President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union (United States) military victory.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.
The original of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, is held in the National Archives in Washington, DC. With the text covering five pages the document was originally tied with narrow red and blue ribbons, which were attached to the signature page by a wafered impression of the seal of the United States. Most of the ribbon remains; parts of the seal are still decipherable, but other parts have worn off. For conservation reasons, it can only be displayed for a short amount of time each year.
In celebration of African American History Month, the original Emancipation Proclamation from 1863 will be on a rare special display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC from February 17 to February 19, 2018 from 10:00 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. each day. Admission is free and open to the public. Learn more about this important document, and view and download high-resolution images of the Emancipation Proclamation in the National Archives Catalog.