The abolition of slavery in the United States is chiefly associated with the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in its final form Jan. 1, 1863, and with the 13th Amendment, ratified on Dec. 6, 1865. There were a few local Union governments, however, that decided not to wait that long, and perhaps their accomplishments should be remembered. The proclamation was a wartime measure by President Lincoln and did not cover areas then under Union occupation; the loyal slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware; or the District. These exemptions were a matter for sneering comment in some quarters then, and occasionally are even now. Perhaps Lincoln did not believe he had the emergency powers to remove slavery in such areas, or perhaps he was afraid the loyal slave states might secede, or both. In fact, even with exemptions, there still were a few border-state members of Congress who made noises about leaving, though nothing came of that. The proclamation was still a body blow against slavery — if the North won, American slavery was doomed. Later, the matter was settled definitively by the 13th Amendment. Even so, there were a few border areas that had a change of heart and decided not to wait that long. They went ahead and abolished slavery independently of any federal proclamation or amendment. In chronological order, the border areas were the District on April 16, 1862; West Virginia when it formally entered the Union on June 30, 1863; Maryland on Nov. 1, 1864; and Missouri on Jan. 14, 1865. The District The abolition of slavery in the District had been a special interest of Lincoln’s for some time. On Jan. 16, 1849, U.S. Rep. Lincoln introduced a proposal to end slavery in the nation’s capital, with compensation, but it got nowhere. When the Civil War broke out, the unthinkable suddenly became thinkable. The Senate passed a D.C. abolition law on April 3, 1862, and the House followed suit April 12. Lincoln signed it into law on the 16th. According to the 1860 census, there were 3,185 slaves in the District. They were freed at a total cost of about $1 million — the only compensated emancipation in American history. During the war, Lincoln tried offering compensated emancipation to border states and even to Southern politicians, but they rejected the idea. At any rate, for decades thereafter, Washington’s blacks celebrated every April 16. West Virginia Next out of the gate was West Virginia. When Virginia seceded, the western counties decided to separate and form a state of their own, loyal to the Union. The Appalachian counties had never had as many slaves as the rest of the state and often had felt neglected or exploited by the Richmond regime. On June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the 35th state, with a constitution originally providing for gradual (and partial) emancipation. All children born to slaves in West Virginia after July 4, 1863, would be free; those younger than 10 at that date would be freed on reaching 21; those older than 10 and younger than 21 would be freed at 25; and the slaves older than 21 were out of luck and would remain slaves. Also, no slaves could enter the state as permanent residents. The people wanted something better, however. So on Dec. 9, 1863, the state legislature passed a law allowing anyone to free his slaves if he chose to do so. Also, any slaves brought into West Virginia and kept there for six months would be freed. Finally, on Feb. 3, 1865, the governor signed a law requiring immediate emancipation. According to the 1860 census, West Virginia had 18,371 slaves. Maryland Maryland was next. It would seem to have been an unpromising place for abolition. Slavery was a major part of life in Maryland. Frederick Douglass vividly portrayed it in his autobiography. Although Maryland stayed in the Union, it was a close-run thing at the start of the war. In April 1861, there were secession riots in Baltimore, and Washington was briefly cut off from the North when the mobs knocked out rail service and took over the telegraph line. Nevertheless, public opinion must have evolved somehow, for in 1863, the abolitionists managed to get a majority in the state legislature. In January 1864, the legislature passed a resolution calling for immediate emancipation. A convention was held, and 61 out of 96 delegates voted to end slavery in Maryland. A new constitution was drawn up, including abolition without compensation. There was one exception to the no-compensation policy. In January 1864, the Maryland Board of Claims announced it would begin taking compensation claims for any loyal Marylanders whose slaves had enlisted in the Union Army. Up to $300 would be paid out per slave, whether the slaveholder had offered the slaves for enlistment or the slaves had run away. The abolition constitution was submitted to a popular vote over two days, Oct. 12 and 13, 1864. To help ensure abolition, at least some Maryland soldiers were allowed to vote from their camps and battlefields. It was a good thing, too, for the popular vote was close. There were 30,174 votes for abolition, of which 2,637 were from soldiers, while there were 29,799 votes against, of which 263 were from soldiers. On Oct. 19, a crowd of Marylanders gathered outside the White House to celebrate with music, singing, cheers and banners. Lincoln came out to make a brief speech. Later that day, in private, he confided to a friend: “I would rather have Maryland upon that issue than have a state twice its size upon the presidential issue. It cleans up a piece of ground.” The 1860 census had listed 87,189 slaves in Maryland. On Nov. 9, 1864, a Freedmen’s Bureau was created in Maryland. It was designed to protect the civil rights of black Americans in the state and pre-dated the national Freedmen’s Bureau, established in 1865. Its offices were in Baltimore, and it was run by Maj. William M. Este. The order creating the bureau was issued by Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, the future author of “Ben-Hur.” Wallace’s General Orders No. 112, Headquarters Middle Department, Eighth Army Corps explained the necessity for the bureau, referring to “evil-disposed parties” who “intend obstructing the operation and nullifying, as far as they can, the emancipation provision of the New Constitution.” Among other things, such people were “availing themselves of certain laws, portions of the ancient slave code of Maryland, as yet unrepealed, to initiate, as respects the persons heretofore slaves, a system of forced apprenticeship.” This almost sounds like the “black codes” that some Southern states tried to set up after the war. Not trusting the local courts and police, Wallace stated that the freedmen were under “special military protection” until the state legislature passed additional protective laws of its own. The Freedmen’s Bureau was empowered to make investigations and receive complaints. Finally, the last part of the order provided “a place in which the sick, helpless, and needy can be temporarily rested and provided for.” A building known as the Maryland Club House was to be taken over and renamed Freedman’s Rest. The order closed with a request for donations, as well as using criminal fines for the same purpose, and also a threat to levy fines against secession sympathizers in Baltimore. Missouri Missouri was next and last. It, too, must have seemed an unlikely place for abolition to take root on its own. In 1861, for example, Lincoln showed how fragile he considered its loyalty to be when he revoked an emancipation edict issued there by Gen. John C. Fremont. Nonetheless, Missouri must have undergone a sea change of some kind. On July 1, 1863, the state legislature, by a margin of 51 to 30, passed a law partially ending slavery by 1870. Slaves who were older than 40 in 1870 would be “servants during life,” but those younger than 12 at that time would be freed when they reached 23, and those over 12 (but not over 40) would be freed July 4, 1876. This cumbersome halfway measure was superseded in January 1865. On the 11th of that month, the Missouri legislature passed a law providing for immediate, uncompensated emancipation. On the 14th, Gov. Thomas C. Fletcher issued the proclamation announcing Missouri’s movement into the column of free states. That night, there was a major celebration in St. Louis, with bands and fireworks. The 1860 census had recorded 114,931 slaves in Missouri. These abolition efforts were overshadowed by nationwide abolition at the end of the war. Also, at least some of the slaves in the border areas probably took advantage of wartime chaos to flee slavery on their own. Even so, thousands of slaves were freed in these places ahead of their brethren farther south, and no doubt every extra moment of freedom was precious to them. John Lockwood is a Washington writer.
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