An Unwilling Abolitionist


After its enactment in January 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation effectively transformed the Union Army into an instrument of liberation, a change not universally embraced among its white soldiers, including officers like Colonel Joseph D. Hatfield. Shown here: a recruitment poster from 1863 evokes the freedoms granted by the proclamation in appealing to potential African-American volunteers.

In February 1863, the war between the United States and the Confederacy faced a sea change. The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect in January, freeing by executive order more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the secessionist states. The effectiveness of President Abraham Lincoln’s monumental proclamation still rested squarely on the success or failure of Union military enterprises and depended primarily on the army’s ability to subdue large areas of rebellious territory to a degree that made implementation of the order possible. Thus, while the Emancipation Proclamation originated as a policy measure encompassed within the executive branch of the U.S. Government, much of the burden of executing and enforcing that policy lay with the Union armies then campaigning across the vast theaters between the Atlantic and the Trans-Mississippi and beyond.

The Union army’s reception of the proclamation was not universally positive, particularly with the forces struggling to subdue Confederates in Tennessee and elsewhere. As historian Kristopher Teters found,
“[e]mancipation was very controversial among western theater officers. When the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, a significant number of officers vehemently opposed it, and this strong opposition continued at least through the first half of 1863.” As Teters writes, “[m]any of these officers were midwesterners who reflected their region’s racial animus…. In short, the war was not a revolutionary experience for these officers when it came to race.” While readers might take issue with Teters’ regional characterization on matters of race, it is clear that emancipation was not a universally approved policy for some echelons of the Union army.



The Union army’s evolution into an instrument of liberation was at times bitterly divisive. That internal conflict serves as a means to understand not only the moral issues surrounding the Civil War, but also as a window into the changing role of the army in a democratic republic and into the ways in which individual decisions played out inside military leadership.
Major General William S. Rosecrans, commanding the Union Army of the Cumberland, approved of the Emancipation Proclamation. So much did Rosecrans agree with it that he wrote a letter of congratulation to the Ohio Legislature, the representative body of his home state, expressing his enthusiasm for the order. Rosecrans went further and had his letter read to his army in Tennessee on February 15. While he clearly wanted the focus of the army to expand to encompass liberation, his sentiments incensed at least one of his officers.

Colonel Joseph D. Hatfield, commanding the 89th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was outraged at Rosecrans’ letter and its public reading to the

Leave a Reply

LOWRY: Galvanized Virginians in the Indian Wars (2015)

Galvanized Virginians in the Indian Wars by Thomas Power Lowry. Idle Winter Press, 2015.  Paper, ISBN:  978-0692550748.  $16.99. Working from the late Major Robert E. Denney’s invaluable database of 3,710 Confederate…