The institution of slavery in America is older than the republic itself and so is the story of emancipation. Since colonial days, people held as slaves embraced American principles of liberty and equality as their own best hope for freedom and better treatment. Many acted as agents of their own liberation, claiming their freedom in the courts, in the military, and by fleeing to places where slavery did not exist.

By the onset of the Civil War in 1861, there were 3.9 million slaves in the United States. It was clear to them that slavery was at the heart of the national conflict, and with the nation at war, thousands saw an opportunity for freedom and seized it. Tearing themselves from their families, risking their lives, they fled to the Union Army offering themselves as workers, informants, and soldiers. In countless instances during the Civil War, emancipation was achieved one soul at a time, through extraordinary courage and at immeasurable cost.

In the midst of the Civil War, emancipation was pushed to the top of the nation’s agenda as a moral imperative and military necessity. Congress formally proposed the thirteenth amendment outlawing slavery on January 31, 1865; it was ratified on December 6, 1865.