Issued as an executive order by our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Jan. 1, 1863. The document was issued to “legally” end the practice of chattel slavery. The Proclamation freed most but not all of the nation’s slaves, as it only applied to those living in Confederate states.

At the time of its issue, the nation was engulfed in the Civil War (1861-1865). It’s important to understand that while the issue of slavery is inextricably tied to the Civil War (1861-1865), it was not the primary reason for the war. The war was about saving the Union.

Despite Lincoln’s efforts to end slavery, he sympathized with slave owners losing their “property,” even offering compensation. From the start of his presidency in 1860, he tried to work with legislators to end slavery, but he did not want to antagonize Union-loyal states that still had slaves.

Secretary of State William H. Seward echoed Lincoln’s sentiments. “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free,” he said.

Decades earlier, a series of events fueled the fire that would send the country to war with itself. These included the Missouri Compromise (1820), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), the Nullification Crisis (1832), the Amistad Rebellion (1839), the Annexation of Texas (1848), the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Fugitive Slave Act (1850), “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852), Bleeding Kansas, (1854-1858) and Dred Scott vs. Sanford (1857).

On Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to declare secession (separation) from the United States. In less than a year, 10 other states followed. They formed a separate government with its own president, Jefferson Davis. The Confederate states were South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. The states of Kentucky and Missouri had dual governments. The states of Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia were considered border states while Indiana and Arizona were territories.

On April 12, 1861, Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston County, S.C. This attack officially started the Civil War.

On Sept. 22, 1862, with the war in full swing, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation, which ordered that slaves held in the rebellious (Confederate) states would be free as of Jan. 1, 1863.

On January 1, 1863, one hundred days later, the Emancipation Proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious areas “are, and henceforward, shall be free.”

The order also served as a strategic military move, as it helped strengthen the war effort by allowing Black soldiers to fight. The Union Army enlisted more than 200,000 Black soldiers.

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse. It remains the nation’s bloodiest conflict, leaving more than 620,000 Americans dead. The country was in shambles, but the Union remained intact.

Five days later, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln would meet his own death at the hands of failed actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.

It would be two years after Lincoln issued it and two months after the war’s end before all slaves finally had their freedom as ordered by the Emancipation Proclamation. This final liberation took place in Texas on June 19, 1865. The date, now known as Juneteenth, marks the freeing of the nation’s last remaining 250,000 slaves.


  • Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the Emancipation Proclamation and the events leading up to and including the American Civil War. Also investigate this week’s historical Black events.
  • Talk About It: Discuss the importance of this document and how it was used in the war effort.
  • Write it Down: Write a short essay on any of the events mentioned in today’s article. Discuss these events with your classmates.

This Week in Black History

  • Jan. 1, 1916: The first issue of the Journal of Negro History is published.
  • Jan. 2, 1965: A voter registration drive led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. begins in Selma, Ala.
  • Jan. 3, 1961: Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is elected chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
  • Jan. 6, 1831: The World Anti-Slavery Convention opens in London.