Louis Masur tracks the process that produced the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the subsequent one hundred days, and the aftermath in the year following the Emancipation Proclamation. Masur relies heavily on the voices of contemporaries, especially those found in letters and newspapers, which often reflect society elites. However, the voices of soldiers and ordinary citizens are also plentiful, and they result in a strong argument that preservation of the Union and emancipation must be understood as inseparable.
Civil War historiography often views Lincoln's first priority as preserving the Union, and emancipation becoming a goal only well after the start of the war. Others historians, such as Allen Guelzo and James Oakes, see movement toward emancipation at the beginning of the war. Without explicitly aligning with either interpretation, Masur's abundant use of primary sources reveals a process toward emancipation from the first days of the war, even though no blueprint existed for exactly how and when freedom would come.
The first four chapters unpack Lincoln's intellectual process. In 1861 Lincoln said that he firmly opposed an emancipation proclamation. He had "much intellectual work ahead of him; events would help" move him (p. 25). Slaves escaping to Union lines and the resounding rejection by the border states of his proposals for gradual emancipation helped start the process. Lincoln was not, though, an unwilling actor forced toward emancipation; as a deliberate leader, he tested feasible options within a military and political cauldron and ultimately devised the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The middle five chapters, covering the one hundred days, conclude that [End Page 460] despite pressure to rescind the proclamation, Lincoln stood firm. Even Lincoln's supposedly vacillating second annual message to Congress was more reflective of his fear of failure and intellectual process rather than serious contemplation of rescission. The final four chapters examine the immediate effects of the Emancipation Proclamation, especially for Union enlistment of black men.
The book title is a bit misleading—it is about much more than the one hundred days. Excluding the chapter examining whether foreign intervention or midterm elections affected Lincoln's stance—and concludes that they did not—the process of the one hundred days consumes only a quarter of the book. Masur actually creates more tension in the weeks leading up to the Preliminary Proclamation. Despite some contemporaries' fear or hope that Lincoln might rescind or weaken it, no evidence is offered that he ever seriously considered wavering during the one hundred days.
Masur perceives a need to rehabilitate the images of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. He tells a triumphal story of a complex process that moves determinedly forward, epitomized by the last line of the prologue: Lincoln "made up his mind and marched the nation toward freedom and the light of the unknown" (p. 9). Section and chapter titles reinforce impressions of a linear forward march: "Toward Emancipation," "The Proclamation and Beyond," "Emancipation Triumphant." But was the proclamation triumphant in the years beyond? Only if the story ends in 1865.
That is a sensible ending point. But the lack of qualification in this progressive story obscures the reality that for most African Americans, though the "triumph" of the Emancipation Proclamation was unquestionably genuine, it was also uneven, fractured, and in subsequent decades bitterly chimerical.
These critiques notwithstanding, Masur has produced a worthwhile narrative. Juxtaposing it alongside Gary Gallagher's The Union War (2011) would provide provocative reading, especially for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students.
Like Masur, Harold Holzer perceives a need to rehabilitate Lincoln's [End Page 461] image. In a tight, well-written analysis of Lincoln's strategy, public reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation, and iconography of Lincoln and the proclamation, Holzer also argues that Lincoln had emancipation as a primary goal. Furthermore, many Americans at the time viewed the proclamation and national preservation as nearly equal accomplishments.