Monday, January 14, 2013

Gideon Welles' Thoughts on Emancipation

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of Lincoln, by Francis Bicknell Carpenter (Welles is seated in the middle next to Abraham Lincoln)

As many people know, Steven Spielberg’s recently released Civil War biopic Lincoln tells the story of the pivotal moments faced by the 16th president during the drafting and passing of the 13th Amendment.  One of the necessary steps to its passing was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.  Taken in tandem with the 13th Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation was arguably the most political/socially-fueled document in the United States since the Declaration of Independence.  The General Order announced the Emancipation Proclamation written by Lincoln, which was signed on 1 January 1863. 

Part of the film’s appeal was its close ties to the wildly popular book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  In large part, the film is an adaptation of her work.  In the film, actor Grainger Hines portrays Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.  Although Welles played a small role in the film, in reality Welles had many interesting observations about the abolition of slavery from the Emancipation Proclamation through the passing of the 13th Amendment.  The Emancipation Proclamation made the abolishment of slavery a joint political/military goal, one that Welles could no longer ignore. 

The following are excerpts from the Diary of Gideon Welles in the months and days before and after the issuance of General Order No. 4.  You can see through his diary entries a reactionary timeline of thought that matches perfectly with the social and political climate of wartime America.  “Father Neptune” was a concise and calculated thinker, able to weigh the implications of combat equally with that of political choice or necessity.  In many cases, especially in the last quote included here, Welles was absolutely right in his thoughts on Emancipation and the slavery question. 

You can see the documents association with General Order No. 4 at the Naval History and Heritage Command Facebook Page

(It is important to note that the Proclamation did not apply to the five states not in rebellion, as well as regions controlled by the United States Army.  Individual rights for emancipation would occur on a state-by-state basis with the passing of the 13th Amendment.)

The President Broaches the Subject of Emancipation to his cabinet (Fall 1862):
“It was a new departure for the President, for until this time, in all our previous interviews, whenever the question of emancipation or the mitigation of slavery had been in any way alluded to, he had been prompt and emphatic in denouncing any interference by the General Government with the subject.  This was, I think the sentiment of every member of the Cabinet, all of whom, including the President, considered it a local, domestic question appertaining to the States respectively, who had never parted with the authority over it.”

Post-Antietam Public Sentiment (September 24, 1862):
“As I write, 9 P.M., a band of music strikes up on the opposite side of the square, a complimentary serenade to the President for the Emancipation Proclamation.  The document has been in the main well received, but there is some violent opposition…”

Emancipation Proclamation (1 January 1863):
“The Emancipation Proclamation is published in this evening’s Star.  This is a broad step, and will be a landmark in history.  The immediate effect will not be all its friends anticipate or its opponents apprehend.  Passing events are steadily accomplishing what is here proclaimed. 

Final Thoughts Prior to General Order No. 4 (10 January 1863):
“Some things have taken place which will undoubtedly for a time exasperate the Southern mind, for they will affect Southern society, habits, labor, and pursuits.  For a period emancipation will aggravate existing differences, and a full generation will be necessary to effect and complete the change which has been commenced.”

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