Calling Upon Him to Keep His Word

In July, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a decree threatening pro-Confederate slaveowners with slave confiscation if they did not stop rebelling against the U.S. government within 60 days. He also drafted a slave emancipation order, but he had been persuaded not to publish this until the Federals scored a military victory.

Things seemed bleak for the Federals in September, as General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army invaded Maryland. But Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal army forced the Confederates to return to Virginia after the Battle of Antietam, and even though the battle was a tactical stalemate, Lee’s withdrawal was enough to proclaim it a Federal victory.

As Lincoln explained to his commissioner of internal revenue, George Boutwell, “When Lee came over the river, I made a resolve that when McClellan drove him back–and I expected he would do it sometime or other–I would send the Proclamation after him.” He later told Boutwell, “I could not find out till Saturday (September 20) whether we had really won a victory or not.” By that time, Lincoln had gathered enough information to act.

Since Lincoln had said nothing publicly, abolitionists in the North were growing impatient at his seeming inactivity regarding slavery. Congressman Robert Dale Owen of Indiana reminded the president of his July order:

“The twenty-third of September approaches, the date when the sixty-day notice you have given to the rebels will expire–expire without other reply to your warning than the invasion of Maryland and a menace to Pennsylvania. Is it to rest there? Patiently we have waited the time. Is nothing to follow? Are our enemies to boast that we speak brave words–and there an end of it?”

Owen argued that an emancipation decree would be “the very turning point in the nation’s fate! A day to the rebels of despair, to every loyal heart of exultant rejoicing! A day of which the anniversary will be celebrated with jubilee while the American Union endures! A day to be remembered not on our land alone, but wherever humanity mourns over the wrongs of the slave, or rejoices in his liberation!”

Those closer to Lincoln knew that something was coming; he had told Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, “I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back… I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.” White House secretary William Stoddard wrote that Lincoln had said he would order emancipation if Lee was defeated, “and now all the later dispatches from the Antietam seem to call upon him to keep his word.”

Lincoln returned to the White House after a stay at the Soldiers’ Home outside Washington on Sunday the 21st. He spent time alone going over the draft of his emancipation decree. He then called a meeting of his cabinet for noon on the 22nd, one day before his 60-day deadline to either cease the rebellion or risk slave confiscation expired.


  • Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.

Leave a Reply