Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"I Am for the President's Proclamation Teeth and Toe Nails": Illinois Soldiers Respond to the Emancipation Proclamation

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"I Am for the President's Proclamation Teeth and Toe Nails": Illinois Soldiers Respond to the Emancipation Proclamation

Article excerpt

The issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862 immediately received both praise and condemnation. In the one hundred days between its issuance, and the January 1, 1863 adoption of it, antislavery and freedom loving individuals lauded the decision. Radical abolitionists lamented that it was weak and ineffective, while loyal Democrats and Southerners decried it as revolutionary and incendiary, claiming it urged servile insurrection, rapine and murder. One thing was certain-the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, when and how it was released, was a political and national powder keg. No other single document had the power to shake the nation to its roots and threaten its future as did Lincoln's edict, which did nothing other than proclaim freedom for those persons held in slavery in states actively seeking to break away from the government of the United States.

In retrospect, it is difficult to imagine such hostility to a policy that was used as a war measure to thwart the efforts of rebellious states, and to further the aims of liberty in the Land of the Free. Recent scholarship has scrutinized the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in some detail, examining the process of Lincoln's step by step approach to this most divisive of issues, and the path that ultimately led to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, forever abolishing slavery. Here we will examine the immediate impact of the proclamation upon Illinois soldiers and their rejection or acceptance of the changing nature of the Civil War, from a war to preserve the Union, to a war to eradicate slavery.1

Illinois was a critical source of manpower and supplies. The allegiance of her soldiers and their support for the president's policy were critical factors in maintaining this status. With the outcome of the war still very much in doubt, the soldiers of the Prairie State reacted to the proclamation and its implications in three waves. The first was in the immediate aftermath of the issuance of the preliminary proclamation in September. Once the shock of this wore off, and the permanent date of January 1, 1863 loomed, the reality of the act touched off another spate of opinions. While many soldiers accepted (if not embraced) the emancipation of slaves, the idea of arming them and making them soldiers provoked more comment. Black soldiers logically meant black citizens, and this was too much for many soldiers to process in such a short span of time.

Illinois was a free state, but was bordered on the south and west by Kentucky and Missouri, both slave states. Illinois' ties to the South were strong, with many of its early settlers making their way to the prairies via Virginia and Kentucky. Thus Illinois was always a divided state over the issue of slavery. This fact was clearly demonstrated in the 1856 senatorial contest. Political partisanship was defined over the slavery issue. From its earliest days as a state Illinois had enacted black codes, prohibiting the emigration of freed Negroes into the state. On the other hand, abolitionist sentiment also had strong undercurrents in the Prairie State, which was instrumental in founding the Republican Party. Elijah Lovejoy, one of the earliest proponents of abolitionism, learned the hard way that the issue was deadly serious to its opponents, who murdered him in Alton, Illinois on November 7,1837. The contentious Dred Scott decision (March 1857) also had its roots in Illinois. Thus it is hardly surprising that the reactions among Illinois soldiers to the Emancipation Proclamation would be divided. After all, these were men who had volunteered with unprecedented patriotism to save the Union, but who reflected the political diversity of the state when freedom of the slaves was at stake.

Another contentious factor that was linked to emancipation was racism. Even for many proponents of the Emancipation Proclamation, the idea of political and social equality for blacks was unthinkable. …

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