose. The link between these events and Antietam give all the more meaning to the casualties who fell on that fateful September day. As one Antietam veteran, Colonel Ezra Carman, said at a monument dedication speech upon the battlefield years later, “On this field died human slavery.”
While all of this is true, the story of the Emancipation Proclamation has another side to it, a more complex one. Throughout the decades, many historians have questioned the efficacy of the proclamation. Its language does not appeal to our hearts and minds, as Lincoln did on other occasions such as the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Rather, the Emancipation Proclamation was a legal document with precise and somewhat dry specifics. Esteemed historian Richard Hofstadter noted that the proclamation had “the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.”
While the proclamation was a broad, powerful, and important statement, it still left some questions unanswered and did have some limitations, as any legal document would. Lincoln issued this document as a result of his authority as commander-in-chief. Along these lines, Lincoln was freeing slaves according to their status as “rebel property” during the war. Therefore, the proclamation was in a sense limited to the scope of the war. Once the war was over, questions would emerge regarding the status of those impacted by the proclamation. Slavery itself still needed to be abolished throughout the Union—a task that was completed in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Thus, the constitutional status of these slaves was still to be determined. Lincoln wrote in the proclamation that the government would “recognize and maintain” slaves’ freedom, but more work was still needed in that regard.
Perhaps the greatest issue of limitations with the Emancipation Proclamation has to do with where it applied and where it did not. Because the proclamation was issued as a war measure, President Lincoln could only apply it to areas that were actually in rebellion against the Union. Thus, those portions of the South that were held by Union forces on January 1, 1863, were excluded. The presence and movement of the Union army would ultimately bring freedom to those in these territories, as the proclamation ultimately empowered the armed forces of the Union to become armies of liberation.
Also excluded from the direct impact of the proclamation were the slave holding states that remained in the Union during the war. Known as Border States, Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland were a collective source of great consternation, frustration, and worry for both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Each leader watched the actions of these states carefully, hoping and wishing that they would influence the war one way or another. In fact, one of the primary reasons why Lincoln did not declare emancipation sooner was that he was terribly worried over the impact a proclamation could have on the Border States. With slavery still present in these areas, and with their geographic locations being crucial to the outcome of the war, Lincoln had to walk a fine line regarding his policies in theses states. If Lincoln were to act too soon or too strongly in bringing freedom to slaves, a state such as Maryland could break away from the Union and join the Confederacy. In that event, Washington D.C., the Federal capital, would be located between two Confederate states, and the war—and the Union—would surely be lost. Thus, throughout the war, Lincoln had to create his policy regarding slavery with one eye towards his personal goal of emancipation and the political realities of the Border States.
And thus, one of the great ironies of the battle of Antietam was that it was perhaps the single most important battle of the war when it came to influencing national policy regarding slavery and freedom, yet there were still limits. Antietam was the battle that led to the Emancipation Proclamation, a document which did not apply to the state where the battle was fought—Maryland.
Is all this to say that the Emancipation Proclamation was unimportant? Certainly not. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation still remains a tremendously important document in American history. It set a standard for expanding freedom throughout the nation during the Civil War, a standard that ultimately led to forever eradicating slavery in the United States. Yet, just as the Declaration of Independence declared the thirteen colonies to be free and sovereign states, the job was not yet finished. George Washington and the Continental Army still had to endure the long, grueling, and perilous war to finally secure the independence and freedom of the United States of America. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation promised freedom to millions—more work was still needed in each case to turn that promise of freedom into the reality of freedom. That work involved Union forces continuing on in the war, the government continuing to pass legislation expanding freedom for slaves and free blacks, and the various states enacting measures impacting slavery within their own borders.
This work, as Lincoln saw it, was crucial not just for those who were held as slaves, but for the nation as a whole. In December 1862, at the conclusion of his annual message to Congress, Lincoln included a plea to the nation to continue with the struggle for freedom during the war.
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.
Thus, even with the Emancipation Proclamation, more work was still needed. While the events of 152 years ago at Antietam led to the Emancipation Proclamation, the events of 150 years ago within Maryland carried the mission of freedom the rest of the way for the slaves in this crucial Border State. In 1864, an event occurred in Maryland which overcame the legal and practical restrictions of the Emancipation Proclamation, and it happened in a way that was reflective of politics during the Civil War. 150 years ago today, citizens in the state of Maryland voted to either approve or reject a new constitution which would abolish slavery within its borders.
Let’s learn more about how this amazing event came to occur 150 years ago, and how it fits in with the broader story of slavery and freedom during the Civil War. Stay tuned to our blog for more on this historic anniversary of emancipation in Maryland.