I'm a bit confused about what Lincoln's proclamation did exactly. It's thought by some the Emancipation Proclamation gave all slaves the status of free. However from reading the introduction of the Wikipedia article this belief seems wrong.

The Proclamation did not compensate the owners, did not outlaw slavery, and did not grant citizenship to the ex-slaves. (bolding is mine).

I know the Thirteenth Amendment did unequivocally outlaw slavery, but I would like to clarify some things about the Emancipation Proclamation.

It changed the federal legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the designated areas of the South from slave to free. As soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government, by running away or through advances of federal troops, the former slave became free.

So if a slave in a slave state could escape a Confederate slave state into territory controlled by the Union army, they were made free. This I understand.

it did not apply to those in the four slave states that were not in rebellion

It did not apply to states which practised slavery but were not in rebellion, such as Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. This I understand.

However what I don't get easily is the following:

The Proclamation ordered the freedom of all slaves in ten states.[3] Because it was issued under the president's authority to suppress rebellion (war powers), it necessarily excluded areas not in rebellion, but still applied to more than 3.5 million of the 4 million slaves.

The proclamation changed the status of slaves in the Confederate states in rebellion against the Union. What I don't understand is say for example you were a slave in a rebelling state not controlled by the Union army, were you made free by this proclamation? Say you had not managed to escape your master and leave the state, did this proclamation legally give you the status of free, even though your master forced you to continue to be a slave?

Also there seems to be a contradiction, or at least a redundancy, because first it says if a slave was able to escape Confederate controlled territory past the advances of the Union army they were made free. Then it says that the proclamation instantly gave the legal status of free to a slave in a rebelling Confederate state.

Source of quotes: Emancipation proclamation

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    @MarkC.Wallace Well the secession being unconstitutional, as I understand it, then the Confederacy was still technically part of the Union, and the laws entailed by the proclamation were legitimate in all states, it's just that the Union couldn't enforce it in Confederate-controlled territory, right?
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 11:41
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    The Proclamation also had diplomatic effect. It established in popular opinion abroad that the war was partly about slavery, and made it much more difficult for many Europeans to support the Confederacy. Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 16:58
  • Note that we had an Emancipation Proclamation in a tweet question that you might be interested in.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 19:29

6 Answers 6


Since it only applied to areas that didn't recognize Federal authority, the snarky take on the Emancipation Proclamation has always been that it didn't itself free a single slave. Like a lot of famous snark, this isn't entirely true.

The US Army had already been given the authority to free any slaves it came across in Confederate territory as Contraband of War for the previous two years. However, "Contraband" rule was at military discretion, which left a lot of slaves behind Union lines in limbo until a decision was made on their specific case. The EP made it automatic. Something on the order of 20-50 thousand slaves were freed the day it took effect.

Here's a map* showing the areas affected: enter image description here

There were about 300,000 slaves in the exempted (blue) areas, and 100,000 in the red areas that were legally free on Jan 1, 1863.

Of course the red area would expand and move around as the war progressed, which is where the real importance of the proclamation came in. As soon as it was issued, the war became just as about the survival of slavery to the Union side as it had always been in the South. This had the following effects:

  • It was no longer politically feasible for the government of England to recognize, or even really support, the Confederacy.
  • There was no longer a good hope of a negotiated settlement between the two sides, as their goals were now diametrically opposed.
  • Union troops now officially had a moral cause they were fighting for that justified their sacrifices. "We don't want them to leave" was always weaksauce.

What I think might not have been obvious to a lot of people at the time was that, whatever else may have happened, as soon as the Proclamation was issued, slavery was as good as dead in the United States of America. No matter what the existing legalities may have been, when 400,000 young men died fighting it and another 300,000 were casualties, it was simply politically impossible for the cause of that to be tolerated any more.

* - I believe this map originally appeared in an article by William Harris in North and South magazine from 2001

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    Why is Tennessee highlighted here?
    – KRyan
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 15:34
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    @KRyan - Tennessee was the only entire state exempted by name (West Virginia didn't become a state until April 20, 1863). If you want a deeper why, that might be a good (new) question for this site. I didn't turn up anything obvious with a quick search, but its a pretty good bet all those dark blue areas were made exempt for political reasons.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 15:40
  • @T.E.D. As someone from Memphis, were taught that TN was exempted because it was occupied by the Union already. That was an acceptable answer when I was 10 but when I think about it now it really doesnt make much sense, so I would love for some one to explain to for me.
    – ed.hank
    Commented Aug 22, 2018 at 16:49
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    @ed.hank Well, that little Ask Question link is right there at the top, tantalizingly close...
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 22, 2018 at 17:05

Its biggest effect was diplomatic, in that it turned the war from a political one to a moral one, thus removing any chance of official support for the Confederacy from Britain and France.

The Confederate strategy for securing independence was based largely on the hope of military intervention by Britain and France. Wikipedia: UK and the US Civil War

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    This is accurate particularly in that this was its primary intended effect, and it worked for that purpose.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 15:11
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    @T.E.D. Are you saying the primary purpose of the proclamation was to make the war primarily a war about slavery, and in doing so making it less defensible for Britain or France to aid the slavery-practising Confederacy? If so, wow. I doubt this is the sort of thing you're taught at school. The naive me saw figures like Lincoln as heroes of human rights, but it's all politics.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 15:46
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    @Zebrafish - Yes, that was the primary purpose (and hopefully I speak for Tombo here too, as this was Tombo's answer). I'm pretty sure DKG's Team of Rivals goes into this in detail, but I'm sure lots of other good books do as well.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 15:53
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    @Zebrafish - ...and on a personal note, the two not only aren't incompatible, but in fact must go together. If your political maneuvering isn't in the service of human rights, you're doing it wrong.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 15:57
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    It's very difficult to teach children the complexities of history (and even harder to teach college kids!) -- because they're so complicated. Nothing happens for just one pure motive, even for individuals, and much less for a nation. The North's strategic goals were to preserve the Union and to end slavery. Many tactical decisions were made along the way by fallible human beings who lacked the "clarity" of hindsight, many of which advanced those goals to a greater or lesser extent and some of which didn't. It may be useful to think of it as a drunkard's walk that eventually gets to a goal.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 16:00

Question: What did the emancipation proclamation exactly do:

If the question is what did the Emancipation Proclamation accomplish immediately then the above answers address it well.

If the question is what did the Emancipation Proclamation accomplish, then the answer is it freed the vast majority of slaves in the United States. The Thirteenth Amendment while technically freeing fewer slaves was important because it gave permanence to that freedom.

The vast majority of slaves in the south achieved freedom under the Presidential order Emancipation Proclamation, not the Thirteenth Amendment. The emancipation proclamation was signed into law January 1, 1863 after the union victory at the Battle of Antietam September 1862. I agree that a component of the timing was dictated by the politics of keeping Britain and France out of the war. I also agree when signed in Jan 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the union occupied parts of the secessionist states:

  • Northern and Western Virginia (Arlington Fairfax and Loudoun counties)
  • Parts of south eastern Virginia,
  • Parts of Southern Louisiana and Alabama.

However, by the time the superceeding 13th Amendment was ratified January 31, 1865. The Emancipation Proclamation covered most of the South except for the city of Richmond and parts of North Carolina . The only two Confederate Armies still in the field were Lee's Army of Northern Virginia blockaded in the city of Richmond, and Johnston's forces in North Carolina.

Feb 3 1865
Only Lee's Army at Petersburg and Johnston's forces in North Carolina remain to fight for the South against Northern forces now numbering 280,000 men.


Lincoln needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment primarily because he invented his authority to free the slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation. In war time he granted himself a power which not even Congress had in peacetime. Lincoln invented the war powers which allowed him to selectively suspend the constitution, overrule the courts, and Free the Slaves with a Presidential order.

Abraham Lincoln's invention of Presidential War Powers Abraham Lincoln's Invention of Presidential War Powers: Facing the unprecedented crisis of civil war in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln invoked his "war power" as commander-in-chief to "take any measure which may best subdue the enemy." Defying the chief justice of the United States, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus by presidential decree. He also declared martial law, authorized the trial of civilians by military courts, and proclaimed the emancipation of slaves--all on the grounds that "I may in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress." In so doing, Lincoln vastly expanded presidential war powers and established precedents invoked by later presidents.

Without a Constitutional amendment the next President, or a subsequent supreme court ruling could have overturned his Proclamation. Could have returned slavery to nearly half the country. The Thirteenth Amendment basically made permanent what was done in the Emancipation Proclamation. (more permanent than the Presidential order, or a Congressional Law)

I think you are getting hung up on the fact that Lincoln's Presidential order only freed the slaves in the sucessionist South. This was a political move, and shouldn't be interpreted that Lincoln favored slavery in any part of the union.

The entire Republican Party was founded to abolish Slavery. All of Lincoln's cabinet (most of whom were Presidential candidates who ran against Lincoln for the nomination in 1860) opposed slavery. Yet when Lincoln first proposed the Emancipation Proclamation his cabinet initially talked him out of the action along political grounds, until the Union had a victory on the battlefield. After the Union's victory at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln's cabinet again opposed the Proclamation and Lincoln overruled them. These were committed anti slavery politicians who all got timid when it came time to outlaw slavery. There were real political concerns for a President entering into a re-election cycle. Lincoln's exception of the border states allowed him to frame the proclamation as a punitive act against the South. This was important because a significant part of the country at the time were lower paid day laborers who saw freed slaves as economic competition for jobs. The compromise, omitting the border states, allowed Lincoln to pass a law targeting most of the slaves without alienating a significant voting block before he stood for re-election in 1864.


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    The missing word "immediately" is 'mentioned' indirectly or more like en passant in TED's answer. Seems this does not "disagree" with that but adds valuable perspective? Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 22:48
  • Lincoln's first inaugural address: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." However the secession was unconstitutional, and according to Wikipedia: "Lincoln issued the Proclamation under his authority as "Commander in Chief... under Article II, section 2 of the United States Constitution." I assume it's controversial whether he had this power or not given your link and that the Wiki article doesn't mention any challenge of this power.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 7:21
  • West Virginia was exempt from the EP, as was the part of southern Louisiana the answer mentions, and the area of SE Virginia it mentions. Pretty much all three of those bullets are wrong. What it appears was covered was areas behind Union lines in Arkansas and extreme Northern Virginia, Baton Rouge (upriver from NOLA), and a few other east coast southern port areas that were Union-held.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 14:10
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    @JMS Your answer missdates several events. Rebel forts in Mobil Bay were captured August 1864 but the city of Mobile surrendered April 12, 1865. Nashville was captured by the Union in 1862 and the Battle of Nashville in 1864 was a defeat of attacking Rebels. In January 1865 there were several Rebel armies in the south beside the two you mention, though the Union controlled the majority of the south. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conclusion_of_the_American_Civil_War - history.army.mil/books/AMH-V1/Map34.jpg
    – MAGolding
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 15:48
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    @T.E.D. Lincoln's test with the civil war was like the Weimar republic's test in 1924 with Hitler after the Beer Hall Putsch. The Weimar Republic to my mind responded weakly and inadequately to the Hitler threat. They lost control of the state and doomed the world to WWII. Lincoln's actions to the contrary were bold, unprecedented, quasi legal bordering on illegal, and he saved the Union. That a man like Chief Justice Taney could have stopped Lincoln would have been a travesty. Legally entirely appropriate, but Lincoln wouldn't stand for it. Which makes Lincoln that much greater.
    – user27618
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 18:26

It was argued then and continues to be argued that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free more than a handful of slaves and was therefore irrelevant.

The Declaration of Independence did not make the US a “free and independent nation.” That took seven more years to accomplish. And, had the British prevailed, the Declaration would be of interest only to students of failed revolutions. On the contrary, during the American Civil War, all of the slaves in the areas delineated were free de facto with thirty months of the Emancipation Proclamation and a large number were freed immediately. The Emancipation Proclamation was prospective, i.e., it would free slaves as the United States Army marched south, and the Yankees were on the advance.

The Emancipation Proclamation also freed slaves in areas considered to be in rebellion, many of which were controlled by the United States on January 1, 1863.

Reading the Emancipation Proclamation, and comparing the areas included and excluded, shows that the immediate effect of the Emancipation Proclamation was to free a large number of slaves, in areas under United States’ control, but still considered to be in rebellion. The Emancipation Proclamation preserved slavery only those areas not in rebellion, not those areas under United States’ control on January 1, 1863. And that is a huge difference.

Note that in Louisiana the excluded areas are New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta and the area immediately west of the Delta (county lines were a little different in 1863 than now, but close enough to use Rand-McNally). However, the US Army had occupied more of the state to the North, heading, as they were, towards Port Hudson. So all of those slaves were freed.

The excluded areas of Virginia included West Virginia (small slave population anyway), and Berkeley County, which is the start of the strip of West Virginia which today takes in both Berkeley and Jefferson (Harpers Ferry) counties. But Jefferson County was not excluded. (Trivia point: obviously the boundaries of the new state of West Virginia were still in a bit of a state of flux. I believe [which means I do not know enough West Virginia history to say one way or another] the inclusion of the lower Shenandoah Valley into West Virginia was a political stroke to make certain that if there was a peace treaty between the US and the CS, the B&O Railroad would all be in the United States).

The only other parts of Virginia excluded were the Eastern Shore (the peninsula that stretches South from Eastern Maryland towards Cape Charles), and the area around Norfolk-Hampton-Fortress Monroe.

However, the United States controlled all of Virginia north of the Rappahannock, including, obviously, Alexandria County, which then consisted of Arlington and Alexandria. They also had a presence in the Shenandoah. Now “control” is a relative word: John Mosby would have disputed the above paragraph! But, nevertheless, the Confederacy did not control most of Northern Virginia. So there are two big areas, and, in the case of Virginia, important areas, where the slaves were freed on January 1, 1863.

In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Arkansas, Georgia and the Carolinas. On Emancipation Day, the United States controlled much of tidewater and the barrier islands of Georgia and North and South Carolina. The Union controlled the Ozarks of Arkansas (not many slaves) but also the heavily slave areas of the extreme northeastern counties of Arkansas. The blue coats were in possession of major portions of North Mississippi and Alabama, and they would, within a few months, liberate the densely slave occupied areas of the Mississippi black belt between the Mississippi and the Yazoo.

Quite a large number – probably hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million or more, of the slaves were freed – and freed immediately – by the Emancipation Proclamation.

And the balance of the four million would be de facto free within thirty months.

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    Your comparison of the EP with the DI is excellent!
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 1:18

Emancipation Proclamation declared legally free only slaves, whose forced labor contributed to Confederacy military power. This was exactly what Lincoln wrote in his August 22, 1862 letter to Horace Greeley:

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that

At the time Emancipation Proclamation was signed, United States could not enforce it immediately, because legally emancipated slaves resided on territories, controlled by Confederacy, and their masters did not obey US laws.

However, Emancipation Proclamation contributed greatly to Union winning the war:

It encouraged confederacy slaves to sabotage their labor, contributed to Confederacy military power (including escape into territory controlled by the Union army);

It encouraged escaped slaves to perform work for the Union army (including enlistment to Union army), in order to help free relatives still under Confederacy control;

It undermined Confederacy sympathisers effort to convince foreign governments to recognize and help Confederacy, because most developed countries abolished slavery for moral reasons;

It encouraged anti-slavery Northerners to re-enlist and continue war effort


This is what i have found, from Provost Marshal Generals office and USSC "Investigations in the Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers" By Benjamin Apthorp Gould

Till Dec 64 average monthly desertion was 3490, 6 months pre EO the average was 3480, 6 months post EP was 3149 and the 6 months from preliminary announced in 62 and take effect 6 months, it rose to 6761 a 53% increase in desertion rate in that 6 month times span.

Or another way to put that is the EP added the effects added 19,626 desertions over 6 months, to the average monthly desertion rate.

Average monthly enlistments for whole war, 50,354, for the same 6 months EP to announced and went into effect, a decline of 13% in enlistments.

Till July 1862: 54833 Till July 1863:43958 Till July 1864:53083 Till April 1865:47777

Or another why to express that is the EP declined white enlistments by 38376, had the EP not been issued, then another c120k free white would have had to be enlisted to achieve the same force level for ground forces.

Effects of EP on desertion and enlistment, reduced the military participation level by 58,002, which more than compensated by the enlistment of non black free and slave in the 178,000 USCT plus naval.

Or another to put it, the US needed more manpower to prosecute the war, and found using free and slaves to be the military necessity, solution, as the legislation conscripted slaves into service and they could not pay the exemption fee, nor could many of the free black as c48% of all free males of mil age went into service.

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    This would benefit from some editing as parts of it are very unclear. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 19:44

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