January 1863: The Emancipation Proclamation
800,000 slaves excluded, including many in Louisiana; saving Union was main goal

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Abraham Lincoln; U.S. Library of Congress
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and made freeing the slaves a war goal of the U.S. government. Lincoln became known as "The Great Emancipator," but in reality the Emancipation Proclamation's promise of freedom intentionally excluded some 800,000 slaves-many of whom lived in Louisiana.

Lincoln abhorred slavery, but he made it clear when the Civil War began that he was fighting to restore the Union, not to free the slaves. In a public letter to the New York Tribune published just a month before he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln declared "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

Lincoln realized that slavery helped the Confederacy wage its war for independence. Slaves performed most of the labor in the South constructing Rebel military fortifications, working in munitions factories, and harvesting the food that fed the Confederate army. Every slave who worked in such a manner freed up a white man to serve in the army.

First and foremost, Lincoln's presidential order freeing the slaves was a military measure to help the North win the war. Upon learning of the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of slaves would flee to Union lines. Not only would the Confederates lose their slave labor, they would have to strip large numbers of soldiers from the front lines to stop the runaways. Adopting emancipation as an official war goal also would make it less likely that the anti-slavery Europeans would intervene on the side of the Confederacy.

Emancipation, however, was a complicated matter because most Northerners were fighting to restore the Union and had no interest in freeing the slaves. To win the war, it was absolutely vital that Lincoln keep the slave-holding Border States on his side, not to mention the thousands of slave-owning Southerners who had opposed secession and were providing important support to the Union. Lincoln knew that if he attempted to free all of the slaves, loyal slave owners in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, and in the Union controlled areas of the Confederacy, might well join the Rebels to protect their valuable slave property. To prevent that from happening, the Emancipation Proclamation carefully avoided freeing the slaves held by most Unionists.

The document's fourth paragraph listed the areas in which slaves were to be emancipated. None of the Border States was mentioned, and it specifically exempted thirteen Louisiana parishes that were under Union control: St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans. Many of the plantations in these parishes had been leased to Unionists, and the area's slaves were forced to work for them (see "October 1862: Slavery by Another Name"). Lincoln declared that these exempted areas "are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued."

The cold, calculated nature of the Emancipation Proclamation was not lost on people at the time. One British newspaper noted, "The principle asserted is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States."

Despite the loophole, the Emancipation Proclamation did immediately free thousands of slaves who lived in the Union controlled areas of Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. More importantly it ensured the future freedom for countless others. A slave would be free if he could make his way from Rebel controlled territory to a Union occupied area. For example, slaves living in Iberville Parish could step across the parish line into Assumption, Ascension, or St. Martin and be free if they made contact with Union troops.

From an early age school children are taught that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. While it is true that he set things in motion, most of the slaves who gained their freedom during the Civil War emancipated themselves by running away from their masters. The Great Emancipator intentionally left in bondage the thousands of slaves who lived in thirteen Louisiana parishes because he did not want to anger the loyal citizens who resided there. Those slaves were not freed until a Unionist state constitution abolishing slavery statewide was adopted eighteen months later.

Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published a Dr. number of books on the American Civil War.