The March on Washington passed through Morris Island 100 years earlier

As I left work yesterday, there was a flurry of activity around the National Mall, Freedom Plaza, open spaces in Federal Triangle, and elsewhere.  A lot of preparation for an anniversary observance – 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington.

So why would I bring that up on a Civil War blog?  Oh, yes the whole Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights theme.  If you have read this blog for long, you know I have some concerns about how that theme is presented in, if you want to call it such, “pop history.”  In the effort to try to summarize a complex topic into a short paragraph, or even one sentence, there is a great disservice to history.  And even when given ample space to explore the complexity of the topic, historians often botch the job.  See for instance the performance (yes, let’s call it what it was) of Doris Kerns Goodwin at Gettysburg on June 30 of this year.  The failing there, as with so many of the Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights efforts is the reluctance to look at the details – what I call the mechanics – of how Civil Rights were advanced during, through, and as a reaction to the Civil War.  Instead, we tend to see what I’ve called a “bad grafting” of the two lines.  Again, as with Goodwin talking for nearly an hour and only mentioning “war” in the context of her anti-war activity in the 1960s.

A reason, but not the only reason, the Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights theme escapes capture into a single passage is because the advance of Civil Rights was, and is, one of increments.  It involves bus seats, lunch counters, pay scales, and other smaller points that tend to build the larger change.  Martin Luther King’s speech on August 28, 1963 did not directly change practices, but rather it changed minds.  Many minds then were inspired to press changes, small and large.  Such is the story of Civil Rights.  But King’s speech came at a time when the crucible of the times, a combination of social and international pressures, laid bare many issues of equality in the nation.

The same was true of the times 100 years prior to King’s speech.  There’s a wealth of primary source materials which we can draw upon to better illustrate this Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights theme, and show those incremental advances.  But most often that requires a great deal of context, offered by the writer, and understanding, assumed by the reader, when coming to grip with this complex theme.  Indeed, both subject lines in their own right are complex themes, making the confluence even more so.  Both deserve study, in and out.  We need to delve into those details.  We should look at examples where the war forced authorities, military and civilian, to address inequality and thus in some increments advance Civil Rights by establishing precedence.

Crystal N Feimster, mentioned one of those in her recent New York Times Disunion blog post, “Rape and Justice in the Civil War.” (And of course expands upon that in her book.)  As the war progressed, the military leaders had to deal with situations where soldiers took advantage of the recently freed slaves. In particular, rape of former slaves.  The application of the Lieber Code in those cases forced authorities to view African-American women, formerly slaves, as humans deserving equal protection under the law.  Not exactly a sweeping change that is easily explained in a single sentence.  To understand it at all, we need to delve into the Lieber Code and why it existed at all.   And to see that, we have to take up a lot of questions about situations on the front lines of the war.

Another example, closer to my themes of late on this blog, comes from Morris Island.  Brigadier-General Qunicy Gillmore issued General Orders No. 77 on September 17, 1863.  Section I of that order read:

It has come to the knowledge of the brigadier-general commanding that the detachments of colored troops detailed for fatigue duty have been employed, in one instance at least, to prepare camps and perform menial duty for white troops. Such use of these details is unauthorized and improper, and is hereafter expressly prohibited.

Commanding officers of colored regiments are directed to report promptly to these headquarters any violations of this order which may come to their knowledge.

Labor equality?  In 1863? Yes, 100 years before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  No, we can’t go so far to say Quincy Gillmore was a “drum major.”  But someone out there on Morris Island in the summer of 1863 would qualify.

That order was the result of specific situations on Morris Island.  My blog postings of late have chipped away at the context of those situations, by looking at the details of the work done.  What I really need to do to better weld the connection here is highlight the nature of the fatigue details employed… or in short identify who was building what sections of the trenches at what time.  In some cases, that is well documented.  For instance the engineers noted the work of the 3rd US Colored Troops on the fourth parallel.  But in other cases the source material is hard to come by.  No excuse, because that’s the sort of quest which drive historians to perfection.  And I accept that challenge.

And the fatigue detail order is not a singular example from Morris Island.  The campaign abounds with examples of Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights – the trial of prisoners of the 54th Massachusetts, handling of runaways from the Confederate work details, integrated teams working in the trenches of Morris Island, general Confederate dealing with the USCT, and more.  (To the point one has to wonder, “where’s the book?”)

If we are going to bring up waypoints on the journey of Civil Rights, then we have an obligation to discuss why those are waypoints to begin with.  We must examine the ground on which that waypoint is placed.  And along with that the line of march between that and the next waypoint. Doesn’t matter if we are talking about the Emancipation Proclamation, the Buffalo Soldiers, the 93rd Infantry Division, the Tuskegee Airmen, Jackie Robinson, or, as we are today, the March on Washington.

Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights should not just be some compulsory blurb in the line of public interpretation.  We should put some weight to that story.


Yes, let’s tell that story. It’s time to bring the USCT to the fore.

Yesterday Emmanuel Dabney posted his thoughts about the future of Civil War history, leaving readers with a set of questions about the focus of interpretation:

So what do you think? If you are interpreting USCTs at a museum, historic site, or battlefield, how have you incorporated their stories in your interpretation? If you haven’t, why not?

His questions are direct, and right on target, in my opinion.

Back at the first of January, I had the privilege of speaking along side some of the other Loudoun County historians regarding the Emancipation Proclamation. My assigned task was to relate the military aspects of the proclamation. As you probably gather from my writings, I tend to focus on how things are applied, in the practical sense. So discussed the proclamation as an executive order – how it was applied by the military, and that emancipation was thence tied to success on the battlefield. But I also put emphasis on the oft forgotten section of the proclamation which authorized the USCT. The contribution of the USCT in the war was nothing short of crucial. In the end, their weight tipped the scales in the favor of the men in blue.

Emancipation depended the military… yet at the same time, the military depended on emancipation. The two were welded into a composite instrument by way of the proclamation.

One of the other speakers at the event was Kevin Grigsby, another of our Loudoun historians. Kevin has identified about 250 black men from Loudoun who served in the USCT. They fought on battlefields in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and of course Virginia. You’d think with such widespread service, their stories would be well known and shared. In a recent article run in the Washington Post, Kevin offered his take on why this is not the case:

“I don’t want to say they lived an anonymous life,” he said. “But they just kind of settled back in. There weren’t parades or statues or monuments; they came back as victors.”

“I can’t even imagine what it was like for an African American . . . to have had that moment,” Grigsby said. “In some cases, you went from a slave to a liberator . . . to a protector and then, within so many years, you begin to see that freedom slowly peeled back and you have the rise of Jim Crow.”

“So it’s no wonder that it took all these years later to kind of start discovering, wow, we had a lot of Civil War vets who were African American here,” he added. “You have to remember you are in Virginia, and that story kind of got overlooked.”

That is, to me at least, a good explanation as to why the USCT story was, for lack of a better word, buried. And that us back to Emmanuel’s set of questions.

I’ve mentioned here a time or two, a hallmark of the sesquicentennial, as compared to the centennial, is the diversity of stories… or shall I say broader spectrum of colors. It may be in Cleveland or here in Loudoun, but there is a strong current pushing us to a place with a more complete understanding of the war. We have every opportunity to bring these overlooked and overshadowed stories to the fore.

While no major actions in Loudoun involved USCT, those veterans lay in the county’s cemeteries.

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That is where, in my opinion, we in Loudoun might tell the story of the USCT. The way I see it, the cost of a historical marker is a comparatively small investment considering the return. Particularly in order to speak to a portion of our collective history that deserves to be told in rich, bold colors.

150 Years Ago: Bricks for Fort Clinch… gathered by the “Sable Arm”

I’m a bit early with this sesquicentennial themed post.  But there are several events “stacked up” at the end of this month, furthermore the topic goes well with today’s holiday – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Fort Clinch, near Fernandina Beach, Florida, protected the entrance to St. Mary’s River, bordering Georgia and Florida.  The five-million or so bricks of Fort Clinch have captured my attention on each visit to the site.  Even a casual observer notes the distinct line of colors in the brickwork.

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Fort Clinch – looking to the west end of the gorge wall

Most of the lower, grayer bricks are from the initial construction period and were drawn from local sources.  Although started in 1847, work proceeded slowly.  Even when Federals occupied the fort in March 1862, the work was still far from complete.  Authorities felt, even though the fort was a backwater in a backwater theater, Fort Clinch should be completed in order to shore up defenses along the coast.   Such efforts required bricks… and labor.

Project engineer Captain Alfred F. Sears began contracting “contraband” labor in 1862.  But he was short of bricks, with no available source on the barrier island.  The brickyard which had supplied the fort’s builders before the war lay some thirty miles upstream on the St. Mary’s River, behind Confederate lines.  With Sears’ urgings, an expedition formed in mid-January 1863 with the aim to secure the bricks.  It is easy to overlook this activity with much larger events occurring in the major theaters of war at around the same time.  Call them “raids” or “expeditions,” such forays occurred with regularity along the coastlines during the war.  What draws my attention to this particular expedition are the troops employed – the First (US) South Carolina Infantry.

The 1st South Carolina first formed, by order of General David Hunter, in the spring of 1862 from contrabands at Hilton Head.  Under political pressure, the regiment was disbanded.  But by November the regiment reformed under Colonel Thomas W. Higginson.  Despite the state designation, the regiment consisted of a number of escaped slaves from Georgia and Florida.  That factor worked in favor of the expedition.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Despite the military air of his portrait, Higginson was not a military man by training.  A minister and ardent abolitionist, Higginson hailed from Massachusetts.  Before the war he’d supported John Brown, going as far to say that slavery had to end even if it meant war.  And when war came, Higginson went as a Captain of the 51st Massachusetts.  His beliefs and reputation, despite his lack of experience, led General Rufus Saxton to offer command the 1st South Carolina to Higginson.

Higginson’s expedition left Beaufort, South Carolina on January 23.  The 1st South Carolina, consisting of 462 officers and men, loaded into three steamers.  As reports go, Higginson’s was one of the worst in terms of formatting.  In reciting the details, he failed to provide any specifics as to the routes taken or even dates of activities (although he did offer a chapter length account of the expedition in Army Life in a Black Regiment, published in 1870).  By February 1, the expedition returned to South Carolina.  He could report accomplishment of his primary objective – “I have turned over to Captain Sears about 40,000 large-sized bricks, valued at about $1,000, in view of the present high freights.”  Higginson went into great detail about the stores and supplies acquired, and in some cases left behind due to lack of transport.

But in a broader perspective, one might say the 1st South Carolina took away some bricks, but left behind something more important.  The expedition was among the first, if not THE first, operation involving black troops after the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation.  That fact was not lost on Higginson:

The expedition has carried the regimental flag and the President’s proclamation far into the interior of Georgia and Florida. The men have been repeatedly under fire; have had infantry, cavalry, and even artillery arrayed against them, and have in every instance come off not only with unblemished honor, but with undisputed triumph.

Higginson reported a few slave families returned with the expedition.  But he didn’t figure the count of freed slave to be the measure of success at this stage of the war:

No officer in this regiment now doubts that the key to the successful prosecution of this war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops. Their superiority lies simply in the fact that they know the country, while white troops do not, and, moreover, that they have peculiarities of temperament, position, and motive which belong to them alone. Instead of leaving their homes and families to fight they are fighting for their homes and families, and they show the resolution and the sagacity which a personal purpose gives. It would have been madness to attempt, with the bravest white troops what I have successfully accomplished with black ones. Everything, even to the piloting of the vessels and the selection of the proper points for cannonading, was done by my own soldiers. Indeed, the real conductor of the whole expedition up the Saint Mary’s was Corpl. Robert Sutton, of Company G, formerly a slave upon the Saint Mary’s River, a man of extraordinary qualities, who needs nothing but a knowledge of the alphabet to entitle him to the most signal promotion. In every instance when I followed his advice the predicted result followed, and I never departed from it, however slightly, without finding reason for subsequent regret.

We might write this off as Higginson championing his abolitionist aims. However, he was right in some regards.  The President’s proclamation, now a war aim, depended upon the Army and Navy for successful enforcement.  But likewise, the Army and Navy needed the “Sable Arm” in order to prosecute the war.  The Army needed more Corporal Suttons.

A year or so later the 1st South Carolina became the Thirty-third United States Colored Troops.  Such completed the transition of this pre-Emancipation Proclamation regiment.  But Fort Clinch remained incomplete, needing more bricks.  Eventually bricks shipped down from the north allowed the completion of the major portions of the wall. Their composition stood out as a distinct line compared to the locally produced bricks.

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Several colors of Bricks in the Fort Clinch Wall

But this came at a time when brick fortifications were just not worth maintaining.  After decades of neglect and intermittent military activity, the fort received the attention of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1934.  The CCC and later the State of Florida restored the brickwork, adding newer bricks where needed. The end result is a patchwork of colors in the wall.

Perhaps a standing, physical metaphor for us to consider?

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Interior of Fort Clinch

(Colonel Higginson’s report appears in OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 195-198.)

150 Years Ago: A few hundred yards difference

Success and failure on the battlefield is measured by a lot of small increments.  Sometimes it is hours… or minutes… or seconds.  Other times the measure is yards … feet … inches.  Such was the case 150 years ago on December 31st at the battle of Stones River.

As Confederate troops neared the Nashville Pike around noon, General William Rosecrans deployed what reserves he had.  For about two miles from Overall Creek to the Round Forest, the Federal lines bent back to the pike.  The pike was not just a terrain feature on the map, rather it was the army’s supply lines.  Losing that road meant retreat, route, or worse.  The nation could ill afford a second major military disaster in the month of December 1862. We often use the cliche “last ditch defense” to describe a position.  This was truly a last ditch defense.

On the far right of the defense, cavalry fought cavalry as Brigadier General John Wharton’s Confederates arguably missed the greatest opportunity of the battle.  Blue troopers from Colonel Lewis Zahn’s and Colonel Robert Minty’s brigades held their end of the line.

To their left, infantry from different divisions made a stand in the cotton fields around the Widow Burris’ house.  (Recalling yesterday’s post on preservation, those fields are outside the park boundaries.)

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Fields south of Asbury Lane today

The blue line fell back, disorganized at some points, but ultimately held – some two hundred yards short of the pike.

To the center of the line defending the pike, General Rosecrans committed his reserves.  That reserve was the Pioneer Brigade, some men with just twenty rounds.  Supporting them was the Chicago Board of Trade Battery and Battery B, 26th Pennsylvania.  Their lines formed barely 150 to 200 yards to the southwest of the pike.

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Position of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery

That part of the line held.

To their left, more infantry and artillery – a “grand battery” with over two dozen guns – anchored the defense of the high ground that is today the National Cemetery.  Lieutenant Francis L. Guenther, commanding Battery H, 5th US Artillery, held his fire as the Confederate infantry approached.  When urged to action by his commander, Guenther responded, “I see them sir. They are not near enough.”  When the Confederates marched closer, Guenther’s guns unleashed a rain of canister into their ranks.

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Gunner’s view across the pike from a Parrott Rifle

And that part of the line held.

At the Round Forest, Colonel William Hazen’s brigade was the core around which a stout defense formed.

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James Rifle at the Round Forest

The blue troops held the position against all the Confederates threw at the Round Forest.

Later that evening, some two hundred wagons arrived on the pike from Nashville bringing much needed ammunition and other supplies to the Army of the Cumberland.  The day’s fighting was at an end, and the results were inconclusive at best for either side.  But the arrival of those supplies ensured the Federals could stand their ground the next day.

And what did that next day bring?

Think not of the battlefield, but off the battlefield – the Emancipation Proclamation. As the wagons rolled into the army’s perimeter, an important executive order took effect.  Slavery would be abolished.  Of course, as politics would play into the actions, the order didn’t directly apply to those within sound of the guns that day.  But in time, slavery in the United States would be abolished.

The Army of the Cumberland held that day. A few days later they moved into nearby Murfreesboro as the Confederates retreated.  Long months passed before the army again moved forward, this time reaching the hills of northern Georgia.  But where the army went, it now carried emancipation as if an unfurled standard.

Those last few hundred yards beside the Nashville Pike were more than just grass, dirt, and trees.  It meant survival for an army and by extension the freedom of thousands well away from the battlefield.  One-hundred and fifty years later, we cannot disassociate the actions along the Nashville Pike from where we are, as a nation.

150 years ago: The Guns of December

So December is here.  For us 21st century-folks, our focus might be on gift lists and scheduling of festive events.  Of course just over a figurative hill are wars, in some cases held by cease fires.  We don’t see much in the way of major battles.  But that’s the nature of counter-insurgency, one might argue with respect to Afghanistan.

That was not the case in 1862.  News of battle after battle came nearly every day.  This was in the face of contemporary military wisdom that armies should “go into quarters” at the onset of winter.  Yet, there were several active campaigns resulting in important (if not major) battles:

  • Prairie Grove – December 7
  • Fredericksburg – December 11-15
  • Foster’s Raid (North Carolina) – December 13-20
  • Chickasaw Bayou – December 26-29
  • Stones River – December 31 – January 2

Taken in isolation, this activity might not be so noteworthy. Just another month in a major war.

But the activity in December happened after a very, very active late summer and early fall season.   Two major Confederate invasions, not to mention several smaller campaigns, drained the resources of both armies.  Again, under conventional military wisdom, following a major campaign armies would rest, recuperate, resupply, reorganize, and rest.  And yes, the respective armies on both sides did just that.  But in compressed cycles.  Sixty days after the invasions fizzled out, the respective armies lined up for another round of battles.

Reviewing the list of campaign activity, the odd one of the set is Prairie Grove – being the result of a Confederate offensive move.  At the theater level at least.  The others were result of Federal offensives from Virginia to Mississippi.  And even Prairie Grove, one might argue, was a function of the aggressive Federal stance.  By holding the northwest corner of Arkansas, the strategic flanks of forces operating along the Mississippi were more secure.

New commanders – Burnsides, Rosecrans, and Banks – with offensive oriented orders.  Existing commanders likewise given orders to press the Confederates.  Activity across one thousand miles from the Chesapeake to the tributaries of the Arkansas River (if I said Illinois River, folks would be confused).

What objective would prompt political leadership to issue such orders?  Think about it.

Wrestling with Emancipation: How should we observe it?

How should we observe and recall emancipation?   What does it really mean to us today?

I’ve participated in some good discussions within sesquicentennial and preservation circles.  It’s a question that you’d think would be simple to address.  But I submit the answer is elusive and complicated.  Yet the answer is one of the core underpinnings to the entire sesquicentennial.  If we cannot explain the “what” to emancipation, how can we hope to relate “why” 1861-65 is of any importance?

Those of us “immersed-in-all-that-is-Civil-War” types just don’t understand why the rest of the audience doesn’t just pick up the “Civil War to Civil Rights” narrative with open ears and eyes.  We say it over and over, yet still wonder why more people attend some SciFi convention than one of our symposiums.  It’s our sales technique.  Our pitch stinks.  We graft “emancipation” on top of the Civil War with some disjointed associations, then expect everyone to recall high school history classes.  Seems to me there are some fine points we should incorporate in order to make “Civil War to Civil Rights” a flush fitting.

First off, we need to stop tap-dancing around slavery with respect to the combatants.  The Confederacy existed because of slavery and fought to retain slavery.  We can argue over the underlying causes of the war (I’ve said my take on this and don’t need to repeat it here), but in the end we must acknowledge that the Confederacy stood in opposition to emancipation.  That fact should not be whispered at the back of the room out, fearing an offense to some tender ears.  And before you start clicking the “comment” button, to say MY ancestors were wrong about one or two things, or saw incorrectly, shouldn’t be seen as a condemnation on regional lines or some extra-generational insult.  It should be recorded as a lesson the nation learned the hard way!

Second, we should recognize that emancipation took place over time, and not with the simple stroke of a pen.  We should not hang our celebration of emancipation on the date Lincoln issued the document, the date the proclamation took effect, or other such administratively convenient date.  Different localities witnessed emancipation events throughout the war.  Don’t take my word for it, consult the Visualizing Emancipation map.  We should look at those “fourth dimensional” junctures (such as at the Rappahannock Crossing) where our real world serves to bring out the past.

And along those lines, we should not step back from the means by which emancipation was implemented.  Yes we “military historians” should take a knee and listen as the “social historians” discuss how American society was affected by the war.  But at the same time, we need to keep those battlefields at the fore in the course of our studies.  After all, it was on those battlefields that the mechanisms of emancipation were employed.  We can easily link those in time and place, making that real connection.  Just the other day, Dale Cox wrote about the Battle of Marianna in September 1864, after which “600 slaves followed the Union troops back to Pensacola, the largest single emancipation of slaves in Florida during the war.”   So when should the folks in Marianna celebrate emancipation?  Again, let’s not whisper about this in the dark – emancipation was achieved by force of arms.  One side in that war refused to let go of slavery short of bayonet point.  Such makes those battles far more significant than just military history.

Lastly, we should not relegate emancipation as strictly an issue involving bondage.  Nor should it be ceded to one racial or ethnic group.  Emancipation is everyone’s freedom and liberty.  And this is one point that I, myself, need to firm up my research to better draw out the point.  Emancipation was that stone which caused the ripple in the pond.  Regardless race, creed, or ethnicity, the full freedoms we enjoy today were affirmed by emancipation.  It was not “their” emancipation, but “our” emancipation.  We should shout about that a little more.

At any rate, that’s where I think we are failing in regards to highlighting emancipation as the central theme in the Civil War.  Others, far smarter than I, have pointed out the war wasn’t just limited along some geographic or social lines.  It’s an American war, with American causes, effects, and implications.  We should consider the subject of emancipation with broad appeal and equally broad understanding.

150 Years Ago: the Emancipation Proclamation

Everyone knows about the Emancipation Proclamation, right?  No need for me to talk about the background and impact of that document.  But what about the actual paper itself?  The National Archives retains that copy, digitized for all to see (and I should point out, given the day, the original preliminary proclamation is digitized also):

There’s Abe Lincoln’s “John Hancock” for all to see:

According to National Archives site:

The original of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, is in the National Archives in Washington, DC. With the text covering five pages the document was originally tied with narrow red and blue ribbons, which were attached to the signature page by a wafered impression of the seal of the United States. Most of the ribbon remains; parts of the seal are still decipherable, but other parts have worn off.

The document was bound with other proclamations in a large volume preserved for many years by the Department of State. When it was prepared for binding, it was reinforced with strips along the center folds and then mounted on a still larger sheet of heavy paper. Written in red ink on the upper right-hand corner of this large sheet is the number of the Proclamation, 95, given to it by the Department of State long after it was signed. With other records, the volume containing the Emancipation Proclamation was transferred in 1936 from the Department of State to the National Archives of the United States.

I’ve always been interested in the more practical aspects of the proclamation – how was it disseminated, executed and enforced.  The “new” Government Printing Office had much to do with the first of those, printing 15,000 copies for the first release.

But the execution and enforcement of this proclamation fell largely upon the military.  The proclamation’s framework required the Union army to advance in order for the emancipation to occur.  Stalemate was no longer an option.

From the soldier’s perspective, the proclamation ended much confusion and misunderstanding.  Contrabands, refugees, escaped slaves were now all freedmen.  They were allowed to take up arms for the cause of the Union.  And they were guaranteed freedom, by force of arms if necessary.  (Even if the question of citizenship lingered unanswered for the moment….)

While the likes of Richard Hofstadter have long since argued this made the proclamation a hollow shell, from a practical standpoint this meant the War’s conclusion had to include the eradication of the institution of slavery. Seriously, was there any doubt that the areas explicitly exempted would at some point be included, either by direct government action or pressure?

Summary Map of counties covered and not covere...
Summary Map of counties covered and not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pressure… Yes it is in vogue in some circles to cite such as some form of despotism or tyranny.  Fact is slavery existed in 1862 and it was contrary to the very founding premise of the United States.  Lots of good men tried to resolve that in the “fourscore” years before the war.  And they had failed.  The war came as result of that failure.  The proclamation ensured the blood, sweat, and tears shed in the war would not be in vain.  At that point, the war was all about building “… a more perfect union.”