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President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago today on January 1, 1863. Shortly afterwards, Orrin wrote to his brother-in-law Ebenezer Witherell:  “Since the “abolition proclamation” of the president, the soldiers have felt as though they were no longer fighting for the old Flag or the Union but for the Nigger ...” and to his brother Charles:  “I believe and always have believed that slavery is the great besetting sin of our nation, a sin for which we as a nation will yet repent in sack cloth and ashes. I was something of an abolitionist when at home. I am an abolitionist still but my views on the subject have undergone quite a change since I became a soldier.”  Not surprisingly, Confederate soldiers also reacted strongly to the Proclamation. Orrin wrote to Charles: “While on picket, I was talking with a rebel captain … he also said that they would rather be in the Union than out of it, but they would fight to the last drop of blood against the abolition proclamation of our President.” Why did this proclamation arouse such intense feelings among the soldiers?

As Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, President Lincoln wrote in the Emancipation Proclamation:  “And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforth shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”  From the Northern perspective, the Emancipation Proclamation transformed the war's single goal of preserving the Union to include the elimination of slavery with military force. Union soldiers may have felt betrayed by the President and the administration in Washington, D.C. regardless of their strong abolitionist commitments, as did Orrin.

Freeing the slaves in the rebellious States was not only the correct moral imperative, but it also had additional political and economic dimensions. Politically, the Proclamation dissuaded Great Britain and France from recognizing the Confederate States of America as an independent country and compelled them to regard the Confederacy as a region of the United States in rebellion. Economically, slaves were previously legally considered to be chattel property, that is, movable property, that could be bought and sold like any commodity by their owners; taking away the right to own this "property" indicated that President Lincoln was expanding the scope of the Civil War from military to economic, with the goal of the financial destabilization of the Southern economy. Just prior to the Civil War, there were about 4 million slaves valued at about 4 billion dollars who were distributed unevenly among about 400,000 slaveholders. The dollar value of slaves varied widely with gender, age and occupation, ranging from the most valuable occupations of blacksmiths, carpenters and cooks to the least valuable of farm hands; those with behavioral problems were of lesser value. The average price of a slave was about $800 whereas the economic value of owning a slave was about $250,000, both in contemporary prices. Clearly, slaves were a major component of Southern wealth and provided services under duress that drove a major economic engine in the rebellious South. As Union soldiers invaded further into the South, many slaves crossed Union lines to ensure their freedom. A Confederate general stated in 1862 that North Carolina was losing approximately a million dollars every week because of the fleeing slaves.It is estimated that 1 million dollars in 1862 would be worth about 24 million dollars in 2010, representing a major economic drain for the South. Although many Union soldiers were most likely uninformed about the political impact of the Emancipation Proclamation, Orrin was well aware of the economic impact as he wrote:  "Could we expect a people possessed of the intelligence and the resources which they possess to do any other way than fight against an army or power that was seeking the destruction of their wealth and their whole social system? Immediate emancipation is nothing else to the South but the destruction of their property and their whole social fabric."  Regardless, the Proclamation resulted in the soldiers' waning commitment to the war’s cause of preserving the Union.

From a Southern perspective, the Emancipation Proclamation hardened the commitment of Confederate soldiers to form an independent nation for two reasons. First, from a Constitutional perspective, the Framers of the US Constitution, although they did not use the word slavery, compromised on this issue (see Article 1, Section 2; Article 1, Section 9; and Article 4, Section 2), protecting the practice of slavery but limiting its extent. Second, from a legal perspective, the Proclamation compromised a cherished American freedom, the private ownership of property. The Southerners perceived that President Lincoln violated their Constitutional property rights that underpinned the Southern economy. Orrin captured the intensity of the rebel soldiers’ commitment when he wrote“Immediate emancipation is nothing else to the south but the destruction of their property… Every time we meet them on the field of battle we feel the effects of the President’s abolition proclamation. They fight with the desperation of madmen, while our soldiers fight with a dogged bravery which shows that their heart is not in the work.”

In 1864, Orrin’s views on slavery, abolition and patriotism reached their pinnacle when he wrote: “We have been tolerating the most barbarous and inhuman system of human bondage that ever cursed a nation. At the very foundation of our national greatness, the sin of slavery has been wreathing its serpentine folds around the very life of our nation, strangling the young giant in his infancy. That cankering sin has been eating out the very vitals of our national life. And today, our land is drenched in blood as an atonement for the sin of slavery.”  President Lincoln’s and Orrin’s aspirations for the true abolition of slavery took nearly 100 years to accomplish legally, beginning with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December, 1865 and ultimately the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to guarantee full civil rights and equality to all Americans based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964,  and the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act of 1965.


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