By Wanda J. Ravernell
The handwritten draft of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation was issued 150 years ago, on September 22, 1862.
In 1861, when the dogs of war were howling, a Black slave in the South approached a U.S. fort seeking freedom. The officer in charge sent him back, having no legal authority to give him sanctuary.
One hundred fifty years ago this month was a precipitous time for African Americans as the country stumbled toward emancipating slaves.
What is commonly taught in schools is that the Civil War was fought just to save the Union and slavery was a side issue. Not so.
The slaveholders in the Southern slave states saw Lincoln’s election at least a threat to their way of life, which of course, depended on slave labor, and at the most they feared a race war. They talked about these issues, and the Black people overheard what them and interpreted it for themselves: “Mr. Lincoln is going to free us.”
But it would take a while. Pres. Barack Obama frequently refers to Lincoln as an example for him. And well he should: Obama inherited an economic and foreign war crisis of monumental proportions.
But Lincoln had it much worse. He was elected in 1860, a year after abolitionist John Brown led an armed attack to free the slaves in the Southern states through a violent insurrection.
Weeks after Lincoln’s election in 1860, South Carolina seceded. He was inaugurated on March 11, 1861, and five weeks later the Civil War began.
As commander-in-chief, he had trouble with his generals, who, on the one hand, were incompetent in battle, and on the other, taking the law into their own hands by declaring slaves ‘contraband’ that could be confiscated as ‘property’ of the Confederates.
The deeply divided U.S. Congress could barely come up with legislation to impact slavery. Lincoln knew that the U.S. Supreme Court was likely to strike down both approaches as violating the Constitution.
At the outset of the Civil War, officials knew that compensation for the value of the slaves would be cheaper than war, but the slaveholders would have none of it.
The four border states that had not seceded also proved a challenge for Lincoln. He approached state legislators in Delaware to test their interest in compensation for the slaves, but the response was lukewarm.
Confronted by intransigence all the way around, including radicals in his own party who wanted the immediate and uncompensated end to slavery, Lincoln was on his own.
In April of 1862, the slaves of the District of Columbia were set free by Congress. Soon after, Lincoln began writing what would become the Emancipation Proclamation.
In a contradictory move, he invited some members of the free Black community to the White House in July not to talk about freedom for the slaves, but to encourage a mass exodus of Blacks to Haiti, Africa or Panama as the two races, in Lincoln’s mind, were not good for each other.
The Black leaders left the meeting puzzled and perturbed.
But by July 1862, Lincoln came to the conclusion that the war could not be won without freeing the slaves. Not a very religious man, Lincoln’s personal belief in Providence and Progress had meant that slavery, which was evil, would come to its own end.
Finally, Lincoln yielded to his conscience.
Rumors of what Lincoln was up to began to circulate, and a tentative document was leaked to the press.
When Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass learned of the president’s plans, he initially doubted its value. Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman was also unimpressed.
But at an August 1 freedom rally near New Bedford, Mass., Douglass announced: that this is a war of slavery against Freedom and “that it is the imperative duty of the President of the United States to … immediately order the emancipation of the slaves.”