December 7, 2023

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Plan and Real Status of the Slaves

Author: Rich Bernett
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By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Many commanders freed the slaves and anti-slavery measures were taken by the Congress, these were seen as the first steps towards emancipation. Abraham Lincoln, with his five-part plan, wanted gradual, compensated emancipation accompanied by colonization, but was he successful? Read on to know the answer.

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s face carved out of a stone on a Mount Rushmore.
Lincoln wanted gradual, compensated emancipation accompanied by colonization. (Image: Bradley D. Saum/Shutterstock)

The Man Who Freed the Slaves

In May 1862, a Union commander named David Hunter, in charge of a section of the South Atlantic coast, issued an order freeing all slaves in his department, called the Department of the South. It embraced parts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. While he didn’t have the power to make that stick, he still issued the order.

Lincoln revoked the order as he believed that being the president, he was the only one with the power to issue that kind of a proclamation or order. Abolitionists and radical Republicans condemned Lincoln for this.

Different Approaches to Slavery

There were generals in the field who were against slavery, and they were using their positions as commanders on the scene to try to strike at the institution of slavery.

Benjamin Butler did it quite effectively and put in place a policy, carried out by many other commanders, of not sending back the slaves who came into their lines. On the other hand, there was Stone, a Democratic general, who had sent slaves back when they had come into his lines.

Learn more about the loyalty of slaveholding states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware towards the Union.

Anti-Slavery Measures by Congress

Image of the old version of the United States presidential seal.
The first Confiscation Act of 1861 specified that the owners of slaves engaged in military services for confederacy would lose the ownership of those slaves. (Image: Edward Stabler/Public domain)

Congress also contributed to the halting march toward emancipation in 1861 and 1862. After Ben Butler made his contraband statement on the Peninsula, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act on August 6, 1861.

The First Confiscation Act stipulated that owners of slaves engaged in military service for the Confederacy forfeited their ownership of those slaves who were directly helping the Confederate war effort, or acting as teamsters in some support role with the army.

Real Status of Slaves

In March 1862, Congress prohibited the use of military power to return escaped slaves to their masters. This was a clear response to the fact that many black slaves were making their way to the Union lines. This was support for the notion of self-emancipation.

However, this didn’t clear up the status of those slaves. The slaves made their way to Union lines and were not sent back, but the law didn’t say if they were free. So, it left that part of the puzzle incomplete.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Emancipated Slaves

In April 1862, Congress abolished slavery in the district of Columbia with monetary compensation to the owners. On June 19, 1862, Congress emancipated all slaves in the territories without compensation because it had the power to kill slavery in the territories, unlike the states, where, under the Constitution, slavery was a domestic institution and Congress had no power over the states there.

Second Confiscation Act

The Republican plank from the election of 1860, which had said ‘no more slavery in the territories’, was finally taken care of in June 1862.

The debate had heated up in Congress about the possibility of strengthening the Confiscation Act, resulting in the Second Confiscation Act in July 1862, which was much tougher and broader than the first one. It stated that escaped slaves could not be returned to the masters and that any slave who escaped from a rebel owner was free. This took care of the gray area left by the March 1862 legislation.

If a slave of a master loyal to the Confederacy made his way to Union lines, not only would he not be sent back but would also be liberated.

Learn more about Virginia as the critical military arena in the early Union triumphs.

Abraham Lincoln’s Intervention

Congress was slowly groping its way towards a position where the North would be firmly on record against slavery. None of that said anything about slavery in the United States, or the border states that were still in the United States, or about the allegedly loyal slaveholders in the Confederacy. It was not a clear, broad statement from Congress but a group of congressional acts that were leading towards the end of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln stepped in then and seized the stage, and after that point, became the principal authority. During spring of 1862, Abraham Lincoln tried to decide whether emancipation was necessary to win the war.

Lincoln’s Plan Against Slavery

Lincoln was against slavery, and his plan at that stage of the war had five main parts: one, slavery was a domestic institution, meaning, it had to be abolished by the states; second, the owners should be compensated for the loss of their property; third, the Federal government should pay part of that cost by providing grants and aid to the states; fourth, the process should be gradual to avoid too much social dislocation; and, fifth, those slaves be colonized abroad.

So Lincoln wanted gradual, compensated emancipation accompanied by colonization.

An oil painting showing former slaves and their owner engaged in a conversation.
Lincoln’s plan against slavery had five parts; he wanted gradual, compensated emancipation accompanied by colonization. (Image: Winslow Homer/Public domain)

He asked Congress in March of 1862 for funds to support compensation of owners, and Congress agreed. He then went to the border states and asked them to come up with a plan to end slavery in their states. He told them that they would be compensated for their property.

However, the border states refused to come up with a plan.

Lincoln’s Demand for a Plan

On July 12, 1862, Lincoln tried again with the border states. This time he included a warning when he talked to them. He told them to come up with a plan, or he won’t be able to control the direction of the war. He warned that the war could spin out of limits, and their slaves could be taken away from them without compensation, so it was for their advantage to come up with a plan.

However, the border states’ representatives refused again. They voted by more than two to one not to come up with a plan for compensated emancipation.

Common Questions about the American Civil War

Q: How did Lincoln deal with border states?

After asking Congress for funds to support compensation for owners in March,1862, Lincoln went to the border states, asking them to come up with a plan to end slavery in their states so that they were compensated for their property. However, border states’ representatives refused to come up with a plan.

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