On September 22, 1862, five days after the Union victory at Antietam, Maryland, President Lincoln, citing his power as commander in chief, issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation as a military order. It declared that all slaves within rebel territory would be “forever” free on January 1, 1863 unless the Confederate states returned to the Union. Lincoln followed through with his promise, and on New Year’s Day, 1863 he signed the final Emancipation Proclamation. The revolutionary document began the process of making abolition the central goal of the war.

The Emancipation Proclamation brought both horror and jubilation to the war-torn nation. Frederick Douglass immediately called it a “freedom” document even though it did not abolish slavery everywhere or begin to address the issue of black citizenship. The proclamation did bring freedom to hundreds of thousands of enslaved people, but given the depth of racism in the North and South, Lincoln knew that few white Americans were ready to accept black equality.

One of the proclamation’s most radical provisions called for the enrollment of black troops into military service. Over 200,000 black soldiers helped the Union win the war, but they also shaped the war’s outcome, since military service forced the question of black citizenship onto the national agenda after the war.

"If There is No Struggle, There is No Progress."

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” -Frederick Douglass, August 3, 1857, Canandaigua, New York