The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Emancipation Proclamation sparked fierce resistance. That matters today.

Remembering this reception is key to understanding the complexities of our history and the persistence of racism today

The original Emancipation Proclamation on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
7 min

January has two important anniversaries that help us understand the stakes of Black History Month. On the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation — Jan. 1, 2023 — President Biden released a statement remarking how in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln “changed America’s destiny forever.” He argued that every Union military victory after Jan. 1 that year revealed that “justice could conquer injustice” and that “freedom” continues to be the goal of our country. A few days later on Jan. 6, 2023, on the second anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, President Biden and Vice President Harris remarked how “a violent mob of insurrectionists” attacked our democracy and threatened to destroy it, but ultimately failed. That day was also the first time the Confederate flag entered the Capitol, never having done so even during the Civil War.

While the Emancipation Proclamation is generally celebrated for changing the trajectory of American history by making the Civil War about the abolition of slavery, the attack on Jan. 6 reminds us of the pervasive persistence of violent white supremacy in American society — including in the era of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Many people, especially free and enslaved African Americans, rejoiced at the news of the proclamation and celebrated it for all it represented, both tangible and intangible. But many White Americans resisted it. Fierce political debate over the implications of Lincoln’s proclamation occurred in both the Union and Confederacy, and in many cases led to violent riots and attacks to resist this perceived change. Understanding this fuller history surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation helps us understand its significance, then and now.

Five days after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. In it, Lincoln announced that on Jan. 1, enslaved people in areas of rebellion in the 11 Confederate states would be “thenceforward, and forever free.” The ultimatum provided the Southern states in rebellion the opportunity to voluntarily abolish slavery and embrace compensated emancipation. When no state took Lincoln up on his offer, he followed through on his word and issued the official Emancipation Proclamation on the first day of the new year in 1863.

Lincoln signing this document signaled a long-awaited moment for many free and enslaved African Americans. It was limited and cautious in scope, only applying to Southern states in rebellion and excluding enslaved people in areas already occupied by Union soldiers. Lincoln’s calculation of when and how to issue such a proclamation evolved over the first two years of the Civil War as calls for emancipation and actions taken by African Americans compelled the administration to act. Aiming to cripple the Confederacy, the Emancipation Proclamation was justified as a military necessity and necessary war measure to defeat the states in rebellion. It deprived the Confederate states of their critical enslaved labor force and also worked to bring Black men into the Union Army.

Despite the proclamation not applying universally, Black men, women and children joyfully celebrated this much-anticipated day. In Port Royal, S.C., Black residents were overjoyed and overcome with emotion at the news. Under the protection of the U.S. military, which had occupied the area since late 1861, community members organized a large day-long celebration of prayer, patriotic song and dance, speeches and, most importantly, readings of the proclamation.

A similar scene of celebration by Black men and women played out in Norfolk, a city captured and occupied by the U.S. military early in May 1862. But there, the White civilian population responded to these parades in ways that proved to be much more hostile to their Black neighbors and federal occupiers than many predicted. To celebrate the proclamation’s signing, African Americans from Norfolk and the surrounding areas marched through town in a grand parade, rejoicing in the good news. Strengthened by the U.S. military’s presence, some went so far as to destroy symbols of Confederate secession: trampling on a Confederate flag and even burning an effigy of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In response, White Norfolk residents bristled at the sight of African Americans and their White allies celebrating in the streets and resented the elaborate celebrations. They viewed the proclamation as a blatant rebuke of white supremacy and racial hierarchy and resorted to retribution as warnings of their disdain. John Oliver, a Black resident of the neighboring town of Portsmouth who participated in Norfolk’s celebration, described how his horse stable was broken into, his horses tortured and killed and his equipment damaged. This, he surmised, was done by White agitators in response to the day’s celebration.

The violence only escalated from there. A few months later in July 1863, Norfolk saw even greater reactionary violence to the provision of the proclamation enabling Black men to enlist in the Union Army. Under the designation of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), recruitment began in earnest in early 1863. Arming Black men stoked long-standing fears in enslavers and White Southerners that existed well before the Civil War. Southern states had long heavily regulated African Americans’ access to firearms to help maintain White political, social and racial power. Black military participation, therefore, upset a social and political system ordered by racial hierarchy.

Union efforts to recruit USCT soldiers in Norfolk after the proclamation angered and emboldened White residents who resorted to open violence. In July 1863, a company of Black soldiers from the 1st U.S. Colored Infantry, led by its White Union officer, paraded through the city streets. In response, a local White man, Dr. David Wright, shot the Black company’s White officer twice in broad daylight, killing him in front of other civilians and armed soldiers.

After being quickly apprehended, Wright faced a military trial. His attorneys tried to use an insanity defense, but the court concluded that he was responsible for his actions and sentenced him to death. Lincoln, known for his proclivity to pardon, nonetheless rejected Wright’s wife’s attempts to secure a lesser sentence. In holding Wright accountable, Lincoln signaled that the justice system would protect Black soldiers who volunteered to fight for the Union cause.

White violence in response to the proclamation was not limited to the Confederate South, especially after Congress passed a conscription act in March 1863 that required Northern White men between the ages of 20 and 45 to register for military service. Most White Northerners did not support Black equality and protested compulsory military service that forced them to serve in a war for Black freedom. Partisan Democrats further stoked the racial fears of White Northerners and claimed that formerly enslaved African Americans would soon become competition for employment.

When the draft lottery began in New York City in July 1863, White working-class men attacked government buildings and offices as a sign of protest. This quickly shifted, and Black people soon became the focus of the mob. The crowd targeted men and women, a Black children’s orphanage and even lynched a number of Black men. In what became known as the New York City draft riots, many White Northerners revealed their disdain for the Emancipation Proclamation.

Such violence is a reminder that the proclamation and what it stood for did not have universal support in any region during the Civil War. Implementing it required overcoming formidable challenges, and ensuring this landmark document would have a lasting effect, as many wanted and desired, required constant reinforcement and protection — even today, 160 years later.

It is critical that we remember the varied responses to the Emancipation Proclamation, especially as American society continues to grapple with the lasting legacies of our past, including slavery. This is especially true as we look ahead not just to Black History Month, but also to the 160th anniversary of the Civil War’s end in 2025 and the 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026. Working toward a shared understanding of the context in which the Emancipation Proclamation was released, as well as its reception following Jan. 1, 1863, will only strengthen our ability as a society to commemorate and remember our past truthfully.