By the summer of 1862, Abraham Lincoln needed a victory. He wanted to make an announcement, to change the purpose of the war, and he didn't want to do it at a time of defeat. In the West, in the spring, his armies had won important victories at Pea Ridge, at Shiloh, and at New Orleans. But he needed a victory now, and in the eastern theater. Finally the chance came. On September 17, George B. McClellan attacked the army of Robert E. Lee near the little farm of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The battle saw some of the most savage fighting of the entire war . In fields and woods and beside farm fences, soldiers were slain in huge numbers . Before the battle of Antietam ended, 4,710 were dead, more than 18,000 were wounded, and another 3,000 were missing . It wasn't the kind of victory Lincoln had hoped for . Too many men were killed, more than ever before. But the Northern army had stopped Lee's army at Antietam Creek, and that would have to do. Lincoln could make his announcement . On September 22 he delivered a state message called the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It said: "On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforth, and forever free."
Critics said Lincoln's proclamation would only free slaves in the Confederate States, where the President had no power. But Lincoln knew that with the advance of the Union armies, that power would come, and the slaves would be freed. After the Emancipation Proclamation there was no going back. When the war was over there would be no chance of compromise on slavery. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass said this one act "invested the war with sanctity." He added, "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree, 'Free for Ever .' "
Lincoln and the North's ideas were changing. People were realizing that slavery was like a worm in a good appleit was making the whole apple rotten. It was no longer enough just to save the Union. Who wants to fight for a nation with a rotten core? And thus the Civil War became a war to make the United States what it had meant to be from its beginningsa fair nation, a great nation. A nation that fulfilled the best ideas of its founders; a nation that would set equality of opportunity as a goal; a nation that could promise "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and mean it for all its peoples.