Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Threat of Emancipation

On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln threatened to order the emancipation of all slaves within the boundaries of any Confederate state that did not return to the Union by January 1863. This proposition is not as simple as it seems at first glance, which may explain why none of the rebellious states took this opportunity to revoke their secession.

First, Mr. Lincoln might have hoped that the Confederates would conclude that if they rejoined the Union, their slaves would not be emancipated.  As any student of logic can tell you, this argument falls under the informal fallacy of denying the antecedent. The consequences of returning to the Union were not specified in this prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Second, and most important to our story, this threat was addressed only to the states that had seceded.  It had no affect on the four slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri) that remained loyal.  The ownership of slaves in these states remained at the discretion of their respective legislatures.

The news of this proclamation filtered through the Union encampments across the eastern and western theaters.  It reached the camp of Col. John McHenry, Jr. and the Seventeenth Kentucky fairly quickly as they were assembled at Louisville, posed to drive Bragg's Army of Mississippi out of Kentucky and back into the Confederate State of Tennessee.

Would the loyal Kentucky volunteers view this offer with optimism, hoping that at least some of their neighbors might rejoin the Union?  They had been on their tour of the south since February and had more than enough first hand experience with the resoluteness of the southern soldiers and citizens to entertain this possibility.

Would the road-weary foot soldiers associate this threat with the likelihood of another march through Dixie to begin after Christmas?  Even the simplest-minded farm boy could see that this "Tour of Emancipation" was what Lincoln had planned.  The same farm boy, remembering that they had confiscated the property of rebels (including slaves) on their last tour and put said property to work rebuilding roads and bridges, might wonder at the significance of this new policy.

The more astute of these volunteers, however, would see this threat for what it was- the first official linkage between the war and abolition.  To men like Col. McHenry, this was a significant change in policy.  He and most of his men were strongly anti-secessionists, and equally strong in their anti-abolitionist beliefs.  They were only marginally consoled by the fact that the issue of slavery in their home state was not being challenged, for the moment.

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