From Antietam to Chancellorsville: September 1862 to May 1863

The Emancipation Proclamation

How was the Emancipation Proclamation received?

There were so many varying responses and reactions that it is difficult to list them all. Many people expressed wonderment and surprise, thinking that Lincoln had gone very far indeed; but there were plenty of others who said the president had not gone far enough. Many white Americans feared the possible ramifications, including how four million African Americans would someday be employed, housed, and fed. But in the North, there was a general feeling among the white population that the time for this step had come.

It was not well received among the men in the Union armies. Many soldiers had long argued that the war was primarily about Union versus disunion, and the slavery issue was a distraction from the main event. A few soldiers threw away their guns and deserted, but the great majority grudgingly accepted the Proclamation, saying that it now gave two great causes for which to fight.

On January 1, 1863, a number of persons—black and white—wrote comments on how the Proclamation was celebrated. One of the most articulate comes from the pen of a white Massachusetts surgeon, attending to black soldiers of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s (1823–1911) regiment. Dr. Seth Rogers, in the camp along the South Carolina coast, had this to say:

“This is the evening of the most eventful day of my life. Our barbecue was a most wonderful success.… After the presentation speech had been made, and just as Col. Higginson advanced to take the flag and respond, a negro woman standing near began to sing ‘America,’ and soon many voices of freedmen and women joined in the beautiful hymn, and sang it so touchingly that every one was thrilled beyond measure.” Just five days later, the same surgeon wrote, “I am steadily becoming acquainted with very remarkable men whose lived in slavery and whose heroism in getting out of it, deepens my faith in negro character and intellect.”


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