On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Lincoln didn’t actually free all of the approximately 4 million men, women and children held in slavery in the United States when he signed the formal Emancipation Proclamation the following January. The document applied only to enslaved people in the Confederacy, and not to those in the border states that remained loyal to the Union.

But although it was presented chiefly as a military measure, the proclamation marked a crucial shift in Lincoln’s views on slavery. Emancipation would redefine the Civil War, turning it from a struggle to preserve the Union to one focused on ending slavery, and set a decisive course for how the nation would be reshaped after that historic conflict.

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Crowds of people, recently freed from enslavement, carry copies of the Emancipation Proclamationin this 1864 illustration.

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The Union commander's notice of the Emancipation Proclamation, as posted to the citizens of Winchester, Virginia on January 5, 1863.

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A rareOctober 8, 1868illustration printed in the Cincinnati Gazette reads, "Patience on a Monument." The illustration by Thomas Nast shows a freed man sitting atop a monument that lists evils perpetrated against Black people. A dead woman and children lie at the bottom of the monument, while violence and fires rage in the background.

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A photograph of a group of formerly enslaved people at a county almshouse, circa 1900.

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Students and teachers stand outside the Freedmen's Bureau school in Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1865.

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A formerly enslaved man and woman are shown at a plantation house in Greene County, Georgia, circa 1937.

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This photo shows Minerva and Edgar Bendy, who were formerly enslaved, in Woodville, Texas, circa 1937.

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The work-weathered hands of Henry Brooks, a formerly enslaved man from Greene County, Georgia, circa 1941.

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