The tenets of the Emancipation Proclamation were drafted in the summer of 1862, and then placed in Lincoln’s pocket for further study. The 16th president was completely obsessed with ending the war and preserving the Union. A premature introduction of the Emancipation Plan could send the Border States to the aid of the Confederate cause. Having waited for just the right moment on Sept. 22 Lincoln published the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which constituted a warning shot across the bow of the Confederacy.
He proposed that as of midnight on Dec. 31 all people held in the bonds of slavery in any rebel state remaining hostile to the Union would be declared free. Freedom from slavery was not offered to those residing in the states that were either supporting the Union cause or occupied by Union forces. Furthermore, any one of these states could negate the proclamation of freedom by surrendering prior to the midnight hour.
Not a single rebel state chose surrender and the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863. Thousands upon thousands of enslaved people were free at last, or were they?
The states in question had seceded from the very governmental body that passed the law. By all rights they were under no obligation to abide by the laws of a foreign power, especially one that was shooting at them. Lincoln’s plan was doomed to fail, or so it seemed. Both armies had underestimated the unquenchable thirst for freedom entrenched in the unconquerable spirit of the enslaved.
Despite no guarantee of safe passage, refugee slaves fled by ones and twos as well as by the 100s in search of the army in blue. The quest was expedited if the Union army was physically nearby whether engaged in battle, on the march, or sequestered for the winter.
Consider for a moment the frequent presence of Union troops in Culpeper County throughout 1863; significant occurrences included the Battles of Kelly’s Ford, Brandy Station and Culpeper Court House. Is it any wonder that many owners moved their slaves farther south? Nonetheless, freedom was riding a rising tide and for hundreds the opportunity would become a reality.
However, it was not the Promised Land that was revealed on the other side of “Jordan” and Constitutional Amendment # 13, securing freedom in perpetuity for all people, would not become reality for another two years.
In the interim, former slaves would seek housing, employment and opportunity wherever they could. However, achieving liberty was simply not enough. The Emancipation Proclamation also provided for the recruitment of Black soldiers in the Union army. On May 22, 1863, General Order # 143 established the Bureau of Colored Troops, subsequently known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT).
An estimated 200,000 men would enlist comprising 10 percent of the Union forces during the final years of the war. What may have been initiated as a political ploy launched an unexpected force that changed the outcome of the war.
Zann Nelson is an award -winning freelance writer specializing in historical investigations. She is president of the preservation nonprofit organization, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, Inc., co-founder of the African American Heritage Alliance, and resides on a farm in Culpeper. She can be reached at M16439@aol.com or by mailing the newsroom 471 James Madison Highway, Suite 201 Culpeper, VA 22701.