WHOSE MAIN OBJECTIVE WAS NOT LIBERATION
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862. The conflict that divided the expanding industrial North from the agricultural South had escalated into the open rebellion of the American Civil War. In explaining the rationale behind his objective Lincoln began, “If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it.” It was a strange sentiment coming from a man who is often cited as America’s greatest president precisely because he freed the slaves. But though his personal wish was that “all men everywhere could be free,” he viewed his official duty as preserving the Union at any cost. The 1860 Republican National Convention’s platform had opposed the expansion of slavery, but it also promised not to interfere with slavery in the Southern states. Nevertheless, seven states seceded from the Union and founded the Confederate States of America on February 8, 1861, a month before Lincoln was inaugurated. Two months later the Civil War erupted with the South Carolina militia’s bombardment of Fort Sumter. Civil War historian John Coski writes: “The statesmen who led the secession movement were unashamed to cite the defense of slavery as their prime motive.” Still, Lincoln repeatedly insisted that his goal was not the end of slavery. But on January 1, 1863, his Emancipation Proclamation declared the abolition of involuntary servitude. Lincoln had gradually come to believe that only by broadening the war’s goals could he save the Union, and abolition marked a sharp turning point in policy. He waited until after the Battle of Antietam so his gesture would not be interpreted as a sign of weakness. And so the war’s purpose changed: Beyond saving the Union, it also became a fight to end slavery.