One of the great misconceptions in United States history is that President Lincoln ended slavery in this country when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863. It did not happen then, and would not for over two more years. 

An illustration showing Sen. Blanche K. Bruce, Frederick Douglass and Sen. Hiram Revels, from left.
Senator Blanche K. Bruce, Frederick Douglass and Senator Hiram Revels, from left (Illustration courtesy of the Library of Congress)

So, when did slavery actually end in the U.S.? December 6, 1865, 155 years ago, when Georgia became the 27th state needed to ratify the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. 

The Civil War still raged when the U.S. Senate and House began working on the 13th Amendment. It stalled in 1864 because Democrats hedged during an election year. Lincoln then ramped up the pressure after winning a second term, and the Amendment passed the legislature on January 31, 1865, without the Southern states voting because they were at war. 

Three months later, on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox to end the Civil War. An assassin killed Lincoln six days after the surrender. Reunification of the Union took months as Reconstruction began, and Georgia’s vote finally ended slavery in the U.S. months after the war’s end. 

The 13th Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

What, then, did Lincoln accomplish with his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863? He essentially transformed the purposes and focus of the war from restoring the Union to ending slavery even though his edict carried virtually no authority at the time. He proclaimed that those enslaved in states “then in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” 

Those states, however, had formed their own pro-slavery nation and elected their own president, Jefferson Davis. Slavery continued in the South for over two years as the war raged. The Union would need to defeat the Confederates to end it. 

The Union did, the war ended, and eight months later slavery – the most horrific chapter of U.S. history – ended, too.  

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