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Abraham Lincoln Explains His War Aims

In this open letter to Horace Greeley, President Lincoln maintained that the central cause of the Civil War was to keep the country united and not to free the slaves. Greeley was a reformer, abolitionist, and editor of the New York Tribune, an influential newspaper in the North. Days earlier Greeley had written an editorial criticizing Lincoln for not enforcing the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862. These acts declared that slaves in Confederate territories were contraband (confiscated property) of war and that any slaves who ran into Union lines should not be returned to their rebel owners. A month later, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announcing that if the Confederacy did not stop fighting and rejoin the union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in Confederate states would be freed.

Hon. Horace Greeley                                                Executive Mansion
Dear Sir                                                                  Washington, August 22, 1862

As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt…

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that….

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free. Yours,


Source | Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume 5, 388 – 389.
Creator | Abraham Lincoln
Item Type | Newspaper/Magazine
Cite This document | Abraham Lincoln, “Abraham Lincoln Explains His War Aims,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 1, 2023,

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