Lincoln's Road to Emancipation Remembered

By Wendy Swanson via Lincolnian

Washington D.C.

February 23, 2021

Elizabeth Thomas at Fort Stevens

The above photograph shows Elizabeth Thomas with Civil War veterans at Ft. Stevens in 1911. That year she joined veterans of the Battle of Ft. Stevens for the dedication of a monument to President Lincoln at the site where he observed the conflict.


Each September Lincoln-Thomas Day is celebrated at Fort Stevens, part of the Civil War Defenses of Washington. The event honors not only Abraham Lincoln and the signing of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 but also Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas, owner of the land that became Fort Stevens.


Lincoln’s connection to Fort Stevens has become legendary. When Confederate General Jubal Early attacked Washington in July of 1864, Lincoln made the short trip from the Soldier’s Home (now President Lincoln’s Cottage) to Fort Stevens to observe the battle. Legend has it that Lincoln stood up on the ramparts and, after a Union surgeon was wounded by gunfire beside him, aide-de-camp Oliver Wendell Holmes yelled “Get down you fool” and pulled the president to safety.


Elizabeth Thomas’s story is less well known. Thomas was a free black woman who owned the land seized by the Union army to build Fort Stevens. Many years later she recounts an occasion in September 1861; standing with her baby as her home is being demolished, a tall, slender man dressed in black approaches her and says “It is hard, but you shall reap a great reward.” She believed that man to be Abraham Lincoln and retold the story for the rest of her long life.


At the 2019 observance of this event, held before the world went virtual, Lincoln Group Vice President David Kent gave the day’s keynote address discussing Lincoln’s road to emancipation. He traced in reverse Lincoln’s road to the Emancipation Proclamation. From release of the preliminary proclamation in September 1862 back to April of that year when Lincoln signed the DC Compensated Emancipation Act, freeing enslaved people in the District of Columbia. Thirteen years earlier Lincoln was in his solo term in the U.S. Congress when his efforts to construct his own DC Emancipation bill failed; the timing was wrong – substantial new lands had been added to the United States the year before as spoils of the Mexican War. Then jump back yet another dozen years to the Lincoln-Stone protest over passage in Illinois of anti-abolitionist legislation. Lincoln explained that while slavery was “based on injustice and bad policy,” he thought abolitionist doctrines increased rather than decreased the evils of slavery. More germane for Lincoln-Thomas Day, Lincoln also argued that while Congress did not have the authority to ban slavery in states where it existed, Congress did have the authority to end slavery in federal territories, including, and in particular, the District of Columbia. David Kent described Lincoln’s journey as a long road to emancipation, but a consistent one.


[Photo Credit: The Historical Society of Washington DC and the National Park Service]