Reaction to the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation fell along predictable lines. Abolitionists greeted it with enthusiasm. Supporters of the Lincoln Administration dutifully lined up behind the policy. Democrats and Conservative Republicans condemned it, as did the Confederate government and its white population.
In at least one Confederate locality, Culpeper County, Virginia, Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation ignited the fear of violent emancipation that had long haunted white Southerners. On October 20, 1862, the National Republican, the pro-administration newspaper in Washington, D.C., carried the following article.
A refugee, who recently came into General Sigel’s headquarters, gives information of a highly important character. He escaped from Amisville, Culpeper county, Virginia, and states that the greatest consternation imaginable exists among the white people in that section of country, in consequence of an apprehended slave revolt. Seventeen negroes, most of them free, had been arrested on suspicion of being engaged in plotting the uprising of the entire colored population. Copies of late newspapers, which published President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation were found in their possession. The fact that such a proclamation has been made is well known among all the negroes, and it produces the most startling effect. The terror of the whites is beyond description. Apprehensions of re-enactment of the Nat Turner horrors are felt to an alarming degree. The seventeen negroes were promptly taken out, at Amisville, and hung. It is said that the negroes of the different counties around Culpeper are all engaged in the conspiracy for a general insurrection.
What should be made of this horrific story? There can be little doubt it was true. Why would the informant lie? What would they have to gain by lying? Plus the account makes sense. White Southerners’ greatest fear in the early 1860s was the end of slavery, which many of them believed could only be accompanied by an uprising in which the slaves violently turned on them. This belief explains why the South seceded after Abraham Lincoln’s election as president. Even if Lincoln’s campaign promise of non-interference with slavery was to be believed, his adamant insistence on not allowing the continued westward expansion of the peculiar institution suggested he intended to put slavery on the road to extinction, something most white Southerners believed could not be allowed under any circumstances. Not only their prosperity relied on slavery, but also their lives. The horrors of Haiti and Nat Turner must be thwarted at all costs, even the Union, which many white Southerners had continued to hold dear up to the eve of the Civil War.
Likewise, in Virginia, with a substantial free black population, white Southerners had the added fear that these “slaves without masters” would instigate a revolt among the slaves who still did. Which explains the ruthless reaction of whites in Culpeper County, Virginia, to the discovery that African Americans in their locality knew of the Emancipation Proclamation. With federal troops near Culpeper, which is not far from Washington, D.C. (today, it is in the “horse country” proximate to the national capital’s metro area), even the smallest hint that the black population looked forward to emancipation must be crushed. So with federal forces within a day’s ride (the county would be the site of the Battle of Brandy Station in June 1863), now seemingly intent on bringing about their greatest fear, the white population of Culpeper committed an atrocity that while it was not without precedent caused shock in Washington, D.C., and further north, as it was re-reported by the New York Times and the abolitionist press.