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Military History

What Was the Effect of the Emancipation Proclamation on the Northern Army?

It had been predicted that the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation would swell the ranks of the Northern army with fresh recruits. However, the opposite proved to be the result. In a private letter to Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln expressed his disappointment with the effects of the edict: "While I hope something from this proclamation, my expectations are not so sanguine as are those of some friends. The time for its effect southward has not come; but northward the effect should be instantaneous. It is six days old and while commendation in newspapers and by distinguished individuals is all that a vain man could wish, the stocks have declined and troops come forward more slowly than ever." Instead of raising the level of morale among the troops, Lincoln found himself faced with an increase of discontent in his armies as a direct result of the Proclamation. General Joseph Hooker said, "At that time, perhaps, a majority of the officers, especially those high in rank, were hostile to the policy of the Government in the conduct of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation had been published a short time before, and a large element of the army had taken sides against it, declaring that they would never have embarked in the war had they anticipated this action of the Government." General George McClellan wrote that "the States of the North are flooded with deserters and absentees. One corps of this army has 13,000 men present and 15,000 absent." On 23 September 1862, General George Meade reported that over 8,000 men, including 250 officers, had deserted, noting that "this terrible and serious evil seems to pervade the whole body." When General Joseph Hooker assumed command of the Army of the Potomac from General Ambrose Burnside, he found the number of deserters to be 2,922 commissioned officers and 81,964 non-commissioned officers and privates. In his report to the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, Hooker stated, "At the time the army was turned over to me, desertions were at the rate of about two hundred a day. So anxious were parents, wives, brothers and sisters, to relieve their kindred, that they filled the express trains with packages of citizens' clothing to assist them in escaping from service." In all, an estimated 200,000 soldiers deserted from the Northern armies. Those who did not desert often proved to be a hindrance in the field. Writing from his headquarters at Hilton Head, South Carolina, Major-General David Hunter complained of being "saddled with pro-slavery generals in whom I have not the least confidence...." Enlistments had also fallen to such a low rate following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln was compelled to resort to conscription in July of 1863 in order to continue the war.

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