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Background Essay on Who Freed the Slaves?

This essay introduces you to the main forces behind the abolition of slavery in the United States, as well as the debate among historians as to who played the key role.

Once the first shots of the Civil War were fired in Charleston harbor on April 12, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln insisted that the U.S. government was fighting to preserve the Union. He did not want to risk losing the support of four slave states fighting on the Union side: Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland. Consequently, Lincoln went to great lengths to assure loyal slaveholders in these states that the key northern war aim was "union," and not "freedom" (the abolition of slavery). But radicals in his own party, abolitionists, and almost everyone in the African-American community in the North wanted to turn the war for disunion into a crusade for freedom.

In the South, thousands of slaves asserted their own view of the Civil War's primary aim by abandoning plantations and fleeing behind Union army lines. Union generals disagreed about whether to free escaped slaves or return them to their masters. Slaves helped make their own case for freedom by rendering valuable services as laborers, spies, guides, cooks, and nurses while at the same time depriving the Confederacy of its labor. Some of Lincoln's generals argued that escaped slaves should be declared "contrabands" of war--riches the slave-owners lost their rights to when the Confederacy rebelled. By the summer of 1861, the "contraband" policy was adopted. It was a first but timid step toward full-scale emancipation. Lincoln maintained that it was not a policy of abolition but merely a tactic of war.

Then on January 1, 1863, almost fifteen months after the war began, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It freed more than three and a half million slaves in Confederate areas still fighting against the North but excluded almost half a million slaves in the four slave-holding states loyal to the Union. Despite its limitations, the Emancipation Proclamation set off celebrations among white and black abolitionists in the North and rejoicing among slaves in the South. African Americans, slave and free alike, understood that the aims of the war had been dramatically changed and that the Union was on a new course.

Did Lincoln free the slaves? Did the slaves free themselves? Or was freedom finally achieved due to white and black abolitionists? The answer to all three questions is yes. But historians disagree on who played the key role in emancipation.

Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.Creative Commons License
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Who Freed the Slaves?,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 7, 2023,

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