President Abraham Lincoln Warns That He Is Retaining the Option to Emancipate the Slaves and Enlist Them in the Union Army

“I shall not surrender this game, leaving any available card unplayed.”

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With the war going badly, he wants it “understood, once and for all” that he will shy away from no measure that will bring victory

As an individual, Lincoln hated slavery. Before the Civil War, as a Republican, he wished to exclude it from the territories as the first step to putting...

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President Abraham Lincoln Warns That He Is Retaining the Option to Emancipate the Slaves and Enlist Them in the Union Army

“I shall not surrender this game, leaving any available card unplayed.”

With the war going badly, he wants it “understood, once and for all” that he will shy away from no measure that will bring victory

As an individual, Lincoln hated slavery. Before the Civil War, as a Republican, he wished to exclude it from the territories as the first step to putting the institution, as he said in his House Divided speech, “in the course of ultimate extinction.” But as he took office as president of the United States, Lincoln was bound by a Constitution that protected slavery in the states where it existed. With the war’s outbreak, as commander in chief of the armed forces pursuant to the Constitution, Lincoln had to worry about the support of the four border slave states and the Northern Democrats. These groups probably would have turned against the war for the Union if the Republicans had made a move against slavery in 1861.

With Union armed forces moving South and establishing positions in Confederate territory, the issue of what to do with slaves arose very quickly. Slaves were the most conspicuous and valuable property in the region. They raised food and fiber for the Southern war effort, worked in munitions factories, and served as teamsters and laborers in the Confederate Army. Moreover, it was not lost on Union commanders that they would be a fine source for recruits that could help defeat the Confederacy. But freeing the escaped slaves, no less using them in the military, was opposed by the border states and pro-Union Democrats.

In September 1861, General John C. Fremont took matters into his own hand and issued a proclamation freeing all slaves in Missouri (which was under his command) that belonged to secessionists. Lincoln ordered Fremont to negate his proclamation. This was widely published in the newspapers, and appearing to signal Lincoln’s opposition to freeing slaves. By May of 1862, the trickle of slaves who found themselves living within the Union lines, or escaping into them, became a flood. Union General David Hunter issued a proclamation similar to Fremont’s freeing slaves in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Again, Lincoln was forced to revoke the proclamation. However, he concluded the revocation by cautioning slaveholders, ”You can not if you would, be blind to the signs of the times…” At this point he was still hoping for some form of compensated emancipation, but was obviously thinking about the subject.

Congress passed a bill known as the 2nd Confiscation Act on July 12, 1862, which declared that slaves belonging to those “engaged in rebellion against the government of the United States, or who shall in any way give aid or comfort thereto” who crossed over Union lines were “forever free”. Conservative Republicans urged Lincoln to veto the measure. A veto would, in Senator Orville Browning’s view, secure the support of “every loyal Democrat in the free states.” As Browning offered his advice, Radicals lobbied Lincoln to approve the bill, arguing that a veto would destroy the Republican Party and dampen Northern morale. At this point in his developing stand on emancipation, his objection was not to emancipation, but to a legal technicality.

On July 13, during a carriage ride with Secretaries William H. Seward and Gideon Welles, Lincoln discussed issuing an emancipation proclamation. It was the first time he had discussed the plan with anyone, and it shows how far he had come in the previous few months. Four days later Lincoln and Congress resolved their differences, and he signed the bill. Just five days later, on July 22, 1862, Lincoln surprised members of his Cabinet with a draft of a sweeping emancipation proclamation that he would issue by executive action.

As the summer opened in 1862, the war was not going well for the Union cause. McClellan had been defeated – actually humiliated – in the Virginia Peninsula, Robert E. Lee now led the Confederate army in Virginia, Stonewall Jackson had swept Union forces from the Shenandoah Valley, and the Battle of Shiloh, though a draw, had almost been a Union defeat. It was now clear that instead of a short war, the war would be a long and bloody one, and Lincoln and his policies came in for sharp criticism. Some in the North wavered and called for peace talks with the Confederacy, much to the President’s chagrin. He wanted, and needed, to show people North and South that he would not give up, was determined to win, and would use every measure to do so.

Reverdy Johnson was a U.S. Senator from Maryland, and a Unionist. He was appointed by the State Department to investigate complaints by foreign consuls against military proceedings in New Orleans, which had been captured by Union forces on May 1, 1862, and was under control of General Benjamin F. Butler. One area of contention was the effort by General John S. Phelps, military governor of Arkansas and Louisiana, to organize three regiments of black troops, composed of slaves who had escaped to Union lines. Phelps requested weapons, but Butler demurred on going that far and instead sent pick-axes and tents. Phelps refused to put the men to menial tasks, saying he was not qualified as a slave overseer.  In May, Butler responded by placing Colonel George F. Shepley of the Twelfth Maine Volunteers in command at New Orleans, and in June, Shepley became military governor of Louisiana.

On July 16, Johnson wrote to the President, saying that pro-Union sentiment in Louisiana had evaporated primarily because of efforts by Phelps to arm the slaves, and the overall impression that the administration was intent on emancipation. Lincoln replied on July 26, rebutting Johnson’s contentions, blamed the citizens of Louisiana who were balking at reentering the Union, and defending his action of sending Union troops through Baltimore after the riots of April 1861, despite warnings that it would alienate Maryland Unionists. He wrote, “Yours of the 16th. by the hand of Governor Shepley is received. It seems the Union feeling in Louisiana is being crushed out by the course of General Phelps. Please pardon me for believing that is a false pretense. The people of Louisiana—all intelligent people every where—know full well, that I never had a wish to touch the foundations of their society, or any right of theirs. With perfect knowledge of this, they forced a necessity upon me to send armies among them, and it is their own fault, not mine, that they are annoyed by the presence of General Phelps. They also know the remedy—know how to be cured of General Phelps. Remove the necessity of his presence. And might it not be well for them to consider whether they have not already had time enough to do this? If they can conceive of anything worse than General Phelps, within my power, would they not better be looking out for it? They very well know the way to avert all this is simply to take their place in the Union upon the old terms. If they will not do this, should they not receive harder blows rather than lighter ones? You are ready to say I apply to friends what is due only to enemies. I distrust the wisdom if not the sincerity of friends, who would hold my hands while my enemies stab me. This appeal of professed friends has paralyzed me more in this struggle than any other one thing. You remember telling me the day after the Baltimore mob in April 1861, that it would crush all Union feeling in Maryland for me to attempt bringing troops over Maryland soil to Washington. I brought the troops notwithstanding, and yet there was Union feeling enough left to elect a Legislature the next autumn which in turn elected a very excellent Union U. S. Senator!”

Lincoln continued, “I am a patient man – always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance; and also to give ample time for repentance. Still I must save this government if possible. What I cannot do, of course I will not do; but it may as well be understood, once and for all, that I shall not surrender this game, leaving any available card unplayed.” Since four days earlier he had told his Cabinet that he was planning to issue an emancipation proclamation, we can see this letter, surely meant for publication, as a signal and warning – people must understand – that he would rule out no measure, including emancipation and the arming of slaves, if it was deemed necessary to restore the Union and win the war.

The only portion of this important letter that has survived is this fragment, an Autograph Quotation Signed in itself, containing much of the last sentence of the letter: “I shall not surrender this game, leaving any available card unplayed. Yours truly A. Lincoln”. The card playing analogy was typical of the times, as many cartoons and patriotic covers depict the principals engaged in a game of cards, or allude to someone playing their last card, or suggest that one antagonist or another is “played out”. This fragment is accompanied by an 1867 letter from Baltimore attorney Thomas Donaldson to a young Canadian lady he had met in Ireland who had requested an autograph or letter of President Lincoln. Possibly wishing to impress her, Donaldson made numerous efforts to obtain a signature, despairing of same until Reverdy Johnson finally came through in the clutch. It is unknown what became of the entire letter – whether Johnson cut off the signature which he forwarded to Donaldson, or whether Donaldson received the entire letter and cut it into fragments in order to comply with other requests for samples of the President’s handwriting. The letter gives the historical background to Lincoln’s letter to Johnson “…which concludes with the lines cut off to be sent to you…” and references Johnson’s letter to Donaldson [not present] “… in order that you may have in your collection a voucher for the authenticity of the autograph.”

On September 5, 1862, Reverdy Johnson answered Lincoln’s letter, which had been forwarded from New Orleans to Washington, “Your private letter to me of the 26th of July, has been forwarded to me from New Orleans. When, some days since, you read a copy of it to me, in the presence of some Louisiana Gentlemen, I deemed it due to us both, to correct you in a fact that it alleged. It was that I told you `the day after the Baltimore mob of April `61, that it would crush all union feeling in Maryland, for me to attempt bringing troops over Md. soil to Washington.’ You were never more mistaken. I never said so, to you or any one else, nor ever thought so.”

President Lincoln had read the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet members on July 22, 1862. After some changes, he issued the preliminary version on September 22, after the victory at Antietam, which specified that the final document would take effect January 1, 1863.

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