Victory at Stones River impacted
Editor’s Note: The symbolic use of Abraham Lincoln’s Bible during the swearing-in of President Barack Obama reflects back to the Emancipation Proclamation, a document released following Union victory at the Battle of Stones River.
By MIKE WEST
While the Battle of Stones River may seem a tactical draw to some, the battle had great political importance as it paved the way for the Emancipation Proclamation.
Stones River followed the Union disaster at Fredericksburg, Va. on Dec. 11-15, 1862. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia soundly defeated the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, in one of the most one-sided battles of the American Civil War.
Northern morale was horrible, resulting in President Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton pressing Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans into action in the West.
Union General-In-Chief Henry Halleck telegraphed Rosecrans telling him, “the Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand some one else will be tried.”
Rosecrans was angered by the series of telegrams, but he did follow orders moving the Army of the Cumberland from Nashville against the Confederate Army of Tennessee in Murfreesboro.
The result was a hard-fought victory for the Union.
Click here to read the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I can never forget, if I remember anything, that at the end of last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a hard earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the country scarcely could have lived over,” Lincoln telegraphed Rosecrans.
Why was victory so important?
Without it, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation would have seemed “like the last gasp of a dying war effort and perhaps brought England and France into the war on the side of the Confederacy,” wrote author Peter Cossens in his book, “No Better Place to Die, the Battle of Stones River.”
Originally Lincoln had been in favor of a gradual emancipation of slaves, stating that opinion as early as 1849. Once elected president, he continued to advocate that same policy, even suggesting the government should compensate slave owners.
In September 1862, following Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation saying unless Rebel states returned to the Union by Jan.1, freedom would be granted to slaves within those states.
No Confederate states took Lincoln’s offer, and on Jan. 1 Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared, “all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
To a certain extent, the proclamation was a bluff.
It did not free all slaves in the United States. Rather, it declared free only those slaves living in states not under Union control.
William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, said, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
Click here to go to the National Archives.
Aware of the irony, Lincoln did not want to antagonize the slave states like Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, which were loyal to the Union, by setting their slaves free.
The proclamation also allowed black soldiers to fight for the Union. Some 200,000 blacks would ultimately join the army. The document also tied the issue of slavery directly and permanently to the war.
As Northern newspapers recounted the victory at Stones River, word about the Emancipation Proclamation spread.
The New York Times reported:
“The New-Year of 1863 will long be remembered for the blows that were struck and the blood which flowed on the ground of Murfreesboro ... The battle of Murfreesboro or Stones River, is the most remarkable of the war.”
Suddenly, Union troops became liberators and slaves began to flee in larger numbers seeking safety in the shelter of Federal armies. New communities, like Cemetery near Stones River National Cemetery, formed.
The results of the proclamation outstripped what Lincoln could have ever imagined. Southern agricultural production was disrupted, England and France ended their support for the Confederacy and the United States took the first step to fulfilling the term “justice and freedom for all.”
The Emancipation Proclamation has been called by some the “most important and far-reaching document ever issued since the formulation of this government,” and remains one of the treasured documents on display at the National Archives.