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The Emancipation Proclamation
Abraham Lincoln

Carte de visite of Abraham Lincoln, ca. 1860s
Carte de Visite Collection

Most people think that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all American slaves. You might be surprised to learn that it did not. The Proclamation declared that "all persons held as slaves within any States…in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Thus, it applied to only those slaves living in states that had seceded from the Union or that were under federal control. This meant that slavery in Tennessee could continue. Our state capital, Nashville, had been occupied by Federal troops in 1862 and Tennessee was considered part of the Union again by the time the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863. Slaves in Tennessee were, therefore, not covered by it.

Peter Vaughn

Peter Vaughn, Company I, 101st Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Abraham Lincoln had long considered the idea of freeing the slaves. He had moral reservations about slavery but admitted early on that he did not know what to do about it. At first, he favored gradual emancipation, but his thinking evolved during his presidency, and the history of the Emancipation Proclamation reflected the evolution of his thinking. After the critical Union victory at Antietam Creek, Maryland, in September 1862, the president put forward a preliminary Proclamation. It stated that if the rebellious states did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863, their slaves would be freed. Today, it is not widely known that this version of the document left room for compensating slave owners for their loss. Unhappily for abolitionists, no Confederate state took the offer.

Freedmen's Bureau

"Office of the Freedmen's Bureau, Memphis, Tennessee," 1866
Library Photograph Collection

When the Emancipation Proclamation was officially issued, the nation was entering the third year of a bloody and costly civil war and the decree not only freed the slaves, but it officially allowed African American soldiers to fight in the U.S. military. Though their regiments were segregated and were commanded by white officers, the African American soldiers fought courageously and effectively. This obliterated the theory that "colored" men could not bear up in battle. Nearly 200,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War — more than 130,000 of them were former slaves!

The Emancipation Proclamation had a profound effect on the nation, economically, politically, and morally. Without slavery, the economic back of the South was broken. Politically, the Proclamation led to citizenship and voting rights for freedmen and created an environment wherein African Americans could participate in democracy. Morally, the United States took a crucial step towards becoming a nation that no longer sanctioned the enslavement of human beings.


Sergeant George Singleton

Sergeant George Singleton, Company C, 17th Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, ca. 1863-1864
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Sergeant Dick Johnson

Sergeant Dick Johnson, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, ca. 1863-1865
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

African American man leaning on Civil War 12 lb. Napoleon cannon

Photograph of young African American man leaning on a 12 lb. Napoleon cannon from the Civil War, ca. 1890-1910
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection