Early in the war, to keep the border states in the Union, Lincoln resisted the demands of the Radical Republicans to free the slaves. Military commanders, though, sometimes took action counter to Lincoln's policy during actual fighting. For example, faced with slaves who had run away to Union lines, General B. F. Butler treated them as contraband and did not return them to their owners (May 1861). General John C. Frémont, in charge of the Department of the West, which included Missouri and Kansas, confiscated the property of rebels and declared their slaves emancipated (August 1861). Lincoln effectively countermanded Frémont's order. Congress, meanwhile, enacted measures that whittled away at slavery. The Confiscation Act of 1861 allowed captured or runaway slaves who had been in use by the Confederacy to support the Union effort instead. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia with compensation in April 1862 and in the territories in June 1862. The Second Confiscation Act (July 1862) gave real freedom to slaves belonging to anyone actively participating in the war against the Union.
Lincoln and gradual emancipation. Lincoln proposed a plan for gradual emancipation that was by definition a long‐term solution to the slavery problem. The plan was aimed at pacifying the slave states that remained in the Union. Lincoln outlined his ideas on several occasions between 1861 and 1862, the fullest statement coming in his Second Message to Congress in December 1862. He urged the House and Senate to adopt a constitutional amendment under which states that abolished slavery by 1900 would be compensated by the federal government. Runaway‐slave owners who remained loyal to the United States would also be compensated for their losses. The amendment authorized Congress to appropriate funds to resettle free blacks, if they consented, outside of the country. Although Lincoln himself did not think resettlement was necessary, the idea addressed the deep racial prejudice existing in the country as a whole and particularly white fears about competing for jobs with millions of former slaves.
The Emancipation Proclamation. Despite his support for gradual emancipation, Lincoln soon realized that immediate action was necessary, both on military and moral grounds. Slaves were an asset to the Confederate war effort, and public opinion in the North was shifting in favor of emancipation. Following the Union “victory” at Antietam, the president issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (September 22, 1862), which granted freedom to all slaves in the Confederate states and in other areas of active rebellion as of January 1, 1863. The proclamation did not apply to the slaveholding border states, nor would it apply to any Confederate states that rejoined the Union before the deadline. The formal Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, specifically delineated the Confederate territory where slaves were freed, urged the slaves not to resort to violence except in self‐defense, and confirmed that African Americans could serve in the Union army and navy.
Despite its limited scope, the Emancipation Proclamation redefined the purpose of the war. Southerners as well as northern Copperheads recognized this fact, and they condemned Lincoln's actions as tantamount to promoting a slave insurrection throughout the Confederacy. The slaves themselves responded with jubilation, not rebellion, and those who could fled to the Union lines, where their symbolic freedom could become a reality.
Blacks in the Civil War. Almost two hundred thousand African Americans fought in the Civil War, the majority of them former slaves. Organized into segregated units under white officers, they received less pay than white soldiers until Congress remedied the inequity in June 1864. At first, black troops were used only for menial jobs behind the lines. When finally allowed into combat, they distinguished themselves and earned grudging respect for their courage under fire. Black soldiers knew quite well that they faced summary execution or reenslavement if captured. Around thirty‐seven thousand were killed during the war, a number that represents a significantly higher casualty rate than that of white soldiers.
The Confederacy used slaves as laborers to construct trenches and earthworks and as cooks and teamsters in military camps. With the South's manpower reserves dwindling in late 1864, Jefferson Davis proposed putting slaves into the army. The idea of slaves defending a government committed to the preservation of slavery while the opposing side was pledged to end it was one of the great ironies of the war. The Confederate Congress in fact passed legislation in March 1865 for the call‐up of three hundred thousand slaves for the army, but the fighting stopped before the law went into effect.