On January 1st, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed an executive order, an order the president can put into effect immediately, which made over 3 million slaves in the south free people. This executive order was called the Emancipation Proclamation and was made during the American Civil War.
Once the Civil War ended and the Union, or the Northern United States, were victorious, all slaves were freed. This brought America in line with the rest of the civilized world, most of whom had already given up slavery before America.
The South were issued a warning in 1862 during the summer that if they didn't surrender in 60 days, they would have their land and slaves all taken from them by the North. Since they did not follow the warning, the executive order was put into place.
The proclamation declared freedom for slaves in 10 states and applied to 3 of the 4 million slaves in the United States at the time. Abraham Lincoln had the power to do this since it was a time of war, and as Commander in Chief, in charge of the army, he had many more powers than just a normal president.
Under the order, freed slaves could join the military to fight against the South. Everyone in the United States' forces had it made clear to them that they were to 'recognize and maintain the freedom of' former slaves. Owners were not compensated, or given money, for their losses. It did not make slavery illegal either, nor did it give the freedmen, or the ex-slaves, citizenship.
Freeing the slaves became one of the main goals for the North, as well as reuniting the Union. As the Union army (Northern army) went deeper into the area fighting against the Confederates (Southern army), more and more slaves were freed. At the time of the order, around 50,000 slaves were emancipated (freed) immediately, but it went up steadily to the 3 million slaves located in the South.
On September 22nd, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, stating it would go into effect on January 1st and all slaves 'shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free'. This was the time that the cause for the North shifted from putting the Union back together to freeing humans as a civil movement.
The war continued for a few more years until the North became victorious. With over 3 million slaves freed, Abraham Lincoln wasn't satisfied until all slavery was abolished in the states. He pushed forth the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, and a new era started for civil rights in the United States.
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