Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee
decided to attack above the Mason-Dixon Line in an
effort to bring the war’s suffering to northerners. The Confederacy hoped this
would affect the congressional elections that year and encourage France
and England to
enter the dispute on behalf of the south.
But, this invasion of the north
ultimately gave a politically struggling President Abraham Lincoln the opening
he needed to make a drastic change in the war’s mission.
Since July of that year, Lincoln
had a document sitting on his desk called the Emancipation Proclamation freeing
slaves in the Confederate states.
Historian Tom Clemens said Lincoln
knew this document would be controversial.
been very careful since the beginning of the war to make it clear that this is
not a war to end slavery,” Clemens said.
“He has to do that because he still
has four states in the Union that have slaves. And yet
it is becoming increasingly obvious to him and many other people that you can’t
defeat the confederacy and not touch slavery.”
“And so Lincoln writes this Emancipation Proclamation in
July 1862, but on the advice of members of his cabinet they tell him ‘look,
things aren’t going well, if we release this now this looks like a desperate
last act and in fact we should wait for Union victory to make this very and
critical policy change of the government,” Clemens said.
That victory came on September
17, 1862 at Sharpsburg,
a small sleepy town in Maryland.
Five days later, Lincoln issued a
It was based on legislation passed by Congress, the first
and second confiscation acts, which authorized the president to seize the
property of anyone in rebellion against the government.
“It had to be
basically a war powers act,” Keith Snyder, ranger, Antietam National
Battlefield, said. “If you read the document it’s a very legalistic document
because does he even have the authority to do that?”
“This is very revolutionary,” Snyder added. “What he
establishes is, and this is what I like to think is the most important, now the
full weight, the authority, the might, the power, the military of the United
States Government is committed to the freedom of African Americans for the
“Now the Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t free the slaves
everywhere,” Mark Snell, director, Shepherd University’s George Tyler MooreCenter for the Study of the Civil War.
“It frees them only in areas that are currently in rebellion
against the United States,”
Snell said those living in the states of Delaware,
Maryland, and Kentucky
were allowed to keep slaves.
“When West Virginia
comes in to the union on June 20, 1863
it comes in as a slave state with gradual emancipation as a provision,” Snell
“Eastern Tennessee, which is under
Union control, can keep their slaves provided that the citizens who own those
slaves declare their loyalty; Missouri
and any areas under Union occupation such as northern Virginia, those people if
they declare their loyalty can keep their slaves,” he said.
Snell said Lincoln
was struggling politically at the time. The war had dragged on longer and was
costing more money than anticipated.
“And there is a significant opposition in the form of what
they call peace democrats,” Snell said. “The peace democrats’ nickname was
copperheads, which was placed on them by the Republican Party.”
Snell said the peace democrats believed in peace at any
price and were willing to let the south have its independence, so by issuing
the Emancipation Proclamation and changing the nature of the war Lincoln
risked alienating these people.
“A good many people in the north are willing to fight and to
give up their treasure for the preservation of the Union but there’s a
substantial element in the north that’s not willing to do it to free the
slaves,” Snell said.
The preliminary proclamation that Lincoln
issued on September 22, 1862
went into effect January first 1863.
Snyder said it took two and a half more years and more than
600,000 lives, but in 1865 Congress adopted the 13th amendment to
the Constitution, which officially ended slavery.
Snyder hopes visitors to Antietam
during the sesquicentennial see the battle’s significance in light of Lincoln’s
“Every step a Union soldier takes south for the next two and
a half years freedom marches with them, freedom is going to be brought to four
million Americans.,” Snyder said.
Today Antietam Battlefield is a quiet place with rolling
farmland encrusted with limestone outcroppings bisected by the creek that bears
the name of the battle.
Visitors can drive down roads and see monuments, most of
which have been here since the land was preserved in the 1890’s, and reflect on
the meaning behind the bloodshed and devastation that took place here 150 years