Few were confident of Lincoln signing 'edict of freedom' for slaves

Some in Pittsburgh voiced opposition to emancipation

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All across "the once United States" -- as Pittsburgh abolitionist and women's rights champion Jane Swisshelm dubbed the nation still at war with itself -- people waited to see whether President Abraham Lincoln would free the slaves on Jan. 1, 1863, in those states still in rebellion against the Union.

The president had promised to do so in September 1862, after Union forces stopped Gen. Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North at the Battle of Antietam.

The wait proved to be a long one. Not until late in the afternoon did the president slip away from a New Year's Day reception, return to his office on the second floor of the White House and sign the Emancipation Proclamation. News of his action was telegraphed from Washington to cities across the United States.

"It is the most brilliant New Year's Day that has dawned upon the republic during the 86 years of her existence," the abolitionist editor of The Pittsburgh Christian Advocate, a denominational paper of the Methodist Church, wrote a few days later. "It is destined to be cherished in the most sacred memories of millions throughout the coming centuries."


On America's most important New Year's Eve, Lincoln found our better angels

Of course, not everyone was pleased.

The editors of the Democratic-leaning Pittsburgh Post hoped Lincoln would not issue the proclamation. In late December 1862, the Post reprinted, with obvious relish, an editorial from the anti-Lincoln New York Herald, denouncing the president's emancipation policy as one "hatched by monomaniacs, deplored by statesmen, unjudged by Congress." And most damning of all, in the eyes of Lincoln's severest critics, it was a proclamation that "risks the horrors of servile war," the Herald said.

The Pittsburgh Gazette, a staunch backer of the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party, sought to assure its readers in late December that the president would not waiver. Lincoln would not bring "infamy" on himself or his country by going back on his preliminary proclamation of Sept. 22, 1862. The president is determined, the paper said, "to stand firm on the position he has taken, and on the first of January, the final edict of freedom will go forth."

But still, until it was done, few could be absolutely certain. Since the outbreak of the Civil War following the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Swisshelm and more nationally prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, had pressed Lincoln to make the abolition of slavery a central war aim. But the president had rebuffed them. To their disgust, Lincoln had overturned Gen. John Fremont's order confiscating the slaves of rebels in arms in Missouri.

Even in his preliminary proclamation of September 1862, the president was still touting his plan to colonize blacks outside of the United States, if they were willing to leave.

Besides, the cultivation of cotton and tobacco by enslaved people was a business "too big to fail," to borrow words familiar from the recent debate over government help to large banks and the auto industry.

Slavery affected millions, not only in the South but in financial and shipping centers like New York. Even Pittsburgh had strong economic ties to the South. Its textile industry was dependent on slave-cultivated cotton from the South.

And judging from the elections in the fall of 1862, many white voters in the North were against Lincoln's emancipation plans, along with his handling of the war. Republicans took a thrashing in congressional elections, losing a number of House seats.

Nowhere was Lincoln's decision more eagerly awaited than among the communities of free blacks and fugitive slaves in the North, along with their abolitionist friends and allies. Even among the enslaved people of the South, news of the impending "dawn of freedom" spread among the 3.5 million blacks, despite attempts to suppress it.

"People gathered in churches on Dec. 31, 1862, on what they called 'freedom's eve' and prayed that Lincoln would act," said Sam Black, director of African-American programs at the Heinz History Center.

Some may have gathered at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, now in the Hill District. Founded in 1808, the church would have been an obvious meeting ground. On Monday, Bethel, which calls itself the oldest black church west of the Allegheny Mountains, included in its traditional watch-night service a program commemorating the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. It recalled those New Year's Eve vigils of 150 years ago.

The major Pittsburgh newspapers -- the Post and the Gazette, in particular -- paid scant attention to such celebrations in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.

The Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle noted that at a camp for escaped slaves, a few blocks northeast of the White House, about 300 people crowded into a school to hear speeches and pray that Heaven would bless Lincoln and "speedily defeat the rebels."

The Chronicle also carried a brief dispatch describing a huge celebration at the Tremont Temple in Boston. This gathering, though the Chronicle did not report it, had been organized by that city's black leaders. It included speeches by such luminaries as Douglass and the Rev. James Freeman Clarke.

The Post dismissed such celebrations as the "frothy demonstrations of the most crazy portions of the abolitionists over President Lincoln's empty proclamation. One of these enthusiasts, in a fit of exultation, shouts himself hoarse in praise of Abraham Lincoln and closes his rhapsody with 'the year of Jubilee is come, return ye ransomed sinner home.' "

It isn't clear whether the editor of the Post had witnessed such a scene or was drawing his description from the dispatches reprinted from other newspapers about the events of Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.

Almost two weeks after Lincoln signed the proclamation, the Post carried a brief notice, tucked away on a back page amid announcements about a new minister at the city's Third Presbyterian Church and the annual meeting of the Young Men's Commercial Literary Club. "The colored people of this city," the notice said, "propose to celebrate the issuing of the President's Emancipation Proclamation on Thursday next [Jan. 15] which they will make a day of thanksgiving, fasting and prayer, closing all their places of business."

None of Pittsburgh's major newspapers appear to have reported on the Jan. 15 celebration. But it is possible to guess the form it might have taken. For almost 30 years, the black community had celebrated an emancipation day on Aug. 1 to mark the day in 1834 when a law freeing slaves in the British West Indies went into effect. A decade earlier, the Gazette described one such celebration, held on an estate in Manchester. It included speeches, music and a picnic.

Although opposed to the proclamation, the Post's editors didn't fail to realize its significance.

The proclamation "will be long remembered as the most extraordinary of our time," the paper said. "A war avowedly for the restoration of the Union will this date be changed into a crusade" against slavery.

"The present proclamation, we apprehend will prove to be a great failure. As well might the president read the riot act from the portico of the White House, or issue a warrant for the arrest of Stonewall Jackson," the Post said. "In fact the only way we can enforce the President's edict is whipping the enemy, and wherever that is done, there will be no need of proclamation."

Some Northern newspapers invoked the specter of a race war in denouncing the proclamation. Shortly after Lincoln announced his intention to end slavery on Jan. 1, The Harrisburg Union called the policy "an outrage upon humanity and against the good sense of the country to say nothing of its unconstitutionality."

The Union claimed that after Jan. 1, blacks "may if they will, rise up and massacre white men, women and children till their hands are smeared and their appetite glutted with blood. They may do so with impunity, for they have the backing" of the federal government.

The Gazette, which had printed the Union editorial, assured its readers that such "semi-secessionist" views were not representative of northern newspapers.

By the winter of 1863, Swisshelm was living in Washington, D.C., working as a nurse in military hospitals and as a government clerk. She also was still writing letters to newspapers, now in her adopted state of Minnesota.

In one such letter she mocked those "prophets" who said "if you emancipate the slaves, they will refuse to work, and will murder their white masters.

"Of course the prophets know, and yet I have read somewhere that the slaves in this District have actually been emancipated. How does it come that they are at work and their [former] masters not yet murdered?" she asked.

Of course, there was no such massacre of whites at the hands of Southern blacks. Now freed, many slaves moved quickly to find safety behind Union lines -- thus securing their own freedom and depriving the Confederacy of the fruits of their labor.

Ironically, despite all the talk about servile insurrection, "the loyal slave" tending to the farm while the master was away soon became a key part of the myth of the Lost Cause after the South's defeat in 1865.

While the Emancipation Proclamation is best remembered for freeing the slaves in the Confederacy, it also opened the way for African-Americans to serve in the Union Army and Navy, as Douglass and other abolitionists had been pressing the Lincoln administration to do. The subject of "Negro soldiers" would increasingly be debated in the columns of Pittsburgh newspapers.

Still left undecided was the fate of more than a half-million slaves in the border states not covered by the proclamation. Only with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865, eight months after Lincoln's death and the end of the Civil War, would slavery be abolished throughout the country.

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Frank Reeves: freeves@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1565.


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