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On this date 158 years ago, a wartime president changed the course of American history. Using the carnage on the battlefield at Antietam as a pretext, Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation. On the first day of the coming year, Lincoln's Sept. 22, 1862 order proclaimed, "all persons held as slaves within any State … in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."

The measure was carefully constructed to avoid turning public opinion against the federal government in border states, where slavery was still practiced. But once Lincoln's edict was issued, the die was truly cast. The politician who had insisted that his motivation was to keep the Union intact, the president who had exhorted his generals to crush the rebellion, the prairie statesman who had long argued against human bondage -- suddenly, with a stroke of his pen, all three of those men were one and the same.

* * *

Out of respect for the rule of law, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation under his authority as a wartime commander-in-chief. And in 1864, he would convince the delegates at the Republican convention to include in the party's platform a plank calling for a constitutional amendment barring slavery.

Lincoln's reliance on Antietam as a private rationale for his bold gambit was a stretch: That gruesome engagement was a standoff more than a Union victory. True, it caused Robert E. Lee to abandon his invasion of Maryland, all but eliminating the likelihood Washington would be occupied by rebels. But Union losses were higher than the Confederates' at Antietam, and by keeping much of his force in reserve and not pursuing the weakened Confederates, George B. McClellan had missed his chance to cripple Lee's Army.

The nation would pay a frightful price for McClellan's caution. Then again, it paid a frightful price at Antietam, a one-day battle that cost some 4,000 Americans theirs lives, with another 17,000 wounded, many of them grievously, with several hundred from each army missing and presumed dead.

The fighting began in the foggy dawn on Sept. 17, 1862. It ended by nightfall. The following morning, each side tended to the wounded and buried their dead. No one then alive on these shores had ever witnessed anything like it. In one day, America lost more men in combat than during the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War combined. It remains the single costliest date in U.S. military history. Antietam's death toll was not surpassed by Pearl Harbor, or D-Day -- or 9/11.

Perhaps the one American unsurprised by this was the man most saddened by it. As author William Lee Miller pointed out in "Lincoln's Virtues," Abraham Lincoln believed a grim celestial justice was at work in places like Antietam Creek. That the Emancipation Proclamation should emerge from such a crucible had a somber logic to it, which Lincoln more than hinted at in the inaugural address now etched in stone at his memorial.

"It is the passage just preceding the famous last paragraph, with its call for malice toward none and charity for all, and by its dark power it sets off and strengthens the noble ending," Miller wrote. "That second, long sentence would contain an excruciating picture of the justice of God, and, like the address as a whole, would make stunningly clear than in Lincoln's view this would be a war about slavery, and that the whole nation was responsible, and must pay a terrible price:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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