The Truth Behind the Emancipation Proclamation!*
By William Katz
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, the story of emancipation taught in school texts, courses and by Hollywood movies usually begins with the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day in 1863. The most famous engravings of the day feature: 1) President Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator,” and 2) An enslaved family on their knees as a white soldier reads them his Proclamation. Both omit the earlier emancipation that led to 1863.
In April 1861 when Confederate cannons fired on Fort Sumter many enslaved people voted for liberty with their feet. Thousands of men, women, and children set out for Union lines and others found a home in no man’s land. When President Lincoln ordered that escapees who entered Union lines be returned to their Confederate owners, hundreds of families found freedom as “outlyers” hiding between two foes.
While Lincoln fought for two years to preserve the Union “without freeing a single slave,” the numbers of self-liberated continued to grow. And those still in chains and unable to flee also mounted a multi-multilayered resistance that disrupted the Confederate labor and food systems. These daring actions inspired Northern anti-slavery people to loudly demand an official emancipation.
Emancipation, then, was first carried out by people believed to be docile and content, and was supported by a political minority considered powerless. When General Ben Butler captured New Orleans in May 1862, men of color recruited by the Confederacy (but not issued arms) persuaded Butler to accept their enlistment and issue them arms. That month enslaved seamen on the Confederate battleship Planter in Charleston harbor gathered their families aboard one night after the white officers left, and surrendered it to the Union fleet.
From the Carolinas to Kansas and the Indian Territory, daring acts of slave resistance began to persuade the President he had an important ally behind enemy lines. This untold emancipation story can be seen in two African American January 1, 1863 Emancipation Day ceremonies.
In Kansas armed black men commemorated a strike for liberty that began in the summer of 1861 when Apothle Yahola, a wealthy Creek, organized a flight of 10,000 Native American people that included thousands of African Americans and black Indians as well as some whites. Ordered to join or support the Confederate armies that surrounded them, these families instead rallied to Yahola and his exodus to Kansas and freedom. A brutal winter storm descended on marchers and three times they battled heavily armed rebel cavalry and infantry units. About 7,000 survived to reach Kansas and in the spring of 1862 many young men—the first African Americans to face Civil War combat—joined the Union army.
These men of “The First Kansas Colored Volunteers” were commanded by General James Blunt and other white officers whose military experience came in the 1850s when they fought with John Brown in Kansas against pro-slavery Missourians. On Emancipation Day 1863 the men and officers of “The First Kansas Colored” celebrated their victories and shared a barbecue and strong liquor. They sang “the John Brown song” to honor their “immortal hero” and the soldiers added, “John Brown sowed, and the harvesters are we.” This army welcomed the chance to complete Brown’s work, and with the kind of volunteers he dreamed of leading.
That day in Port Royal, South Carolina, the battle-hardened “First South Carolina Volunteers,” the first official U.S. unit of former slaves, also paused from battle to celebrate. Their commander, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was a white Unitarian minister who had led an assault on a Boston jail to free a fugitive slave, and was one of the abolitionist “Secret Six” sponsors of John Brown. Higginson credited the military achievements of his men to their “fiery energy,” and “two-o’clock in the morning courage.”
A large crowd of formerly enslaved families, northern visitors and teachers of every color, attended the Port Royal ceremony. Higginson, Sgt. Prince Rivers and Cpl. Robert Sutton were presented with a special flag from New York. Then Higginson recorded an unplanned moment: African American families and soldiers began to sing,
“My country ‘tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.”
“I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap,” Higginson wrote. “Art could not have dreamed a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it … Just think of it!—the first day they ever had a country, the first flag they had ever seen which promised anything to their people…”
Blunt and his officers and Higginson and his made sure their soldiers’ heroism reached Lincoln, the press, and the War Department. Higginson added a conclusion: “The key to the successful prosecution of the war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops.”
Three months later President Lincoln suggested “the bare sight of 50,000 armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once.” Seven months after his Proclamation welcomed African Americans into the U.S. armed forces, Lincoln wrote his “commanders of our armies in the field” believed the “emancipation policy and the use of colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.”
More than 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors—13 percent of U.S. forces—fought more than three dozen major battles and 440 skirmishes (22 were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor). They helped to save the Union and carry out what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.” Their emancipation story offers useful lessons about people power during a time of slavery and for today.