By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022-2023, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2023 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
On January 1, 1863, 160 years ago this month, arguably the most important action by President Lincoln and perhaps the most consequential and important result of the Civil War took place. It was the official signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Students of the Civil War know this, but often overlook what the day was like for President Lincoln and some of those around him.
Dolores Kearns Goodwin in her book Team of Rivals asserts that much of the public was skeptical that President Lincoln would follow through with his intent to sign the document on January 1, 1863. New York City lawyer George Templeton Strong quipped, “Will Lincoln’s backbone carry him through? Nobody knows.” Of course, the skeptics were wrong. As Goodwin recounts, the hopes of Lincoln supporters such as Frederick Douglass prevailed. As Douglass stated, “Once the president staked himself to a forward position, he did not give up ground.”
On New Year’s Eve, it is thought that Lincoln did not sleep well. However, first thing in the morning he resolved to make some final revisions to the Proclamation and delivered it via messenger to the State Department where it was put into correct legal format. By 11:00 a.m. Secretary of State William H. Seward dutifully carried the document by hand from the State Department back to the White House. However, upon review Lincoln spotted an error and returned it to the State Department for revision, which delayed the signing to later in the day.
Culturally, the capital’s biggest celebration was not on New Year’s Eve, but rather New Year’s Day. This included the customary New Year’s Day reception at the White House, which was about to begin whether or not in Lincoln’s mind the signing of the Proclamation was more important. Accordingly, Lincoln began to greet the invited dignitaries such as congressmen and senators, justices, generals, and Cabinet members. Goodwin notes again in her book that the finest clothes were worn. For instance, Fanny Seward and Kate Chase were particularly elegantly appointed.
At 12:00, the dignitaries departed to host their own receptions, and the White House doors were again opened wide to the general public. A huge and uncontrollable crowd flooded into the White House, including notable journalists sent to cover the event. After countless handshakes, a weary and swollen-handed Lincoln finished the reception at 2:00 p.m. and returned to his office for the signing. Lincoln stated, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” Much was made of whether his swollen hand could affix a firm and determined-looking signature to the document, an issue that would not occur to most of us in the 21st century. However, Lincoln took the pen and signed slowly and carefully with Seward stating at the time “The signature proved to be unusually bold, clear, and firm, even for him.”
In the meantime, of course, the war was still raging. Just after Lincoln sent the Proclamation to the State Department earlier that morning, General Burnside visited Lincoln fresh from his defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Whether or not Lincoln was happy to see him, Burnside arrived with purpose. He was hot to tell the President that he had a new plan and was ready to again attack the rebels still dug in on the south side of the Rappahannock River. Lincoln quickly threw cold water on the idea by letting Burnside know that some of the division commanders had serious concerns with Burnside’s new plan. Thus, severely deflated in now knowing that his chief officers had lost confidence in him, Burnside offered to resign. It was not the right moment for Lincoln to hear this, and he did not accept Burnside’s resignation. However, it must have been in his mind or at least now planted, with the seed that later grew into the fateful decision to appoint “Fighting Joe” Hooker about 21 days into the new year.
Also, militarily Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Chase had long advocated that African Americans be enlisted to serve in the army. For months Lincoln had thought that political circumstances were not ripe for him to take this important step. Lincoln surely realized that it would greatly help what he often mentioned as the “arithmetic” on the side of the North in overwhelming the South with superior numbers of troops.
Further, Geoffrey Perret in his book Lincoln’s War points to an important paper that had been submitted during the summer of 1862 to the Massachusetts Historical Society by, curiously, a Boston shoe merchant, George Livermore, in support of black enlistment. The paper proved to be so well accepted that by October of 1862 it was made into a book that went through five editions. It was also refined into a pamphlet that sold over 100,000 copies. A central theme of Livermore was that black men would fight for America and would accept service under white officers. Also noted in Livermore’s book was that if Lincoln would authorize enlistment of blacks, he would only be doing the same as George Washington had done in the Revolutionary War. Now, with the issuance of the Proclamation as a foundation for black enlistment piggybacked on the likes of Livermore’s wildly popular writings, Lincoln perceived that the path was now open for black enlistments and the North would soon begin to do so – a consequential and sometimes overlooked but hugely important war-winning offshoot to emerge that day.
Stephen W. Sears in his book Lincoln’s Lieutenants points out that General McClellan arrogantly said after Antietam, “God has in his mercy for the second time made me the instrument of saving the nation.” Now it also appeared, as Sears points out, that God ironically made the general “an unwitting, unwilling instrument of abolition,” since it was McClellan’s victory at Antietam that had emboldened Lincoln to move forward! So on this day, the Proclamation most certainly pushed McClellan further in favor of a presidential run against his boss.
Lastly, European governments such as Britain and France, who had considered intervention, suddenly had a new paradigm to contend with because of Lincoln’s stroke of the pen on New Year’s Day 1863. Should for instance Britain decide to come in on the side of the South, they would now be against their own enlightened position on the abolition of slavery. Debate would ensue in Europe, but in the final analysis, intervention on the side of the South did not come to pass, due at least in part to the Emancipation Proclamation.
Finally, as word of the Proclamation spread through Washington, D.C. on January 1, 1863, and President Lincoln himself at the end of the day prepared to retire for the evening, surely and deservedly Lincoln was relieved and hugely gratified about his accomplishment that indeed made him go down in history as he would say “with my whole soul in it”!
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The Proclamation That Saved a Nation
The Emancipation Proclamation at the National Archives
The Emancipation Proclamation at the Library of Congress
Chronology of emancipation during the Civil War