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Why didn't Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation Free Slaves in Accomack Co., Va?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: March 04, 2014 
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Why were slaves living in Accomack County, Virginia, not freed by Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation?


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President Abraham Lincoln's original Emancipation Proclamation in January 1862 was neither as sweeping nor as simple as posterity sometimes regards it. Politically motivated,  it was aimed primarily at the Southern states that were fighting the Union, essentially saying, "I was willing to tolerate your slavery if it would preserve the Union, but now all bets are off and they will be liberated after your inevitable defeat." Those Southern territories already occupied, however, were kept exempt from the proclamation, in order to avoid their rising up against their occupiers.

Accomac (or Accomack) County on the northern region of Virginia's Eastern Shore, was such an exempt zone, although the way nature took its course in succeeding months would make that status a moot point. For one thing, slavery was not as vital to its economy as elsewhere, and the percentage of free blacks had been steadily rising, to 34 percent as of April 1861. Slaves hoping to be freed found an unsympathetic ear in the first commander of the district, Brig. Gen. Henry H. Lockwood, a Delawarean who owned slaves himself. That would change when Accomack County fell under the jurisdiction of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, and in late 1863 free or newly freed blacks began enlisting in the army, forming the 7th, 9th and 10th U.S. Colored Troops. By April 1864, when officials in the Federally occupied territories ratified a new Virginia Constitution that formally ended slavery in the state, its goals had largely become a fait accompli in Accomack and adjoining Northampton County.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
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