Emancipation Caps Lincoln’s Desperate Month, December 1862

African-Americans and Abolitionists across the country waited nervously 150 years ago today, for confirmation that President Lincoln had actually signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  No one close to the President doubted that he would before the end of the day.  But the country was well-aware of the amazing confluence of multiple crises that had confronted  Lincoln during that fateful December.  Waiting all day at Tremont Temple in Boston with a crowd of 3,000, even Frederick Douglass wondered if Lincoln could shoulder one more great issue.  At about 10 p.m., the text of the Proclamation began to come in over the telegraph and, as Douglass recalled, the crowd was “wild and grand…with shouts of joy and gladness.” 1

Contrasting with this jubilant event, December 1862 started with the President having completed his review of the proposed executions of 303 Dakota Sioux and agreeing to allow 39 to be hung.  Lincoln’s letter to the military commander on the 6th, fixed the date of execution as December 19.  Gen. Sibley in Minnesota requested a little more time in order to manage local passions that ran in favor of killing all.  Dec. 26 was agreed.  The delay also permitted evidence to develop that cleared one of the 39.  2

Coming into the month, Lincoln had been stunned by the Republican losses in the November elections and was under continuing pressure from Border state delegations objecting to the Emancipation Proclamation.  He was observed at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on Nov. 30 by his old friend Noah Brooks, who commented on his worn appearance.  He attended church there three times in December.  Lincoln paid a social call on Gen. Joe Hooker at the National Hotel on Dec. 7.  This was the month during which Washington society was buzzing about a possible inappropriate relationship between the President and the captain of his guard (Virginia Fox diary, Dec. 16); a man confronted Lincoln in his bedroom, claiming to be the rightful president (Washington Chronicle, Dec. 4); and Ford’s Theatre would be gutted by fire (Dec.31, to reopen in Aug.).

When Gen. Burnside finally moved the Army of the Potomac to capture Fredericksburg VA on Dec. 11, John Nicolay wrote of the White House hopes for a much-needed military success.  “The rebellion is now virtually at an end,” Lincoln proclaimed, and he predicted that Richmond would fall by New Year’s. 3

Nicolay was dispatched to observe the assault and report.  Lincoln was making several trips each day to the War Department Telegraph Office without learning much.  His lack of success while rumors of disaster trickled back, prompted Lincoln’s terse telegram to his secretary on December 14: “What news have you?” 4  But the first hard news came to Lincoln with a visit from Col. Herman Haupt (see “Second Manassas Drama” post).

The Northwest Executive Office Building was known as the War Department during the Civil War.  Secretary Stanton added a floor and a half to the two-story structure in the winter of 1863.  The Telegraph Office was on the second floor over the main entrance.

The Northwest Executive Office Building was known as the War Department during the Civil War. Secretary Stanton added a floor and a half to the two-story structure in the winter of 1863. The Telegraph Office was on the second floor over the main entrance.

“The next day (Dec. 14), I returned to Washington,” Haupt wrote, “and went … to see the President at about 9 p.m.  The President was much interested in the report, and asked me to walk with him to General Halleck’s quarters, then on I street, between 15th and 16th.  When we arrived he … asked me to repeat the substance of my report to him.  On its conclusion, the President asked General Halleck to telegraph orders to General Burnside to withdraw his army to the north side of the river.  General Halleck rose and paced the room for some time, and then stopped, facing the President, and said decidedly: ‘I will do no such thing. If we were personally present and knew the exact situation, we might assume such responsibility.  If such orders are issued, you must issue them yourself. I hold that a General in command of an army in the field is the best judge of existing conditions.” 5

Gen. Ambrose Burnside. His failure at Fredericksburg stoked opposition to the Proclamation.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside. His failure at Fredericksburg stoked opposition to the Proclamation.

The army defeat demanded that there be scapegoats and the Radical Republicans in the Senate were quick to pounce on Seward.  Acting on the rumors (probably fed by Chase) that the secretary of state was a “polarizing influence on the army and the President,” the caucus voted a resolution proclaiming “a want of confidence in the secretary,” and “that he ought to be removed from the Cabinet.”  On Dec. 17, Sen. Preston King reported the vote to Seward who promptly wrote out his resignation rather be an issue for the President.  When he received the note that evening, Lincoln hurried across Lafayette Square to Seward’s home to ask him to withdraw it.  6  Over the next three days, the President orchestrated a series of meetings with his Cabinet and the Radical caucus that finally exposed and neutralized Chases’ plot.  In a mildly comical exchange, Chase tendered his own resignation, not quite wanting to let it go, until Lincoln yanked it out of his hand.  As he later explained to Sen. Ira Harris, he didn’t want anyone’s resignation, but now “I can ride, I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.”  By Dec. 22, all talk of the Cabinet crisis had subsided.  (Burlingame, Vol II, 455; Goodwin, 494)  But a visit to town by Gen. Burnside required a confidential meeting at the home of Secretary of War Stanton on K St.  Lincoln was concerned about the army’s apparent lack of confidence in its commander and the President wanted to make sure he didn’t attack again without specific approval.

Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury.  His self-promotion and presidential aspirations nearly destroyed the Lincoln Cabinet.

Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury. His self-promotion and presidential aspirations nearly destroyed the Lincoln Cabinet.

On Christmas Day, Abraham and Mary Lincoln visited the Union wounded in many Washington hospitals.  Accompanied by Secretary of the Interior and Mrs. Caleb Smith they distributed food and flowers in the Patent Office Hospital, where the secretary had his office, and in the Judiciary Square Hospital. (Evening Star and Washington Chronicle, Dec. 27)   The Proclamation was much on the mind of the soldiers they met.  Lincoln took comfort from his sense that most of the men appreciated that freeing the slaves would undercut the Confederates’ ability to fight.

The final changes to the Proclamation were made in Cabinet meetings on Dec. 29, 30 and 31.  At Seward’s insistence, Lincoln inserted the commitment of the government to not only recognize, but to “maintain” the freedom of newly freed persons, in spite of his personal concern that this would be an overreach.  He accepted Blair’s suggestion that freedmen be asked to “abstain from all violence.”  Lincoln himself had dropped the more lofty commitment of “forever free,” to the more nuanced “henceforward shall be free,” remembering that Chief Justice Taney would have less to react to.  The final version was the first to include the concept of enlisting black soldiers.  This demonstrated how substantially his concerns for the Border states had changed from the previous summer.  Lincoln was not going to leave anything out if he was going to make this the most effective “war measure” he could possibly produce. 7

First thing in the morning, on New Year’s Day 1863, the President reviewed and approved the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward carried Lincoln’s handwritten document over to the State Department to be formally transcribed and engrossed with the Great Seal of the United States.  He then officiated at the traditional White House New Year’s Day open house, the first such event since the death of his son, Willie, in February.  He returned to his office at 2 p.m.  Seward and Fred brought in the portfolio with the Proclamation.  “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper,” Lincoln said.  “If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” 8

Lincoln was lawyer enough to realize that the gains of the Proclamation would be too easily upset without a fundamental change in the law of the land that would “lock-in” the new condition of things.  Without a Constitutional amendment, it was unlikely that the Proclamation would not be undone when the southern states were again in the Union.  But the nation needed time to adjust to the present change.  Political and military victories would be needed to build support.  That amendment would have to wait for Lincoln’s own re-election.  The Thirteenth Amendment would be the priority of the second Lincoln term.

1.  Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals; New York, Simon & Schuster (2005). 500

2.  Basler, Roy P., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln; New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press (1953).  Vol. VI, 6

3.  Burlingame, Michael, Abraham Lincoln, A Life; Balt., Johns Hopkins University Press (2008).  Vol. II, 445

4.  ibid., Basler; Vol. VI, 2

5.  Haupt, Gen. Herman, Reminiscences of General Herman Haupt; Milwaukee, Wright & Joys Printers (1902). 177

6. ibid., Goodwin; 489

7.  ibid., Burlingame; Vol. II, 463

8.  ibid., Goodwin; 499

About John O'Brien

My name is John and I brake for roadside historical markers. The Civil War has been a particular interest since my dad took me to the 100th Anniversary re-enactment at Gettysburg. Since then, I have toured battlefield sites throughout the eastern theatre. My three daughters can mark their growth by the fortifications and cannons they were posed against. Living in the Washington, D.C. metro area since 2005 has allowed me access to the amazing resources here for studying the Lincoln Administration and the National Capital during the Civil War. I started looking for a guide to President Lincoln’s life in Washington, but nothing available seemed to capture enough of the story to satisfy me. So I created my own. You can buy the beautifully illustrated map on this website. I put a high personal value in trying to settle confusion in the professional literature as to where Lincoln did what. So I spent a lot of time going to source documents to verify my sites. This website will share more detail about the Lincoln sites and will continue to update the research. I want to help the reader experience Washington as Lincoln did, as if through his eyes. This is about exploring the public life of Abraham Lincoln and the civil war history of Washington, DC.

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