On September 17, 1862, the Union and Confederate armies clashed in a field just adjacent to the Antietam Creek in Maryland. The Confederate High Command felt an invasion of Union territory would bring the horror of war closer to the Northern people. They also believed that the residents of Maryland, a "border state" (a slave state that had stayed loyal to the Union) would rise up in support of the rebellion. Confederate commanders were mistaken. The citizens of Maryland viewed the rebel army as invaders. And, the Union army was ready for them, having discovered General Lee's secret battle plan by mistake (a Confederate courier had used a copy of the invasion plan as a wrapper for cigars, and dropped it on the roadside).
The battle of Antietam proved to be the single most bloody day in American history. Over 3.600 American soldiers died that day (which doesn't count the tens of thousands wounded and missing, and for those who died of their wounds later). But the Union army held their ground, and drove the Confederates back into Virginia. While Union forces would fail to follow up with the crushing blow that could have wiped out the Army of Northern Virginia, it was the first bit of positive news for the North in the Eastern Theater after over a year of the war.
It was all President Lincoln needed. He had been waiting, holding his draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in his "back pocket," and now he had the battlefield victory that would give the publicizing of the Proclamation the authority it needed.
On September 22, 1862, Lincoln convened his cabinet to make the announcement. In the midst of the historic occasion, Lincoln opened the meeting by telling one of his usual humorous anecdotes. But he quickly became somber. He noted that he had waited for a military triumph to release the Proclamation, and that even as Lee's army had come into Union territory, he had decided "as soon as it should be driven out," he would make the Proclamation public. "I said nothing to anyone, but I made the promise to myself . . . " Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, recalled that Lincoln's voice trailed off at that moment, and he was silent for a time, and then added "and to my Maker." Welles noted that it was not common for Lincoln to reference his faith or religious beliefs in his dealings with the cabinet, except "there were occasions hen, uncertain how to proceed . . . he would in this way submitted the disposal of the subject to a Higher Power, and abided by what seemed the Supreme Will. "
As before, Lincoln made it clear he was not seeking his advisors' advice regarding the wisdom of the document; he only sought help with potential revisions to strengthen the wording. He then unfolded the document, and began to read. It was essentially the same as the draft he had shared months before, but he had revised it some to strengthen the arguments regarding the issue of his "war powers," that is, one of the arguments for emancipation was the prevention of the Confederate use of slave labor to assist them in the war effort.
There was little debate. Several of Lincoln's cabinet secretaries who leaned toward teh abolitionist position were thrilled, while the more conservative members were still concerned about the reaction of the loyal slave states. Ultimately, the only change made was to take out language that limited the enforcement of the document to the current administration. Lincoln had initially been hesitant to promise to bind future administrations. They all agreed -- once this bold move was made, it had to be upheld forever.
And thus, the Emancipation Proclamation was published on September 23, 1862. It would not take effect until January 1, 1863, allowing for rebel states to have one last chance to return to the Union before it took effect. Lincoln believed it would change the course of the war, but still wondered how it would be received. "I can only trust God I have made no mistake," he would say to a crowd of well wishers the day he released the news, "It is now for the country and the world to pass judgment on it."
Interestingly, most Abolitionist leaders still didn't trust Lincoln. The Proclamation was too much like a legal document, and in reality, as one critic put it, "it did not and could not affect the status of a single negro." But even Frederick Douglass, who had been especially critical of the President's slavery policies up to this point, saw this as a complete change. "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree," he declared. While many thought that negative reaction might cause the President to reconsider, Douglass was quite open about his own observations of Lincoln's character. "No, Abraham Lincoln will take no step backward," he noted. "Lincoln may be slow . . . but [he] is not the man to reconsider, retract, or contradict words and pirposes solemnly proclaimed over his official signature. . . If he has taught us to confide in nothing else, he has taught us to confide in his word." Lincoln made this all too clear on several occasions -- he had made a promise to the African American community he would never back down on. "My word is out to these people," he said to a legislator, "and I can't take it back."