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Lincoln’s Gamble: The Tumultuous Six Months That Gave America the Emancipation Proclamation and Changed the Course of the Civil War

 Todd Brewster Scribner

Abraham Lincoln announced to his Cabinet on July 12, 1862, that he intended to free the slaves still held in Confederate territory. That goal was achieved on January 1, 1863. Todd Brewster chronicles those six months leading to the Emancipation Proclamation, showing that it was a product of as much doubt as resolve.

Lincoln’s Gamble examines Lincoln’s torment leading to a change in U.S. war policy from reunion to reunion and emancipation. Nearly all this material has been covered by Harold Holzer’s Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory (2012), Louis Masur’s Lincoln’s Hundred Days (2012), James Oakes’ Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States 1861-1865 (2013) and Eric Foner’s far-reaching The Fiery Trial (2010). But Brewster gives a readable and heavily researched account of the period during which the Emancipation Proclamation was born, arguing that it changed the course of the war.

He follows closely how the drafts of the document evolved—as did the intent. Lincoln was very much the lawyer with “dull, careful, lawyerly, precise” language making it clear that only those states, and parts of states, still in rebellion were subject to the confiscation of the slave-owner’s property. As the Constitution still protected slavery and would do so until the 13th Amendment was adopted in 1865, Lincoln’s lawyerly reasoning made it clear that during military conflict, the law of war permitted him to seize enemy property. Though Lincoln and his fellow Republicans did not regard slaves as rightful property, slave-owners did.

Gamble’s most surprising revelation is that the man who would be remembered as the “Great Emancipator” remained uncertain about emancipation. He was obsessed by private doubts almost up to the time he signed the final document.

The last six months of 1862 were probably the most tumultuous of Lincoln’s presidency. It was a time when he often suffered from melancholia as he confronted political challenges and fought with his generals, resulting in his dismissal of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

For those interested in the counterfactual, there is plenty to consider here. What would have happened if Abraham Lincoln’s initial proposals had been adopted, including colonization of free blacks, as well as introducing a gradual compensated emancipation that would have taken until 1900 to complete? Would it have involved colonization of free blacks to Africa? Of course, in the end, Abraham Lincoln created “an army of liberation,” with 200,000 African-American soldiers and sailors assisting in final victory.


Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.