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
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
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
"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