On September 22, 1862, five days after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. He presented the proclamation as a wartime necessity, under his authority as Commander-in-Chief. It ordered that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved individuals in all areas still in rebellion against the United States “henceforward shall be free,” and under the protection of the military. Those willing to enlist would be received into the armed forces.
The proclamation was limited in scope and revolutionary in impact. The war to preserve the Union also became a war to end slavery.
For most white Americans, the Civil War was a war for the Union. But for black Americans, it was a battle for freedom. Determined to end slavery, tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans used the war to escape their bondage. As the Union Army drove into the Confederacy, enslaved people stole away and entered Union lines. These thousands of African Americans made their freedom a fact. Within two years, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and made ending slavery government policy.
“Imagine, if you will . . . an army of slaves and fugitives, pushing its way irresistibly toward an army of fighting men. . . . Their arrival among us . . . was like the oncoming of cities.”
The Front Lines of Freedom
Tent cities sprang up across the South as thousands of enslaved people crossed Union lines and forced the issue of freedom. The people had spoken, using one of the few political tools available to enslaved people—the power of coming together to be heard. The sheer number of African Americans arriving in camps and cities pressured politicians, generals, and the U.S. government to act. Lincoln personally witnessed the growth of the tent cities as he crossed Washington, D.C., each day.