“This Day” – May 20, 1865
The Historic Knott House Museum – Tallahassee, Florida
Clifton P. Lewis, May 20, 2019
“…And upon this Act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice – warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity – I invoke the considered judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of almighty God.”
As he closed the Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln asked for our “considerate judgment.”
And yet, 150 years later – the late Dr. John Hope Franklin wrote that “the Emancipation Proclamation is seldom remembered and widely misunderstood.”
Today, we are here to remember – and to seek a better understanding.
The Proclamation’s evolution is deeply ingrained within the cauldron of the American Civil War. Any understanding the essence of Lincoln’s Proclamation requires an understanding of its relationship to that awful war.
My aim here today is sncipation to unpack events relating to that bloody war – and paint a broad-brush story highlighting Lincoln’s shift toward emancipation, his decision to issue the Proclamation, and – most importantly – the significance of this day.
During the time when Lincoln was elected in November 1860 – and nearly six months later when he was sworn into office in March of 1861- seven slave states had already left the Union and formed a new Confederation.
Why did they leave? Well, in the Confederate’s Articles of Secession, they wrote… “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery… the greatest material interest in the world.” The reason was clear.
President Lincoln explained that his Inaugural Address was devoted “entirely to saving the Union – without war.” And to save it, he was even willing to straddle the fence and tolerate slavery where it already existed.
Lincoln closed that 1st Address with a plea for reconsideration, he said: … we are not enemies but friends… and he called upon the mystic chords of memory and… upon their better angels.
But, the Confederates would not reconsider.
And so… those mystic chords snapped – a fateful shot was fired – and secession became war.
Soon, a total of 11 of the 15 slave states left the Union. The imperative to keep the other 4 Boarder states within the Union greatly influenced the strategy of the war and Lincoln’s path to issuing the Proclamation.
The fierce, no-holds-barred, incendiary fighting – caused Lincoln to realize that even if the fighting stopped, there could be no lasting peace – not as long as the Nation remained a part-slave / part-free polarized hybrid.
And so, Lincoln’s tolerance of slavery began to tilt toward emancipation. Recalling his earlier statement that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” – he insisted that “the house will become all one thing – or all the other.”
Lincoln’s decision to pursue the bloody war based on freedom – seemed to reflect the words of Julia Ward Howe, which says: “…as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”
And later, in his Gettysburg Address – Lincoln confirmed his shift toward emancipation when he said that he was “highly resolved that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom.”
Lincoln came to realize that the only way to end the bloody war – and save the Union – was by ending slavery. Lincoln’s transformation was not based solely on moral principles; no, the horror of the war pushed Lincoln to his new position.
As an example of his transformation, Lincoln signed legislation in April 1862 – which freed over 3,000 slaves in the District of Columbia. Interestingly, the slaveholders in Washington received compensation of approximately one million dollars for those freed slaves.
That was 7 months before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and Washington, D.C. was the only jurisdiction where monetary compensation was actually paid for emancipation.
“Gradual and Compensated Emancipation” was the means by which Lincoln wanted Congress to end slavery. But, Congress would not pass the legislation.
Consequently, Lincoln turned to his executive power; he informed his cabinet in July 1862 that he planned to issue an order emancipating the slaves.
Lincoln said that his decision was firm – because “he had a talk with his Maker – and God decided the question in favor of the slaves.”
One cabinet member warned that freeing the slaves and allowing them to join the Union Army – at a time when the momentum of the war was not in favor of the Union – might be seen by foreigners as an act of desperation – as if “the Union was reaching out to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia reaching out to the Union.”
Accepting the wisdom of that advice, Lincoln agreed to delay the order until the momentum of the war was more favorable to the Union.
The momentum shift that he had been waiting for occurred on September 17, 1862, that was when the North and the South engaged in a vicious battle near Sharpsburg, Maryland – at a creek called Antietam.
The Battle of Antietam resulted in over 23,000 casualties, and was the bloodiest one-day battle of the entire war; it produced the momentum shift Lincoln had been waiting for.
Five days after Antietam – on September 22, 1862 – as promised, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Stripped of all legalism… plain and simple, Lincoln’s proclamation amounted to an ultimatum to the Confederates… stop fighting and rejoin the Union within 100 days – or he would free the slaves in all areas that remained in rebellion.
Lincoln wrote that his Proclamation was “issued upon military necessity.” And, because it applied to states that were in rebellion, he was compelled to exclude the 4 border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware – because those 4 slave states remained in the Union.
Just a few weeks before the January 1st deadline – Lincoln sent a lengthy message to Congress – wherein he asked – one more time – to pass legislation. The President again explained his “Gradual and Compensated Emancipation” proposal.
The tone of that December 1862 message was far different from his previous message of appeasement – this new message left no doubt about his determination.
Lincoln said in part, “…The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled HIGH with difficulties, and we must RISE with the occasion. As our case is new – so we must THINK anew, we must ACT anew; WE must DIS-ENTHRALL ourselves, and then we can save our country…
Lincoln continued – “We know how to save the Union, and the world knows that we do know how to save it; …by giving freedom to the SLAVES, we preserve freedom to the FREE. Honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve, we shall NOBLY save – or MEANLY lose the last best hope of earth…”
In spite of that plea, Congress still refused to pass legislation ending slavery.
The night before the January 1st deadline – Frederick Douglas and others – gathered in Boston on New Year’s Eve “to watch – for the dawn of a new day.”
Today, many churches commemorate that 1862 New Year’s Eve event – in a church service known as Watch Night.
This suggests that Watch Night may be the oldest continuing celebration of emancipation.
The next day following that Watch meeting, January 1, 1863, word arrived that Lincoln had signed the Proclamation; there was great joy and jubilation!
Lincoln said that his Proclamation was “the principal Act of my Administration, and the main event of the 19th Century.”
Frederick Douglass called the proclamation “a momentous decree” – a Maryland slave holder said that “news of Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation, struck the nation like a thunderbolt from a cloudless sky”, an elderly preacher sang “sound the loud trumpets over Egypt’s Red Sea, Jehovah has triumphed His people are free”, another person warned “may God forget my people – if they forget this day.”
Such was the jubilant reaction to the Proclamation.
Of course, we know that the proclamation did not free all slaves on January 1st – but in spite of its nuances – it was indeed Lincoln’s Proclamation – that unlocked slavery’s door – and in doing so, it tilted the moral arc toward emancipation.
Over the next two and one half years – wherever Union troops were present to provide protection – it is estimated that as many as 3 ½ million – of the 4 million slaves – walked out into an uncertain freedom.
And, nearly two hundred thousand eagerly joined the Union Army and Navy.
In places such as Florida and Texas – where there were no Union troops to provide protection – slavery remained intact for another two years.
The astounding casualty rate estimated to have been some 700,000, finally caused General Lee to surrender to General Grant – that was on April 9, 1865, and, the war was essentially over.
It is ironic that a war that was started to preserve slavery – ended up destroying it.
Five days following General Lee’s surrender – tragedy struck; Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. “Father Abraham” – as Frederick Douglass called him – died on Friday, April 14th; on the Christian calendar – that was Good Friday.
In response to Lincoln’s murder the grief-stricken, and re-energized Union troops – including the United States Colored Troops – set out to ensure that the slaves were freed, and they did so under the authority of Lincoln’s 2-year old Emancipation Proclamation.
Now, we come to this day…
One month following Lincoln’s murder, Union General Edward McCook and his troops – including the USCT – arrived at Tallahassee, Florida to accept the surrender – and on May 20th General McCook read the Proclamation – as was so beautifully reenacted here today at the Knott House Museum.
But, General McCook did more than just read the Proclamation he – in fact – began to enforce emancipation in Florida.
One month after Florida’s May 20th event, another Union General – by the name of Gordon Granger – began to likewise enforce the Proclamation in Galveston, Texas. Today, that June 19th Texas emancipation event is celebrated as Juneteenth.
May 20th is to Florida what June 19th is to Texas; those were the dates when emancipation began to be enforced in the last two Confederate states of Florida and Texas.
Eight months following Lincoln’s tragic murder, and seven months after Florida’s May 20th emancipation event – any question about the Proclamation’s legitimacy became null and void – because in December 1865 – the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery was finally ratified.
Ladies and gentlemen, freedom from slavery was not a simple event; no, emancipation was greatly influenced by the Civil War – causing the slaves to be set free on different dates in different places, and under varying circumstances.
And until slavery was abolished, it was not possible for this nation to live out its creed of liberty. Along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation is that proverbial third leg that makes up freedom’s foundation.
As I close, let us recall that the great Frederick Douglass suggested… that emancipation day should be remembered as if it was a thousand years.”
And, in order to underscore the significance of this day; Mr. Douglass said…
“Slavery, the sum of all villainies, like a vulture, was gnawing at the heart of the Republic;
until this day there stretched away behind us an awful chasm of darkness and despair – of more than two centuries;
until this day the American slave, bound in chains, tossed his fettered arms on high – and groaned for freedom’s gift – in vain;
until this day the colored people of the United States lived in the shadow of death… and had no visible future;
until this day it was doubtful whether liberty and union would triumph, or slavery and barbarism;
until this day victory had largely followed the arms of the Confederate army;
Until this day the mighty conflict between the North and the South appeared to the eye of the civilized world – as destitute of qualities;
This is the significance of this day – Florida Emancipation Day – May 20, 1865