On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln used his war powers to issue his famous Emancipation Proclamation. The document proclaimed freedom for slaves in the states of rebellion. Of interest locally was that Berkeley County and the other 47 counties in the process of forming the new state of West Virginia were specifically exempt even though they were obviously counties from a state in rebellion.
The announcement was not a surprise. Mr. Lincoln had discussions with his Cabinet as early as July of 1862 on the matter.
Lincoln, in one of his perhaps finest political moves, had softened the tone of his impending proclamation by deflecting some of the criticism from his actions in August of that same year. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley had written an editorial calling for the president to more aggressively go on the attack of the rebels and to free the slaves.
In his response, the president said this: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Historians say that what Lincoln was doing in this instance was just some of his brilliant political maneuvering. He was trying to soften the opposition by leading them to believe the war was being fought to save the Union while at the same time not necessarily trying to end slavery. It also made slavery an additional war goal beyond just saving the Union. Not lost on the president was the foreign reaction as he knew the announcement would cause England and France to back off from their support of the Confederacy.
The president was ready to release his proclamation but needed a Union victory on the battlefield before making that announcement. He waited patiently, finally receiving that Union victory on Sept. 17, 1862 at nearby Sharpsburg, Md. Five days later, Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation. The document called for the freeing of all slaves in any one of the states in rebellion that did not return to the Union by Jan. 1, 1863. With that, the president was allowing time for states to return. None did.
But how many slaves did the proclamation actually free? First, it only applied to the slaves in the 10 states of rebellion. That covered about 3 million of the 4 million slaves. Secondly, the president had no jurisdiction at all in any of the states in rebellion. In fact, as a war power announcement as commander-in-chief, he didn’t even have any jurisdiction over the border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri. There were a half million slaves just in those four states alone that were not affected.
By most estimates, about 20,000 to 50,000 slaves in each of the 10 states were freed that day. Those were slaves in areas held at that moment under Union control. Others were freed as the Union army came into their areas during the remainder of the war.
What didn’t the proclamation do? It did not compensate slave owners for their losses; it did not outlaw slavery and it did not make the new freemen citizens.
Even the passage of the 13th Amendment passed by Congress in February of 1865 did not free any slaves. They did not officially become free until Dec. 18 of that same year when the states finally ratified the 13th Amendment.
Some would say the proclamation freed no slaves at all. One could say the same thing about the John Brown Raid in Harpers Ferry in October 1859. The goal of Brown’s raid was to free the slaves, yet he actually freed none that day. Of particular interest is that one of the victims of the John Brown raid, Fontaine Beckham, actually did free slaves in the uprising — he had it written into his will.
Others would argue Lincoln’s announcement facilitated the slaves who then freed themselves. Just hearing that they were free enabled many slaves to escape to find shelter among the occupying armies in the South. And within just a few months of the pronouncement, the Union army started receiving blacks as soldiers through the formation of the U.S. Colored Troops.
Of those not freed by the Emancipation Proclamation due to their exclusion as a county designated as part of West Virginia were 4,914 enslaved persons in Jefferson County and 1,650 slaves in Berkeley County.